An elegy of intellectual life
Harbans Singh

Mumbai De-Intellectualised: Rise and Decline
of a Culture of Thinking
By Aroon Tikekar.
Promilla & Co. Pages 206. Rs 225.

TODAY, the financial capital of India might be on the threshold of a new and prosperous era, but there are many who lament the absence of intellectual vigour that had given the multi-cultured city a pre-eminent role in the history of modern India. It is in this context that Aroon Tikekar makes a brutally frank attempt to unravel the intellectual insolvency and intellectual slide of Mumbai.

Tikekarís Mumbai De-Intellectualised traces the seeds of intellectual life of Mumbai, in the process, cataloguing the contribution of the British in instilling the spirit of inquisitiveness in the local population and how they were gradually led towards adopting a leadership role in the promotion of various disciplines of knowledge. Those were the times when social philanthropy was not a means of giving legitimacy to the acquired wealth but culmination of a culture of "giving back to society" that had given the philanthropists opportunities to make progress in life.

The book also traces the growth of modern education in Bombay, pointing out at one point, how Bombay University dropped the study of regional literature on the plea that it was not rich enough to be seriously studied and how, in reaction to the snub, vigorous steps were taken by the natives to spread the study of regional literature through various clubs. Not surprisingly, regional literature, now liberated of the clutches of religion, made a comeback for higher studies!

Had the author stopped here, the book would have been a history of the intellectual life of Mumbai but he continues his enquiry into the decades after Independence and laments the gradual decline in the 70s. The latter part of the book is a severe indictment of the academicians, media persons, writers and those responsible for preserving the culture for the present-day infertility of thought. However, if a student of intellectual life of India were to get out of its regional fixation, it would be discovered that this is a fate that much of India has endured.

Tikekar points out the exceptional contribution of Mumbai in the field of drama and performing arts in the 60s and early 70s. One can only blame his Mumbai-centricity for failing to notice that it was that blessed period that brought forth Tara Shankar Bandhopadhaya, Bimal Mitra and Shankar from Calcutta; in Hindi also, the intriguingly much-ignored Faneeshwar Nath Renu had already delineated the outcome of the impending clash between the march of industrialisation and the desire of the Santhals to hold onto their forest life and dependence on forest produce; in South, Akilan had made the transition from historical novels to the reality of contemporary social life. The Vijay Tendulkars and Bimal Mitras may not have been the equals of the Arthur Millers and the Faulkners, but they surely wrote honestly and warned of impending socio-cultural catastrophe if course correction was not done by the social and political leaders.

In fact, what Tikekar has diagnosed for Mumbai is equally true of Kolkata, Allahabad and Chennai. Amritsar and Jalandhar seem to have been wiped off the national intellectual map. The political decay was sudden in the 70s and when it came, it swamped society with characters that were preoccupied in ensuring and protecting their own prosperity. Culture became but another tool of perpetuating the space created by the politicians for mediocrity. As a result, social commitment that had been the driving force for intellectual activity of Mumbai during the 19th and early 20th centuries was abandoned by writers and thinkers in lieu of the state patronage. The sole purpose of the intellectuals has been reduced to the lobbying for the various awards that have been instituted for mediocre who master the art scratching the back of the political and bureaucratic masters. Rightly, the author comes down heavily on those who occupy the space of the intellectuals for surrendering the moral authority and abdicating the "preordained" role of a social critic.

The book, in fact, is an elegy of intellectual life not only of Mumbai but of India, too. More such frank criticisms could probably jolt the intellectuals out of the dark recess that they have allowed themselves to fall in.