While travelling through Bombay’s streets in 1951, Octavio Paz experienced a strange mix of “dizziness, horror, stupor, astonishment, joy, enthusiasm, nausea, inescapable attraction.” He reflected that “Human kind cannot bear much reality… the excess of reality had become an unreality, but that unreality had turned suddenly into a balcony I peered into — what? Into that which is beyond and still has no name…” Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Christopher Taylor — the former’s reflective and informative text and the latter’s moody photographs make up BOMBAY/MUMBAI: IMMERSIONS (Niyogi, Rs 1,495) — too share Paz’s “inescapable attraction” for the city. This fascination made them traverse the metropolis, recording its history, sociology, demographics, culture and politics with the aid of images and text.
The real challenge for the two collaborators must have been to re-present a city that has been chronicled by many others. The phrase, immersions, is important in this context because it suggests that what Chabria and Taylor attempt is recording “the flow of time” through a layered city held together by a myriad people, spaces and structures. Movement and, hence, change — not cricket, commerce or crime — are the underlying themes here as nothing, none, remains still. Be they the sea, localities, people, architecture, every aspect of the city is in a state of flux, thereby altering shape.
The story that the writer-photographer team stitches together is also personal. Chabria’s essays capture her joy in mapping new, and forgotten, sights and sounds. Taylor portrays the details of buildings — the photograph of the defunct Royal Opera House, Girgaon (bottom left) is one example — with dexterity and intimacy.
Each section of the book explores a specific idea. ‘Concrete to Basalt’ documents fluid epochs from the past, while the motion of “tides, traffic, migration and commerce” is recorded in ‘Mosaics of Movement’. ‘South to North’ traces the city’s geographic expansion, while the chapters in the section, ‘Immersions’, illuminate little-known precincts. Perhaps the only dispensable bit is the one that looks at the “little” people — script-writers, costume-makers, aspiring actors, and such like. This is because popular culture’s new-found fascination with ‘Otherness’ in the film industry has meant that not much remains unknown about this shadow world.
“Urban Forest” — an account of a visit to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park — however, genuinely surprises by unearthing a pocket of stillness in a city that never sleeps (bottom right). Elsewhere, the soulless interiors of a mill lie in sharp contrast to the hopeful gaze of the dispossessed (top and right). Such contradictions make the city a site of both beauty and damnation.