On days like this, I am especially glad I didn't complete my doctorate. Had I done so, I would have been tempted to settle down in a teaching job at some university in England or the United States. In which case, I'd constantly have had to read books like Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha's SOAK, books by very smart people written in language so dense, only people familiar with the jargon might comprehend the flimsiness of the arguments. Since most of those trained in the jargon have bought into the academic system, they are about as likely to harm their careers in the name of intellectual honesty as Shia clerics in Iran are to say, "Hold on, this whole Islamic republic idea is bollocks, isn't it?"
SOAK is a book presenting Bombay from a novel perspective, and is also an exhibition currently on view at the National Gallery of Modern Art. The bulk of the show consists of text, maps and diagrams, but two boring installations have been created to forestall criticism that the show has nothing to do with art and should, therefore, find no place in NGMA.
Mathur and da Cunha's argument, paraphrased, is this: The British created modern Bombay based on a belief that sea had to be divided from land. Early European maps which vary in their representation of the city's boundaries do so because, in reality, these boundaries were fluid rather than fixed. Locals did not necessarily view land and sea in the same cut and dry, adversarial fashion as Europeans. Their traditional ways of harvesting and draining rain water, namely talaos (ponds) and nullahs (drains), are preferable to the underground sewers and the dam-created reservoirs favoured by colonial administrators and expanded after India gained independence. If we had retained our earlier notion of the land-sea relationship, we'd have been saved catastrophes like the flood of 2005. To reinvigorate the city, it is helpful to use the idea of an estuary, which is neither fresh nor salt water, neither sea nor river, but something in-between. Bombay is an estuary rather than an island.
I take issue with Mathur and da Cunha for the following reasons:
1) The authors have not quoted one single local source to back up their belief that non-Europeans had a different take on the Bombay mix of land, sea and fresh water. It's all very well to complain about the city's history being dominated by colonial accounts, but the complaint falls flat when the people doing the complaining show no evidence of having read any non-colonial writings on the city.
2) There is plenty of evidence that traditional Indian thought divided land and sea very firmly. Islands make an appearance early in the Indian literary canon, the Sanskrit word for them is 'dvipa'. In the colonial era, there are Maratha maps which depict Bombay as an island or a series of islands, proving that it wasn't only the Brits and Portuguese who thought in this fashion.
The foundational dogma of modern critical theory is that everything is a social construct. However, normal humans outside the academic echo chamber know that the difference between earth and water is not something constructed by nasty imperialists.
3) It is incorrect to say colonialists made an absolute distinction between land and sea. They knew about tracts which sometimes appear to be land and at other times are covered with water. The current word for them is, simply, wetlands, and they include marshes, swamps, bogs, sloughs and mires. Wetlands are great for biodiversity, but rarely congenial to human habitation. That's probably why, when we talk of being mired or bogged down or swamped, we aren't speaking of happy experiences.
What is now central Bombay was once marshland. Not only could nobody live in the marsh itself, it made everything in the vicinity inhospitable for humans. The rate of deaths from malaria in the 15th century has not been recorded, but we can guess it was catastrophically high. Which is one reason why, while the mainland immediately to the north and east flourished for millennia, Bombay remained sparsely populated and impoverished.
4) Which leads to the next bone of contention: reclamation. Mathur and da Cunha condemn reclamation as a kind of crime against nature, an emblem of the imperialist desire to fight nature and conquer it. The fact is, however, that Bombay could became a proper city only because of reclamation, particularly the transformation of its wetlands into dry land. One might object to further reclamation today, but to make a general case against it would be to argue that Bombay ought never have become an urban centre.
5) There are towns in India which do not have massive water reservoirs or underground sewers. They retain their faith in talaos and nullahs. The ones I have visited are, without exception, filthy and water deficient. I see no empirical reasoning behind the notion that talaos and nullahs are superior to large reservoirs and underground sewers. In fact I find it hard to imagine the demands for water of a city of 15 million being adequately served by traditional talaos or variants thereof.
6) The flood of 2005 was not exacerbated by planning in and of itself, but by bad planning, or the failure to plan. Illegal construction, and construction legalised where it should not have been, were the primary reasons why water remained standing for days in some areas. It is perfectly possible for a city to reclaim land and build on it on a grand scale while protecting itself from natural disasters; a case in point is Hong Kong, which faces storms regularly without seeing the sort of damage that the July 2005 flood visited upon Bombay. The point is to plan and execute efficiently.
I will write more on this issue in a day or two, connecting it with past posts of mine, and providing a taste of the Mathur / da Cunha style by quoting directly from their book. It costs 2000 rupees, and I am not prepared to shell out that amount, so the quotes will have to wait till I can borrow a copy or return to NGMA to transcribe a few passages. For the moment, MTNL has provided me a window of opportunity to upload, who knows when I'll get it again?