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IN A CITY BY THE SEA

Bombay and Mumbai: The City in Transition Edited by Sujata Patel and Jim Masselos, Oxford, Rs 645

Each megacity is different and Bombay is no exception. So the authors of this monograph tell us. The proposition isn’t exactly earth-shattering. The imperatives of trade and traffic, of migration and labour, of capital and enterprise, of religion and politics have left their imprint on the location of central places and cities everywhere in today’s world.

So what makes Bombay special' Is it to do with the fact that as possibly one of the more successful cities in the developing world, it has acquired a cosmopolitanism of sorts that strikes even a chance visitor' Or is the veneer of cosmopolitanism and urbanism all too fragile and barely conceals the reality of caste, community and religious polarities, which exposes it to riots, blasts and pogroms' Is the change in nomenclature from Bombay to Mumbai a reflection of the city’s cross-over to an indigenous modernity or an endorsement of a new political creed that has grown from a colossal urban failure'

The book does not claim to have all the answers. But it raises questions and in some cases, offers prescriptions. Not all of these are original or even backed by solid research, with the result that they often sound like commonsense homilies.

The editors of the volume have an essay apiece. Sujata Patel gives a competent historical overview of key moments that shaped the city’s political agenda and argues that developments in post-independence India thwarted the potential of two forms of class-based modernity that had developed by the Thirties.

The first was politically-encoded nationalism while the other was related to the working-class movement. Both modes declined under the pressure of class, community and linguistic identities. The decline of Bombay’s industrial profile followed by the city’s alignment with the new global economy produced major changes in the social structure of the city. This found reflection in the growing disparities between the affluent and the poor, in the unprecedented pressure on housing and the slow erosion of civil society. It was in this context that the right-wing Shiv Sena made inroads into the informal processes of power and consumed cultural symbols unabashedly to produce a Hindu sensibility — of a kitschy variety and one that struck a chord in the city’s new urban landscape.

Jim Masselos, on the other hand, uses the suburban railway journey as a metaphor for the city’s distinct identity — the daily commuting trips constituting, for him, a defining experience in the production of a shared space linking the residence with the workplace. Why and how the Bombay commuter is different from his counterpart elsewhere is not clear — just how the daily trip back and forth constitutes a special moral economy or how it breeds a particular affinity with the space covered is not addressed at all in this somewhat patch essay

Two essays, by Edward Rodrigues and Mahesh Gavaskar, stand out in an otherwise drab collection. These show how exposed and vulnerable Dalit politics was to elite manipulation and demonstrate how, for the Dalit leadership who emerged in electoral politics, the reference model continued to be that of upper caste, mainstream parties. Further, Dalit politics failed to develop an effective critique of job reservations as a result of which these too played into the hands of elite manipulation.

The politics and disempowerment of Muslim communities in Bombay is handled by Rajendra Vora and Suhas Palshikar. They competently document the changing profile of Muslim localities in Bombay and remind us of the dangers of depoliticization and the weakening of civil society, the consequences of which are all too clear in our times.

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