Wednesday, December 08, 2004

A little more on names and naming in Suketu Mehta

Pennathur's criticisms prompted me to read past the first 50 pages of Suketu Mehta's book Maximum City, partly in the interest of finding out the exact quote.

But it's also true that it's when you see real criticism of a book that you start to think seriously about it. What will its staying power be? Is it just this year's Desi publishing sensation, or is it going to be something you can come back to, and maybe teach from?

As an early general assessment, I do think this book will be of value as a source of pretty solid ideas and information about Bombay. It does have quite a few moments of diasporic writerly Romanticism (show-offy self-reflexivity), but it also has a lot of concrete information about unromantic things like architecture, the economics of the city, the politics of water, the changing dynamics of labor, and immigration to the city. Mehta's arguments will need to be verified and checked, but together they do offer a lot that will be new to non-Bombayites.

Ok, here are the two paragraphs where the Bombay/Mumbai issue comes to the forefront. He mentions it a few times earlier (the early history of the Portuguese settlers) -- you might want to read the whole "Mumbai" chapter of the book before forming a final judgment -- but these are the two key paragraphs:

A name is such that if you grow up with it you get attached to it, whatever its origins. I grew up on Nepean Sea Road, which is now Lady Laxmibai Jagmohandas Marg. I have no idea who Sir Ernest Nepean was nor do I know who Lady Laxmibai Jagmohandas was, but I am attached to the original name and see no reason why it should change. The name has acquired a resonance, over time, distinct from its origin; as Rue Pascal or West 4th Street or Maiden Lane might ahve for someone who has grown up in those cities. I got used to the sound of it. It is incorporated into my address, into my dream life. I can come back to Nepean Sea Road; if some municipal functionary bent on exacting revenge on history changes it to Lady Laxmibai Jagmohandas Marg, he is doing a disservice to my memory.

Name-changing is in vogue all over India nowadays: Madras has been renamed Chennai; Calcutta, that British-made city, has changed its name to Kolkata. A BJP member of parliament has demanded that India's name be changed to Bharat. This is a process not just of decolonization but of de-Islamicization. The idea is to go back not just to past but an idealized past, in all cases a Hindu past. But to change a name, for a person or a road or a city, there had better be a very good reason. And there was no good reason to change the name of Bombay. It is nonsense to say that Mumbai was the original name. Bombay was created by the Portuguese and the British from a cluster of malarial islands, and to them should go the baptismal rights. The Gujuratis and Maharashtrians always called it Mumbai when speaking Gujurati or Marathi, and Bombay when speaking English. There was no need to choose. In 1995, the Sena demanded that we choose, in all our languages, Mumbai. This is how the ghatis took revenge on us. They renamed everything after their politicians, and finally they renamed even the city. If they couldn't afford to live on our roads, they could at least occupy the road signs.

Mehta's resistance seems to be a conflation two rather different sorts of issues. He first mentions the renaming of Bombay's streets and chowks (corners), before he gets to the renaming of the city; he seems to be considering them as of a piece. On the one hand, he is clinging to the place names he grew up with, out of what might be called nostalgia. He points out that there is a significant degree of corruption behind the street-name changes going on in Bombay. He also points out (rightly, from my experience) that practically no one knows the names of the minor figures who get slices of the city named after them. The names aren't being used. In my view, this argument is a bit self-indulgent, but I don't see that he will generate a great deal of vehement opposition.

The name of the city is a different matter, and his statements on it now seem (after hearing people's objections) a little sloppy. Unlike Lady Laxmibai Jagmohandas Marg (which no taxi driver in Bombay is likely to recognize), the name of a city is big enough that its official name absolutely does matter, both to inhabitants and to others; it can't be cheekily ignored. Further, I gather that a pretty substantial number of people actually use the new name. In my experience, the people who are most likely to resist it are the "English-medium" educated Indians -- who also happen constitute the bulk of my friends and family. But I'm willing to accept that large numbers of Indians now accept the name "Mumbai," even when speaking English. Non-Indians are forced to accept the name by default.

Mehta should probably have kept the two issues separate.

One further thought: It also seems to me that Mehta's class bias is a little unbecoming in the passage quoted above. The line about the 'revenge of the ghatis' is a reference to the following paragraph from earlier in the book:

I did not know many Maharashtrians when I was growing up. There was the world I lived in on Nepean Sea Road, and there was nother world whose people came to wash our clothes, look at our electric meters, drive our cars, inhabit our nightmares. We lived in Bombay and never had much to do with Mumbai. Maharashtra to us was our servants, the banana lady downstairs, the textbooks we were force-fed in school. We had a term for them: ghatis--literally, the people from the ghats, or hills. It was also the word we used, generically, for "servant."

Mehta is well aware of the power of a slur (this book as a whole is quite sensitive to the question of the language one uses), so it's unclear to me why he allows this one to slip out unchallenged in the passage about "Mumbai."


Blogger pennathur said...

Thanks Amardeep for posting that lengthy excerpt from the novel. I was reacting entirely to Suketu's comments on NPR not having read his book. To that extent my comments do lack some "foundation". Now I am reacting to the book excerpt you have posted. Suketu's deduction of "Hindu Nationalism" as being the motive for renaming streets and the city is careless and sloppy and leaves me wondering what his motives are. For instance couldn't we conclude that Suketu is yet another faddist trying to make a buck from the lurid fascination with "Hindu Nationalism" and the Shiv Sena? Reasonable grounds to think so exist. Has he examined the cultural vandalism of the "Dravidian" parties in Tamil Nadu that have a number of times blackened signs printed in Devanagari, call Sanskrit and Hindi the language of "White Aryans" and brahmins as members of this same class? Or what about the ULFA and the alphabet soup of terrorists in India's North Eastern states who have threatened to kill cinema hall owners who dare to exhibit Hindi movies? Using short-cuts to create a mood makes your work into a best seller. Studying those issues in detail and developing a a more profound theme requires a lot of hard work. Suketu might well have an answer to these questions, maybe he thinks it is unimportant - whatever they are it would be interesting to hear his point of view.

7:14 PM  
Blogger Shashwati said...

Amitava Kumar makes a similar "revenge of the ghatis" argument with a lot of patience and complexity in his book, "Husband of a Fanatic," in the chapter about a lunch meeting with a man who runs a website where Kumar has been named an enemy of the Hindus. He sees it as a historical formation of the Nehru years. Madhu Kishwar has a similar article describing her student years at Miranda House, where she agitated to have the annual beauty pageant removed, because she saw it as Western cultural imperialism : only to also see how the students' freedoms were curbed once the College administration was taken over by the non-Westernized administrators from the Sanskrit department.

12:06 AM  
Blogger Rob Breymaier said...

pannathur, the motivation to rename places is often ideological. In this case Hindu nationalism is among those ideologies. Similar cases have been common knowledge around the world probably most famously for Leningrad/St. Petersburg and Uluru/Ayers Rock. There is a good study on how succeeding regimes in Spain used street names as ideological propoganda. Each regime would rename the streets to promote thier ideology.

And, I think that if you mean that Hindu nationalism is suspect as a motive in Mumbai you might be partly right. The Shiv Sena is more about Marathi chauvinism than Hindu nationalism. Not only have they renamed places in Maharashtra but they have acted in other ways to scapegoat and harm Parsis, Muslims, Tamils, and other South Indians (say from Kerela and Karnataka). There are different reasons for each. South Indians, for example, were more attractive to Western and global employers in Bombay because they more commonly spoke English fluently than Marathis. Consequently, they were targeted as creating unemployment for locals. Hindu nationalism overlaps the Shiv Sena, though, because Islamic Marathis are not included in the chauvinism. And, there are ties between the BJP and Shiv Sena.

12:10 AM  
Blogger SloganMurugan said...

I just read Maximum City and as a person living in Mumbai, I can tell you that it is a very good account of the city during the 1990s and early 2000s.

Meanwhile, the city has changed a lot since then, making the book even more interesting.

Pennathur, I started reading the book assuming that it was one of those glorified english writers, but I was pleasantly surprised by the book's depth. He has managed to capture a city's soul.



1:53 AM  
Blogger SloganMurugan said...

I just read Maximum City and as a person living in Mumbai, I can tell you that it is a very good account of the city during the 1990s and early 2000s.

Meanwhile, the city has changed a lot since then, making the book even more interesting.

Pennathur, I started reading the book assuming that it was one of those glorified english writers, but I was pleasantly surprised by the book's depth. He has managed to capture a city's soul.



1:54 AM  
Blogger Marginalien said...

I realize this comment is being posted months after the original post appeared -- but I recently finished reading MAXIMUM CITY and have been quietly desperate to get a little perspective on it.

I don't think it matters in the least that I used to live in Bombay and hence feel a vague sense of belonging -- I would have found the book profoundly disturbing even if I'd never touched down at Santa Cruz airport. Disturbing not merely because of its subject matter but also because of the author's apparent detachment from the horror in which he steeps himself that became. The title of your post suggests that there was an earlier post on the book -- do you suppose you could point me towards it? I'm keen to read further comments.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous chaya said...

I just finished reading maximum city and I just loved it.Especially,the aspirational consumer,the fighting of the 21st century wars over parking lots, inconvinient designing of flats and the sone ki chidiya bit..Its not just bombay,it could be any other Indian city..kudos to suketu..a must read

2:31 AM  
Anonymous said...

I just finished reading Maximum City.
Hmmmmmmmm, I lived in Bombay for five years, but never really got to see the underbelly of the city. Suketu seems to take a voyeuristic delight in it. I cant figure out how he remains so detached, when he was right there in the middle of it all. He is so graphic in his descriptions that I felt sick to the soul sometimes.
I dont know what my reactions to the book would have been if I had never lived in the city. It reads like a horror fantasy. Would love to hear suketu's comments on it.

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bombay (Mumbai) we know as a Mumbaikar. Keep up.

Mumbai Travel Guide

1:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bombay (Mumbai) we know as a Mumbaikar. Keep up.

Mumbai Travel Guide

5:12 PM  
Blogger chica said...

Maximum city was a good read, specially since I was a returning NRI and identified with a lot of things he talked about, of seeing the same things in a new light. At the same time the Mumbai in me loved Shantaram. Two very different novels of the same city and I loved both of them.

9:39 AM  
Blogger ashutosh said...

The book is beautifully written, is fast paced and I could'nt put it down until I'd finished it in 2 and a 1/2 days. The views of the author are daring, blunt and straight from the heart. Even more so, I admire his guts. Suketu Mehta, Sir, I salute you......

10:55 AM  

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