ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Historian as Competing Voice

Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash (India: HarperCollins Publishers), 2010; pp 396, Rs 599.

Given Mumbai’s importance in the material and mental landscape of this country for two centuries it is surprising that it has not claimed the attention of historians, sociologists, nonfiction and fiction writers in quite the way that New York, London or Paris have. Books on Mumbai would barely fill a decent-sized shelf; one could virtually count off the titles on one’s fingertips.

Gyan Prakash teaches history at the Princeton University and his latest book, Mumbai Fables has the advantage over other books on the city in the elegance of his prose and the perspectives he brings to bear on his project: “To ask what lies behind the very powerful fable about the city’s past and its present…” His goal he asserts is not to separate “fact from fiction, not to oppose the ‘real’ from the myth but to reveal the historical circumstances portrayed and hidden by the stories and images produced in the past and the present” (23). It is unclear which “powerful fable” Prakash is referring to but the project at once marks him out from the extant works on Mumbai that have largely focused on either the cultural/fictive representations of the city or its socio-economic histories. By blending stories, film themes and songs and urban poetry into the narrative of historical circumstances, Prakash breaks new ground in Mumbai’s historiography covered earlier by Sujata Patel and Alice Thorner’s (1995) pioneering collection of writing on diverse aspects of the city’s life and times. That cross-disciplinary, non-chronological style suits the study of

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