New literature on India’s cities is a variation on the old literature of lament

Count on Urdu to have a word for it: shahr-i-ashob, lament for a city. Here is Mirza Muhammad Rafi Sauda, a poet from the eighteenth century:

How can I describe the desolation of Delhi? There is no house from which the jackal’s cry cannot be heard. ... In the once-beautiful gardens where the nightingale sang his love songs to the rose, the grass grows waist-high around the fallen pillars and ruined arches. ... Jahanabad, you never deserved this terrible fate, you who were once vibrant with life and hope, like the heart of a young lover.

Some centuries before, it was Sanskrit, like Urdu a language of many cities but identified with no one province, that had the most extensive literature of the Indian urban. As human beings are irresistibly drawn to visions of a bygone golden age, this literature too has its share of lament. An early example depicts decay by describing perfection:

The people in that city were happy, virtuous, learned, experienced, each satisfied with his state, practicing his own calling, without avarice ... None was indigent or dwelt in a mean habitation ... In that city ... none was a miser or a swindler, none was mean-spirited, proud, rash, worthless or an atheist. Men and women were of righteous conduct, fully self-controlled, and in their pure and chaste behaviour they equalled the great sages ... They bathed daily ... there was none who had not learnt to subdue his mind.

These are descriptions of the city of Ayodhya from the early cantos of Valmiki’s Ramayana in Hari Prasad Shastri’s translation. We know that the real cities of ancient India had their share of misers and swindlers, liars and atheists, adulterers and lechers, even some who didn’t bathe daily. We know this because any conception of an ideal city implies the grubbier reality of actual cities, a fall from the ideal. In a word, it implies loss.
It was almost inevitable that there would come to be a literature of the Indian city in English, which has inherited, or rather expropriated, the non-provincial status that once belonged to Sanskrit, and then to Urdu. However, it is only in the last decade or so that the characteristics of this literature have become discernible. The path was paved in a series of anthologies published by Penguin: Jerry Pinto and Naresh Fernandes’s Bombay, Meri Jaan: Writings on Mumbai (2003), CS Lakshmi’s The Unhurried City: Writings on Chennai (2004), and so forth. These volumes, being anthologies, suffered from a certain unevenness born of the valiant, if hopeless, editorial aspiration to be representative. But they do something that English-language volumes, particularly those with a bias in favour of translations, are well placed to do: to bring together in one place a range of experiences of the multilingual Indian city long isolated from each other.

This year sees the publication of the one anthology to rule them all. Vinay Lal’s two-volume Oxford Anthology of the Modern Indian City presents a splendid set of extracts from a vast corpus of urban literature, fiction, non-fiction and poetry, with a healthy balance between texts originally in English and translations. As a bonus, it comes with an extensive annotated bibliography. It is tempting to say about it that where the Indian city is concerned, what is not here is nowhere. But this is the anthologist’s fallacy. For if no single writer can say everything, nor can a thousand.

In any case, anthologies, far from being impersonal volumes, say much about the anthologist. “There is no other way of putting it except to say that the selections are entirely mine, indeed exceedingly personal,” Lal writes. Lal is an academic historian specialising in colonial and postcolonial India who is interested in “the city ... as a nodal point for contestations over modernity,” but his selections are not academic. “What are the lures of the city,” he asks, “the anxieties it provokes, and the satisfactions it alone offers? Whom does the city possess, disown, and embrace, and why are some drawn to it while others are repulsed by its hurried pace, indifference, and monstrous appetite?”
These are excellent questions, and there are answers to them in the urtext of the most recent efflorescence in this genre, a book Lal admires: Suketu Mehta’s 2004 chronicle of gang wars, dance bars, film stars and Jain monks, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. Mehta’s is an insistent voice, opinionated and splendidly selective. He puts the frenzied moral ambiguity of Mumbai life into exhilarating prose whose big theme, whence its appeal for non-Indian readers, is the grisly excitement of the third-world megacity in the age of what optimistic leftists call late capitalism.

Maximum City is not centrally a book about loss; it finds the present exciting enough. Or, we might say, its present, for the early twenty-first-century moment it chronicles is in some respects already a lost epoch: the film industry is changing, an increasingly globalised underworld is less tied to the city, and today’s land mafia can make the property prices of fifteen years ago seem almost reasonable. But for all his love of that historical moment, even Mehta, like his precursors in eighteenth-century Delhi, is haunted by visions of a golden age of sorts, when Mumbai was still Bombay and embodied a complex “cosmopolitan”—to use the word that Indians love to apply to that city—ideal.

Mehta inaugurated a new way of writing about place. He was no fly-by-night visitor and his prose was consequently free of the usual travel writing clichés. Identified with his city even while detached from it—Mehta spent his adolescence in the United States—Mehta’s Bombay was the backdrop to a large chunk of his life lived in real time, as opposed to the accelerated travel time of someone with a return ticket booked. He saw the passage of the seasons, watched his rent rise, filed income tax returns. He was there long enough to know loss.
Other writers took notice—here was a mode in which Indians could write about place without going abroad, without even travelling. After all, it has never been easy for Indians to travel abroad, particularly to the West. No Indian traveller in Europe, not even the relatively well-heeled kind, can affect the nonchalance of the Western traveller in India, cushioned by his country’s power, a favourable exchange rate, and a confidence that a couple of phone calls to the embassy and the insurance company will suffice to deal with the worst disasters. The onus is always on the Indian to prove himself worthy of that stamp in the passport, to be ready to produce yet another document to show that he has no designs on the skyscrapers or welfare states of the first world. And this is not to mention the uncommon reserves of fortitude it takes to endure the queues and bureaucracy at Western embassies while trying not to look like a terrorist.

Better stay put, or if you’ve left already, to return. The Indian city is exotic enough, grotesque enough, even for those who live in it, the rich as well as the poor. Perhaps it has always been that way if you have known where, when and how to look. If long habit has dulled the senses, a spell away will restore you to vigilance, re-sensitise you to the city’s extremes. And for those not drawn to exoticism or extremity, there is the Indian city’s endlessly diverting ordinariness.

There is no more devoted curator of the Indian ordinary than Amit Chaudhuri who, last year, gave us Calcutta: Two Years in the City, a book that wisely makes no attempt to replicate Mehta’s rambunctious ethnographies and opts instead for a quietly cerebral impressionism of street corners and colonial architecture. Chaudhuri disclaims any predilection for nostalgia. His theme is “modernity,” which he skilfully translates from abstraction into image, for example that of a French window from “one of the genteel bourgeois houses of south Calcutta”—an instance of a European style assimilated into the modern Indian architectural sensibility. His material is memory, capaciously interpreted to include everything from his fragmentary recollections of childhood trips to the city to a shared historical memory of the nineteenth-century “Bengal Renaissance.”



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