Sunday, March 23, 2008

Love And Longing In Bombay

This appeared in today's Hindustan Times. It's the third book I've read in a row by Indians writing in English that suffers from overstatement. (The first two being Saeed Mirza's Ammi and Priya Sarukkai Chabria's Generation 14.) It's not that these three books are bad, but they would have been so much better with a little more Hemingwayesque restraint. On quite another note, I finally managed to stop myself from using the word "quotidian" in a review.


Salman Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai grew up in the privileged vicinity of Breach Candy; Anita Desai’s Hugo Baumgartner met his fate in seedy Colaba bylanes; and Vikram Chandra’s Inspector Sartaj and Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram traipsed through slums, dance bars and other gangland haunts. Now, in Murzban Shroff’s debut collection of short stories, we’re shown yet another aspect of Mumbai: the lives of its marginalised and migrant citizens, “their conflicts, their betrayals, their realisation and their redemption”.

This, among others, is a collection of low-lifes, itinerant service providers, ne’er-do-wells, scroungers, and, inevitably, good-hearted diamonds in the rough, all battling yet attracted to Bombay’s malign, magnetic lure. That may sound Dickensian, but Shroff’s brand of didactic social realism is closer to that of Upton Sinclair.

Many tales here have a similar pattern: a present occupation inter-cut with a past preoccupation. Thus, a dhobi delivering a load on a Churchgate-bound local train wonders whether his livelihood has a future; a Chowpatty masseur servicing a customer muses on the fate of his wife left behind in the village; a taxi-driver carrying a passenger from Nariman Point to the airport reflects on the vagaries of his profession; a film production assistant navigating rush-hour traffic ponders on the fall-out of a messy relationship; and a horse-and-carriage driver taking an Arab family for a ride down Marine Drive speculates on how to provide for those he’s responsible for.

Other stories deal with lives of the Parsi community, such as the moving ‘The Great Divide’, where an aged couple faces “a national failure to dissolve differences”. Also poignant is ‘Babu Barrah Takka’ featuring an upright public-sector employee at the crossroads.

Shroff has clearly done his homework, which shows in his use of everyday detail. His prose is straightforward and unadorned, though not above the occasional act of legerdemain -- such as the long opening sentence of ‘This House of Mine’. He’s also confident enough not to provide neat, well-rounded endings. However, what offsets these sterling qualities is the didacticism referred to earlier: the epiphanies are too pronounced and in story after story Shroff spells out realisations that have already been made clear by the narrative itself.

After a while, these overstatements take on a moralising tone, which robs many stories of the power they would otherwise have had. Take the title story, dealing with a wedding party hosted by a rags-to-riches businessman, which is among the weakest because the author’s ill-concealed disdain for bourgeois social-climbing overshadows everything else. As a mode, satire, not realism, is better suited to such sentiments.

That having been said, Shroff’s writing gives off an air of earnestness and sincerity that is endearing, and his dedication to his subject matter is apparent. This isn’t exactly a debut to leave you breathless, because it wears its liberal pieties too overtly on its sleeve; nevertheless, Breathless in Bombay deserves attention because of its unflinching focus on the lives of those who are often overlooked in Mumbai’s heedless rush towards modernisation.

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