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What Obama MUST experience in Mumbai

Last updated on: October 29, 2010 15:41 IST

Image: US President Barack Obama
Photographs: Pete Souza/White House Photos

Mumbai junkie and author of Mumbai Fables Gyan Prakash suggests how the US President can experience the quintessential Mumbai, in a conversation with Vaihayasi Pande Daniel

Gyan Prakash is a Mumbai Junkie.

He fell in love with the idea of Mumbai when he was just a youngster of eight or nine and living far away in Jharkhand, in a town called Hazaribagh.

The romance only grew when assorted Mumbai-based uncles visited and described the magic of the city to him.

So is it surprising that the Princeton University-based historian has now written a book on Mumbai? Part-historical and part-biographical, Prakash's Mumbai Fables, released recently, is a book he says he has been writing in his mind ever since he was a child when his fascination for Maximum City began.

Prakash has spent many years researching the city and it is reflected in his intense, exhaustive portrait of the city. He began his project by actually walking the streets of the city. When he arrived in the city for the first time in 2000 (apart from a brief visit as a student in 1993) he walked all the way from Marine Drive to Worli Seaface.

And Prakash has now visited nearly every neighbourhood in Mumbai talking to artists, journalists, Bollywood-wallahs and many more.

Barack Obama We are in the process of drawing up a special Mumbai itinerary for United States President Barack Obama who will be visiting Mumbai on October 6 and 7. What places should he see, you feel? How should Obama catch the true flavour of the multi-faceted, colourful energetic Super Sheher?

Who better to ask than Gyan Prakash?


A walk down Marine Drive

Says Prakash, "Mumbai is not a tourist city in that sense. You go to Delhi and you go to Lal Quila. Barack Obama would have to spend a lot more time to really experience Mumbai."

"I would recommend that he should take a walk down Marine Drive."

Prakash accords Marine Drive a special description in Mumbai Fables: 'Marine Drive is no ordinary place. Mumbai's residents, who do not need much prodding to rattle off the problems facing their city, change their disposition the moment the panoramic boulevard on the Arabian Sea enters the discussion.

'Their eyes turn dreamy and their speech slows down in mid-sentence as they voice the name in hushed and unhurried tones -- M-a-r-i-n-e D-r-i-v-e. Utter the name slowly, clear up spaces before and after it, and you also might feel its aura...

'When night falls and envelops Mumbai's pulsating life in the mystery of darkness, the dance of lights on Marine Drive stages the nocturnal drama of the city by the sea...

'Marine Drive invites you to Mumbai's imagined life as a spectacle of modernity, as an ideal of modern urban life.

'Here, heavy police patrols and the physical layout, which is designed to facilitate the flow of traffic, have kept urban sprawl at bay.

'The sweeping boulevard and the sites visible from it clearly demarcate the city into orderly spaces, public and private, work and leisure.'

'Marine Drive invites you to Mumbai's imagined life'

Image: A panoramic view of Queen's Necklace, as Marine Drive is known at night-time thanks to the lights
Photographs: Aam422/Wikimedia commons

The layout locates family life in apartments, business life in office towers, tourists and visitors in hotels, entertainment and leisure on the promenade and Chowpatty Beach, and the flow of modern traffic on the roadways.'

'Set against the background of the limitless ocean, this methodical arrangement of urban life enhances the power of human artifice and ambition in Mumbai's constitution.'

Barack Obama

'Here, the city is dressed in its finest to present itself as an incarnation of the good life. The squalor of slums, the violence of poverty and homelessness, the wretched effects of staggering inequality, and the oppression of power are tucked away from sight. All one is invited to see is the utopia promised by the city on the sea '

Soak in the flavours of Mohammed Ali Road

Photographs: Wikimedia Commons

I would also recommend Obama went to Mohammed Ali Road and Bhendi Bazaar to get a sense of how people live," says Prakash.

"And also to get a sense of the dynamism of the place. Of dhanda. Happening every minute!"

In Mumbai Fables Prakash quotes Marathi writer Govind Narayan Madgavkar: 'One can experience many unique sights and sounds in these areas Barack Obama(Dongri and Bhendi Bazaar) -- a profusion of workshops -- splendid shops -- closely-packed houses crowds of people -- goods of all kinds being transported -- the jangling of pole-slings -- noisy vehicles, shouts and screams of labourers -- and a variety of goods being transported in carts '

Dharavi: Cliched yet worth seeing for Obama

Photographs: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters

Says Prakash: "Dharavi has now become too cliched but (Obama should visit) a place like Dharavi. Usually when you think of slums you think of very depressing places and desolate places. But Dharavi is really thriving, under very difficult conditions to be sure, people work on (just about anything) to make money. Enterprise in full display. Yet still there is a certain sense of social solidarity."

Prakash on Dharavi in Mumbai Fables: 'Ingenuity and spirit have transformed Dharavi into a thriving economy amid poverty and squalor if you open yourself to observing the drive, the enterprise, and the spirit of survival amid the incredibility wretched physical conditions, you cannot help but be uplifted.

'Barack ObamaRarely do you see idleness and despair associated with this 'slum'. From the establishments manufacturing leather goods for export and selling knockoffs of designer brands on the main street to artisanal establishments in the tight inner lanes, the picture is one of pulsating energy. Recycling is a way of life and livelihood.'

Dharavi is a zone of booming free secular enterprise

Photographs: Sanjay Sawant
Dharavi is an economic success story. It has developed without any public State subsidy or assistance.'

'Illegality thrives and is visible. Dharavi is a zone of booming free enterprise and a tribute to the ingenuity and hard work of the migrants, who come from everywhere in India. Every religion is represented.

'Hindus, Muslims, and Christians coexist despite bouts of communal violence. Every Barack Obamalinguistic group is present, but the language on the street is the mongrel tongue. Bambaiya Dharavi is pure Mumbai.'

Bollywood beckons

Photographs: Arko Datta/Reuters

Obama must sample the film industry and get a sense of how films are being shot."

According to Prakash in Mumbai Fables: 'Hindi cinema stood for Bombay, even if the city appeared only fleetingly on-screen, and then too as a corrupt and soulless opposite of the simplicity and warmth of the village This desire for the city was created largely by Bombay cinema. Nearly everyone I knew in Patna loved Hindi films.

'Young women wore clothes and styled their hair according to their favourite heroines. The neighbourhood toughs copied the flashy clothes of film villains, even memorising and mouthing their dialogues, such as a line attributed to the actor Ajit instructing his sidekick: 'Robert, Usko Hamlet wala poison de do; to be se not to be ho jayega' (Robert, give him Hamlet's poison: from "to be" he will become "not to Barack Obamabe"). No one knew which film this was from, or indeed if it was from a film at all.'

He says further: "Oh yes, (you associate Bombay with) the variety of food. And the street food! I don't think Obama's security are going to let him (sample it) but Mumbai's street food is amazing. Maybe at Chowpatty or really anywhere. He should taste Mumbai's Bhel Puri."

Head to the suburbs

Photographs: Arko Dutta/Reuters

I would bring Obama to Bandra to get a sense of a more intimate kind of neighbourhood, which is also part of this city. It is called a Western suburb. But it is not a suburb like we use the word in the West, which means really kind of slow and dull," says Prakash.

He writes in Mumbai Fables: 'Walk into a mall in Tardeo or Andheri, or eat in the chic restaurants of Colaba and Bandra offering Mediterranean or nouvelle cuisines, and you could forget that you are in Mumbai. Coffeehouses filled with young cappuccino sippers dressed in generic global styles and fast-food chains crowded with families have become familiar sights, displacing the Irani cafes that have served the city's working and lower middle classes since the early twentieth century.

'Gleaming apartment and office buildings that tower over tenements and slums in the old mill districts promise to transport the tenements' Barack Obamaoccupants away from the grim ground reality of Mumbai's poverty and grime. Media and advertising relentlessly express aspirations of global lifestyles and consumption. Place these developments alongside new infrastructure projects, including the recently commissioned Bandra-Worli Sealink, which is seen as a harbinger of developments to come that with life Mumbai out of its communication misery, and you come face to face with the urban elites' dream of turning Mumbai into Shanghai.'

Feel the sleaziness of Colaba Causeway

Photographs: Ekabhishek/Wikimedia Commons

Obviously, since Obama is staying at the Taj Mahal hotel, he will get a sense of the rich, wealthy Mumbai. And he will also get a view to the mainland from there," says Prakash.

"I would take him down Colaba Causeway. I love Colaba Causeway. I love its sleaziness. There is a certain kind of sleaziness in Colaba Causeway that you don't find anywhere else in Bombay. If you see the cartoons of Mario Miranda on Colaba he captures it mongrel nature, its sleaziness and it density."

Barack Obama

"You know this idea (you get) from that great song from CID -- Zara Hat Ke Zara Bach Ke -- that you have to duck and weave (to get by) in the city. You get that in Colaba Causeway."