Kalpish Ratna | Once Upon a Hill

“I began to look for the island on which I live, and it wasn’t there," says the narrator of Kalpish Ratna’s new book, Once Upon a Hill. Andheri East, the neighbourhood and geographical phenomenon of which they are writing, can be like an unpleasant rabbit hole to the casual visitor, a confusing tangle of villages, industrial settlements, infrastructural interventions by municipal authorities, and everywhere, a maze of houses, ranging from slums to luxury tower blocks. More than most places in an aggressive city, Andheri East can overwhelm you with its “there"-ness.

Many chroniclers of Mumbai, obsessed with its built environment, have written extensively about the work of human hands, and Andheri, where human society has expanded by an order of magnitude, might seem like the sort of place which exists purely on the force of human labour and aspiration. Yet Kalpish Ratna—the pen name of Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed—find themselves telling a story about disappearances, about unremembered historical secrets and geological incidents that neither memory, nor imagination, have salvaged from Andheri’s history.

photoOnce Upon a Hill, a gentle and spirited inquiry into Andheri’s past, is an enthralling study of humans and their environment, and one of the greatest books about Mumbai to come out in recent memory. There is something beautifully refreshing about the range of approaches Kalpish Ratna take towards their project, and how well all of them meld into a story. Through the authors’ eyes, Andheri East, permanent traffic snarl, remote new-moneyed suburb, and location of the island’s most depressing industrial zone, assumes a true, beloved and precarious historical form.

When Kalpish Ratna think in geological time, reading Steno and Linnaeus, al-Biruni and Lyell as scholars who can help them decode the secrets of the island, Mumbai, often considered to have no history pre-1662, transforms into a rock of the ages. When they read Mahikavatichi Bakhar, a medieval narrative which indicates some of Andheri’s own social history, they are detectives; when they speak to old families of the areas around the Kondivti (sometimes called Kondevita or Kondivita) village, who claim to have settled in the area hundreds of years ago, they are amused but respectful oral historians. When they scope out neighbourhoods for people and lanes which will lead them to more information, they become investigative journalists. And when they allow their writing to linger on a discovery in wonder, they are poets.

The locus of their investigation is Gilbert Hill, a mysterious column of black basalt which, according to local wisdom, was “once larger than Devils Tower", the humongous laccolith in Wyoming, US. Take a moment to breathe before you read the next few words: Gilbert Hill is 65 million years old. It existed before the continents were continents, before human beings existed, ancient beyond the wildest imaginings of India (a civilization inordinately fond of the word “ancient").

It currently stands at the centre of a warren of neighbourhoods, an eroded, neglected “Grade II heritage structure". Kalpish Ratna have to find their way to the hill, and the ancient Gaodevi shrine on top of it, through a jumble of working-class housing.

Their writing about Gilbert Hill as a geological phenomenon is unlike anything we are likely to have read in popular Indian history in recent years, and even if it were just an extended lesson in Mesozoic happenstance, the book would be worth it. I’m less sure about the photographs of Gilbert Hill and its surroundings at the end of the neighbourhood, which are of the serviceable newswire sort, and a somewhat dull contrast to the text.

Their eye for detail amazes, as does their bold, rococo authorial voice: “A door snaps open, mica bright. A tinsel arc of water shivers in the air as an autorickshaw gets its morning sluice. The man washing it is young, in his twenties. The sickle of water cuts into the frowst of his sleepiness….It is too chill for a cold-water bath. Inside, a woman busies herself making tea. As the sharp scent bites, he shakes his head like a pup drying itself, his mouth prepares for a hot sweet slurp of day."

Their style may not appeal to readers who, like V.S. Naipaul, prefer their sentences to be four words long, but I find it both refreshing and necessary that writers invite us into their visual imagination with this sort of poetic flourish. Much like Iain Sinclair, the densely imagistic bard of working-class London, they marry style to detail, and detail to political intervention. In this respect, Once Upon a Hill is compassionate as well as thought-provoking. Like many city writers, the authors are anxious about the island’s environmental future, its urban poverty, and the encroachment of identity politics. Their book does not end on a comforting note. The last voice they choose to quote, from a cast of literally hundreds they have listened to and inscribed into their narrative, is an autorickshaw driver telling his friend, “Har taraf se Bambai ki g***d maari hui hai"—Bombay is screwed every which way.

Having said that, this eloquent journey through time and space, full of historical surprises, evidently in love with a neighbourhood and its people, is not only a doomsday warning. True, the book will inspire readers to think deeply about the way the human and elemental environments interact in their own busy neighbourhoods. But it is also an enchanting vision and reconstruction of an island’s past. Like Andheri East (as we are now aware), it also contains many, and historic, dimensions.