“Mumbai Fables” by Gyan Prakash

It calls for special skills to write a scholarly research-based non-fiction book and make it as interesting as a work of fiction. Gyan Prakash, the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University has done just that in his book, “Mumbai Fables.” I loved reading this book and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in recent Indian history. Befitting the work of a scholar, the book is replete with references and citations to back the story of a city that has often been called, “India’s City of Dreams.” For hundreds of years now the erstwhile Bombay, now called Mumbai, was every man’s dream. Thousands flocked there every day, as indeed they do even today, to seek their fortunes, fueled perhaps by the glamour provided by “Bollywood” or the Hindi film industry.

In terms of time Prof. Prakash says, ” The story begins in 1498″ and goes on to write of how Vasco da Gama and his Portuguese were the first of the Europeans to approach the sea-coast of Bombay. The book, published by Harper-Collins India in 2010,  chronicles the lives and times of Bombay’s residents right up to modern times.

I was fascinated by Prof. Prakash’s approach of telling the story of a city through the individual stories of people rich and poor, famous and infamous. As I read the book, I was amazed at the extraordinary amount of detailing that was involved. For example, I read for the first time the full story of the Nanavati Murder Case  which took place in 1959 and was sensational news during my childhood.

The illustrations are most pertinent and add a visual appeal to the story. This becomes significant as most of us associate a city with a particular time frame. In my own case, only by way of example,  Mumbai in 2001 is very different from the Bombay I knew in 1974. Prof. Prakash has used great skill to cover major happenings at a macro level across different time periods while cataloging the micro level details that make that time period so different from others.

I think Eric D. Weitz, author of “Weimar Germany” puts it so well when he writes, ” Mumbai Fables tells the moving history of this city extracted through extended vignettes and personal stories that are a pleasure to read. Providing countless insights, this super book moves through different neighbourhoods, time periods, and individuals and wonderfully depicts  the living city- the modern city- through five centuries of its existence.”


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