"...it's like you don't dare be an outsider any more."
I have not been to Paris or Berlin.
I may never see them. But these days I seem to know a little about Berlin. Earlier, for me, it was just Hitler's capital.
But in year 2012, I read Roger Moorhouse's 'Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler's Capital 1939-1945' and it captured the city's haunting, tragic beauty in retrospect.
Since then I also have read a little bit about it beyond wars.
In year 2012, Berlin celebrated its 775th anniversary and SPIEGEL ONLINE International published a series of stories on its history.
I have lived in big cities for a part of my life- Chennai (1981-83), Greater Mumbai (1983-1987), Kolkata (1990-92) and Bangalore (1992-1999).
Cities like Berlin, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai grow on you and then you never leave them in some sense.
For instance, when I first went to Bombay, the first things I noticed were that city buses had fluorescent tubes inside and the women generally had larger breasts than the women I was used to seeing in the Western Maharashtra.
After initial hiccups, Bombay for me became just one large breast to suckle. No wonder they say: "आई झवली न् मुबई पाह्यली' (Mother fucked and saw Mumbai)
I know there are a number of non-fiction books on Bombay.
I keep browsing one of the very best: "Mumbaiche Varnan" ('मुंबईचें वर्णन') by Govind Narayan Madgaonkar (गोविंद नारायण माडगांवकर), first published in 1863.
There have been others too.
Sanjay Iyer says in a review of "Taj Mahal Foxtrot" by Naresh Fernandes:
" While much of Bombay’s history is well-documented through accounts of its towering, nation-building figures, especially rich Parsi industrialists and philanthropists, lesser characters such as Chic Chocolate, Micky Correa and Ken Mac captured the whimsy of more than the few people actually present at the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Karachi Club on those two evenings. Imagining freedom, in the century that preceded Independence, had an aspect that has not, till now, been probed and made meaningful.
The idea of ‘freedom’ as a transgression is a central strand in Naresh Fernandes’s book. Jazz gave voice to this aspiration for the ‘modern’. The audiences for jazz in the early and mid-20th century were a restless bunch of hedonists, who may have seemed apolitical but did, in fact, embrace a culture that was born in resistance. The main Indian practitioners of this transgressive music were Roman Catholics, many of them from Goa, a Portuguese colony nestling within India, the jewel in the British Crown. Their upbringing provided them with basic training in Western musical forms, along with a primal distaste for their own colonised state, and rapture for jazz, that music that just “swung”..."
(The Caravan, December 2011)
But there are hardly great caricatural drawings on the Bombay of pre-independence.
Sure, India had great Avadh Punch (1877-1936) but it was not being published from Bombay. There also was 'Molla Nasreddin'. 'Published between 1906 and 1930. It was a satirical Azeri magazine edited by the writer Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, and named after Nasreddin, the legendary Sufi wise man-cum-fool of the Middle Ages. With an acerbic sense of humor and realist illustrations reminiscent of a Caucasian Honoré Daumier or Toulouse-Lautrec, Molla Nasreddin attacked the hypocrisy of the Muslim clergy, the colonial policies of the US and European nations towards the rest of the world, and the venal corruption of the local elite, while arguing repeatedly for Westernization, educational reform, and equal rights for women'
(from 'Slavs and Tatars Presents: Molla Nasreddin: The Magazine That Would’ve Could’ve Should’ve')
The 1918 flu pandemic (the Spanish Flu) killed as many as 17 million in India, about 5% of the population. I am sure it didn't spare Bombay. But where is it in our fiction?
Returning to Berlin, they say: "After the devastation of World War I, cultural life blossomed and reached its heyday in Berlin. The 1920s were a time in which all the arts, both old and new, were cold, raw, shocking and sharp-edged."
In Berlin, there was George Grosz (1893–1959) an artist known especially for his savagely caricatural drawings of Berlin life in the 1920s:
courtesy: DPA Deutsche Presse-Agentur
Grosz said of his art:
"My Drawings expressed my despair, hate and disillusionment, I drew drunkards; puking men; men with clenched fists cursing at the moon. ... I drew a man, face filled with fright, washing blood from his hands. . . I drew lonely little men fleeing madly through empty streets. I drew a cross-section of tenement house: through one window could be seen a man attacking his wife; through another, two people making love; from a third hung a suicide with body covered by swarming flies. I drew soldiers without noses; war cripples with crustacean-like steel arms; two medical soldiers putting a violent infantryman into a strait-jacket made of a horse blanket. . . I drew a skeleton dressed as a recruit being examined for military duty. I also wrote poetry." (Wikipedia)
Robert Hughes says of his art:
"In Grosz's Germany, everything and everybody is for sale. All human transactions, except for the class solidarity of the workers, are poisoned. The world is owned by four breeds of pig: the capitalist, the officer, the priest and the hooker, whose other form is the sociable wife. He was one of the hanging judges of art."
I don't think India had any one close to some one like Grosz.
But how I wish Saadat Hasan Manto or Bhau Padhye (भाउ पाध्ये), the two best 20th century chroniclers of Mumbai for me, met Grosz! I hope they at least saw his art.
Apparently, Berlin's restlessness fascinated poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht who moved to the city from Bavaria.
In 1928 he wrote, "my friends and I hope that this great, lively city retains its intelligence, its fortitude and its bad memory, in other words, its revolutionary characteristics."
Why don't we NOW have any one like Bhau Padhye or George Grosz?
Wessie du Toit, Prospect, September 23 2013:
"A century on from Grosz’s arrival in Berlin, economic hardship grips Europe once again. I asked (Richard) Nagy why another George Grosz had not risen from the wreckage. “Artists aren’t willing to take risks to tell the truth,” he said, “they’re interested in different things.” I understood what he meant: today’s artists may intend to shock, but they are increasingly afraid to offend. Grosz’s great gift is to remind us that offence is sometimes necessary."