A City of Tongues and Muscle: On Shanta Gokhale and Jerry Pinto’s “Maya Nagari” Anthology

Uttaran Das Gupta reviews Shanta Gokhale and Jerry Pinto's anthology “Maya Nagari: Bombay-Mumbai, A City in Stories.”

A City of Tongues and Muscle: On Shanta Gokhale and Jerry Pinto’s “Maya Nagari” Anthology

Maya Nagari: Bombay-Mumbai, A City in Stories by Jerry Pinto and Shanta Gokhale. Speaking Tiger. 420 pages.

ON JUNE 23, 1661, a marriage agreement was signed between Charles II, the king of England, and Catherine of Braganza, the daughter of the man who later became King John IV of Portugal. Charles had the reputation of being an inveterate skirt-chaser all his life (fathering at least 12 illegitimate children), but marriage was more a matter of diplomatic considerations than love. England was still recovering from the civil war of the 1640s and the iron-fisted rule of Oliver Cromwell. Catherine brought with her a considerable dowry: the colony of Tangier, the right to free trade in Portuguese territory, and a cluster of seven islands off the western coast of India that the Portuguese called “Bom Bahia,” or the Good Bay. In 1668, Charles transferred the administration of these islands to the East India Company for an annual rent of £10, and the British started to refer to the area as Bombay.

More than three centuries later, when a local political party in the Western Indian state of Maharashtra initiated a process to change Bombay’s name to Mumbai, claiming that the former was a colonial mutilation of the name of a local goddess, Mumba Devi, many pointed to the possible Portuguese origins of the word. The name was changed in 1995, but the tussle over nomenclature demonstrated the heterogeneous nature of the sprawling metropolis on the shore of the Arabian Sea. A new anthology edited by Shanta Gokhale and Jerry Pinto, Maya Nagari: Bombay-Mumbai, A City in Stories, attempts to capture the kaleidoscopic nature of this city through 21 short stories.

The tales included in the book are of varying lengths and were written in eight languages—English, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati, and Malayalam. All have been translated into English, either by the editors or others. “The city is defined by its multilinguality,” claims Gokhale, a novelist who writes in English and Marathi and translates between both languages, in an introductory conversation with her co-editor. “I can’t think of a writer in Chennai who is writing stories about Chennai in Marathi. But we have the celebrated writer C. S. Lakshmi—Ambai—here who writes in Tamil.” Pinto, a novelist, poet, translator, and biographer, takes the argument of Mumbai’s multilingualism a little further: “And because the city is multilingual, every language here is also multilingual.” This is evident as one reads the stories: languages lose their clearly demarcated borders and contaminate one another with words, idioms, attitudes; characters switch between Tamil, Marathi, Hindi, and English with such facility that it would alarm any linguistic purist. But then, there is no honest way to write about Mumbai and its denizens without rigorously replicating its polyphonic soundscape.

Along with the variety of languages, the book also features a variety of narrative styles. While some stories have traditional first- or third-person narrators, others use the epistolary mode (Eunice de Souza’s “Rina of Queen’s Diamonds”) or theatrical dialogues (Bhupen Khakhar’s “Vadki”). Some stories are only a page long (Udayan Thakker’s “Pandoba”) while others could almost be described as novellas (Krishan Chander’s “The Children of Dadar Bridge”). Two of the oldest stories in the book—“Babu Gopi Nath” (1940) by Saadat Hasan Manto and “Quit India” (1953) by Ismat Chughtai—were written in Urdu, a close cousin of Hindi that has been erroneously classified as a “Muslim language” and whose fortunes in India have declined over the decades since the nation achieved independence in 1947. Manto and Chughtai, the best exponents of the short story in Urdu, are often associated with each other because of their friendship and parallel career trajectories. Their careers are also, in some ways, metonymic of the fate of the language.

Both writers were born in North India—Manto at Ludhiana in 1912, Chughtai in Badayun three years later. Respectively, they moved to Bombay in 1936 and 1942, establishing careers in journalism and the film industry, and found themselves charged in 1945 with obscenity for the stories “Bu” (“Odor”) and “Lihaaf” (“The Quilt”). The latter is considered to be one of the first 20th-century works of fiction from India depicting a same-sex relationship. Chughtai provides a vivid depiction in her autobiography of traveling to Lahore with her husband (film director Shaheed Latif) and Manto to fight the case in the high court. Both authors were eventually exonerated. Manto, however, continued to find himself in the crosshairs of the authorities: he would be charged six times for obscenity—three times in British India and three times after moving to Pakistan in 1948 in the wake of Hindu-Muslim riots during Partition. After penning stories that vividly depicted the violence of one of the greatest migrations in human history, Manto found himself censored in his new country. Unable to write, he sank increasingly into alcoholism and depression, succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver in 1955. Until his last days, Bombay served as his muse.

“Bombay meant something to Manto beyond being merely a place he knew, a city in which he had lived,” writes Matt Reeck in the translator’s note to Bombay Stories (2012), a collection of Manto’s short fiction. “In this wistful invocation, he states his outright love for the city.” Bombay provided Manto not only with the opportunity to become a writer but also with the indifferent anonymity he needed to refashion himself. But his fiction also fashioned Bombay. “[A] merging of place and character seems to occur for Manto, as for many after him,” writes Reeck; indeed, “to write about Bombay means to write about a certain group of characters of a particular milieu.” These characters include “a motley crew of prostitutes, pimps, writers, film stars, musicians, the debauched, and the rich.” Reeck calls this subgenre of Indian fiction “Bombay fiction,” claiming that “Manto stands at the very beginning of this important Indian literary tradition.”

The story included in Maya Nagari, “Babu Gopi Nath” (translated into English by Khalid Hasan), is an apt example of this sort of fiction. Its eponymous protagonist is a rich man from Lahore who arrives in Bombay in the early 1940s, accompanied by a young girl from Kashmir. He soon gathers around him an entourage of good-for-nothing characters who take unrestrained advantage of his generosity. When the narrator, also called Manto, asks him why he lives like this, Gopi Nath replies that he finds peace only in brothels and shrines: “Because both establishments are an illusion. […] [I]n a kotha [bordello] parents prostitute their daughters and in shrines men prostitute their God.”

Manto’s fascination with such characters—ill at ease in the world around them, seeking refuge in liminal spaces such as courtesans’ quarters and religious shrines—is obvious. But in Chughtai’s story, too, we find a character hurtling towards self-destruction, refusing to accept any assistance offered for redemption. The title of the story, “Quit India” (translated into English by Tahira Naqvi), refers to a movement launched in 1942 by Indian nationalists to protest the British government’s decision to involve India in the Second World War without any consultation with the country’s political leadership. Led by Mahatma Gandhi, the movement was marked by violent uprisings in some parts of the country.

The British were successful, however, in curtailing its spread by imprisoning most of the senior leaders of the anti-colonial movement, including Gandhi and India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, along with thousands of their followers. Chughtai’s story refers to the political movement only in passing; at its center is Eric William Jackson, a dissolute Englishman sent to India by his well-connected father-in-law to make a career in the colonial bureaucracy. He squanders every opportunity made available to him, however; after getting involved with Indian women, he goes native and refuses to return to England at the time of Independence. He is one of those characters who abjures the neat classifications of historiography, falling into the crannies of empire. Where else could such a character wash up but on the littered beaches of Bombay?

But more than Manto and Chughtai, more than any other writer in this anthology, it is Baburao Bagul who provides the most empathetic and compelling representation of an underclass character. Translated from the original Marathi by Gokhale, “Woman of the Street” tells the story of Girija, a sex worker in the city who gets a telegram one day informing her that her son is sick. Thus begin Girija’s attempts to put together some money to return to her village. As the evening wears on and she is unable to find any customers, Girija grows more and more desperate:

She continued to chew paan [betel leaves] to bring colour to her lips, but her mouth was dry. She kept going to the garden tap to wash her face, to see if she could rid it of its sadness. But the sadness would not go. Men paid no attention to her and the tears in her heart did not have permission to spill.

Bagul, one of the founders of the Dalit Panthers movement, perhaps had a closer acquaintance with the city’s sprawling red-light districts than his more bourgeois contemporaries. Founded in the early 1970s by poets and activists Namdeo Dhasal, Daya Pawar, and others, and inspired by the Black Panthers in the US, the Dalit Panthers were a militant group that fought for the rights of Dalits, who are at the bottom of India’s brutal caste system. The literary works of the Dalit Panthers often focused on the atrocities committed against Dalits, as well as the lives of those subsisting on the margins of Mumbai, such as criminals, sex workers, pimps, and itinerant laborers. Bagul’s story derives its power from its uncompromising realism, its unflinching depiction of the desperate fate that awaits many of these marginal characters. The story’s shattering last line is impossible to forget.

Mill workers, sex workers, trade unionists, bus drivers, sanitation workers, and many different kinds of working-class characters populate several of the stories in this anthology, reminding one not only of the social and cultural diversity of Mumbai but also of the sharp divisions of class, caste, religion, and gender that often lead to conflict. “The stories we were picking were, almost without exception, hard-eyed looks at the street-level life of the city,” writes Gokhale, “at its underbelly, its ironies and absurdities, its fears and negotiations, and occasionally […] its helplessness which goes by the pretty name of resilience.” Pinto adds: “It is a city that runs on labour, hard physical labour. Go to a construction site. It is human muscle that at the end of the day, gets one brick on to another and then one floor on to the next.” Mumbai is thus not only a city of many tongues but also a product of human labor, a metropolis of muscle.

Ambai’s “Kala Ghoda Chowk” (translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström) and Anuradha Kumar’s “Neera Joshi’s Unfinished Book” (one of the stories in this anthology originally written in English, from the author’s 2019 collection Coming Back to the City: Mumbai Stories) are focused on the workers’ movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Abjuring easy formulations, they explore fault lines of caste and gender in the class struggle. The narrator of “Kala Ghoda Chowk” is Abhilasha, a journalist from Delhi who comes to Bombay to report on a women’s movement that starts in the city after the rape of a local activist named Rosa. Early in the story, Abhilasha narrates the secret behind Rosa’s name: “Is it true that a leading member of the party named her in memory of Rosa Luxemburg?”

But Abhilasha’s report is devoid of any pretence of journalistic objectivity—not only is she a committed leftist, but she is also in a relationship with Rosa’s brother, Lenin. The story comprises alternative sections of Abhilasha’s report as well as a letter she is writing to her lover. The reader learns how Rosa’s partner, Prabhakar Shinde, another activist, was picked up by the police on trumped-up charges and assaulted in custody. When he died, Rosa was also arrested: “What happens when a woman is dragged to the police station? That’s exactly what happened.” After Rosa was released from police custody, an association for women’s rights organized a movement that culminates in a large protest at Kala Ghoda, an upscale district in South Bombay known for its art galleries, museums, and fancy eateries. Ambai’s choice of title is possibly her critique of her fellow citizens who romanticize the city’s landmarks without acknowledging the life-and-death struggles they have witnessed.

In Kumar’s story, another journalist, Neera, falls in love with a trade unionist, Ramakrishna Desai, referred to in Marathi as “Bhau” (or elder brother) by his supporters. Though Bhau is already married, he and Neera embark on a relationship often conducted in clandestine locations: shady hotels in Colaba and Dadar, a film director’s flat in Bandra, a famous actor’s bungalow. Kumar, who has written several novels, including most recently The Kidnapping of Mark Twain (2023), describes the love affair in delicate language: “Through the green louvred windows, Neera smelled the drying fish, heard the shouts and the broken conversation of the dock workers, of crates being unloaded. She would forever associate these with love.”

The story’s juxtaposition of the quotidian and the sublime, of the city’s specific sounds and smells with global developments such as the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, highlights the fragile nature of love and revolution. Bhau’s communist movement is shouldered out by a new Native People’s Party (a veiled reference to the right-wing Hindu party Shiv Sena that would eventually rename Bombay), their relationship falters, and Bhau is assassinated. Decades after Bhau’s death, as Neera is interviewed by another, younger journalist, she looks upon a new multistory building and muses: “Everywhere she saw the aggressive new jostling out the old.” Many of the old mills in Mumbai, such as Kamala Mills or Phoenix Mills, have been transformed into lifestyle destinations, with restaurants, pubs, and bowling alleys. Such making and remaking is a phenomenon in all the world’s cities, not only Mumbai.

So perhaps it is not too far a stretch to think of the gritty streets and buildings of the city as the book’s title suggests: Maya Nagari. A reference to the eponymous 1944 Hindi film, the phrase means City of Dreams or City of Illusion, depending on how you translate “maya.” In Hindu or Buddhist philosophy, one of the aims of a spiritual person is to escape the world of maya, to renounce desire and its inevitable outcome, pain. But as other mythological stories tell us, the only way to get out of the silvery cobwebs of maya is to play its game, to perform the roles it assigns to us. As Babu Gopi Nath in Manto’s story reminds us, the world is only an illusion; if you cannot give it up, you must desire it. And who knows this better than the citizens of Mumbai?

LARB Contributor

Uttaran Das Gupta is a New Delhi–based writer and journalist.


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