Imagining Bombay

Laura Stoloff

On Wednesday, Gyan Prakash spoke at Colgate about “The Cosmopolitan Imaginary of Bombay.” The lecture, co-sponsored by CORE Cultures and Asian Studies, discussed the ideas of Bombay as a remembered city and the way it should be understood.

Prakash focused on colonialism in India and on the construction of science and how it was articulated in colonial times.

“The themes of modernity, urban life and cities are really pertinent today in my eyes,” sophomore Marisa Bricca said. “With the process of globalization, population increases and urbanization, the world community is now dealing with new challenges and questions, whether in New York or Bombay.”

Prakash is Professor of History and Director of Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University.

He received his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in India and a doctorate in history from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Bonded Histories: Genealogies of Labor Servitude in Colonial India and Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India.

“I love the city,” Prakash said. “I almost like to imagine that I’m from Bombay.”

He explained that Bombay is a brand-new city, and thus an appropriate site for examining modernity. He also noted that his fascination with the city began at an early age.

“My interest in Bombay was part of my long-term interest in studying modernity in India,” Prakash said. “I grew up with Bombay on my mind. It was never just a big city; it was a legend, a figure of my imagination. The myth became even richer when I went

to Bombay.”

Prakash used photographs and maps of the old city to show the colonial impact of the British. Prior to his study of the city, there was little information on urban modernity in India. He began his analysis by reading various novels and diverse literature on the subject.

The lecture focused on the conflicting idea of Bombay as a lost city.

Critics comment that Bombay is not the city it once was: a thriving industrial society.

“What interested me the most about his speech was his returning image of Bombay as a city in disarray and decline. The people cling to a golden ideal of a past and shining Bombay,” Bricca said. “His talk made me wonder if this is a tendency of change over time, especially in cities where people often don’t like the direction of change in their cities.”

Bombay, now called Mumbai, serves as a fascinating historical city.

However, Prakash warns that it is unlike other metropolises. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is not a museum, but rather an area where tourists can observe urban life.