Monday, April 11, 2011

Hollywood's Bombay

This appeared in Saturday's The Indian Express

NIGHT IN BOMBAY Louis Bromfield

Louis Bromfield’s Night in Bombay isn’t a novel with a real city as its backdrop. It’s a novel that exaggerates and magnifies those aspects of the city that fit into Hollywood’s perceptions of it in the Thirties and Forties. Published in 1940 and now re-issued by Penguin, it’s the second of Bromfield’s novels to be set in India. The first, The Rains Came, was made into a film in 1939 starring Tyrone Powers and Myrna Loy, achieving a degree of success as well as an Academy Award for special effects. No doubt the author hoped that Night in Bombay would be filmed too, which accounts for the novel’s melodrama, exoticisation of locale and cast of colourful if one-dimensional characters.

The book, then, is anything but a precursor to what we’ve come to think of as the “Mumbai novel”. Titles in that category ought to reflect a quality of lived experience, a characteristic shared by novels as disparate as Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay, Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey, parts of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Vikram Chandra’s mammoth cat-and-mouse saga, Sacred Games, among others.

There’s no such quality in Night in Bombay, whose flavour can be summed up in the musing of one of its characters early on. Gazing upon the city, he recalls "memories of parties, of drinking, of easy seductions, of extraordinary nights beneath a sky of blue velvet in which skies glittered like diamonds, of rides in gharries, down from some garden suspended on the side of Malabar Hill, to the Hotel Taj Mahal”. Casablanca, anyone? Later, another character looking around the race course thinks: “Nowhere but in Bombay did you find Maharajas and millionaires, Ranis and British governors, rich Americans and Arab horse dealers, visiting French and beautiful Indian women".

This, then, is the meretricious background against which Bromfield’s American characters collide like billiard balls. There’s Bill Wainwright, on an Asian tour to oversee his father’s business; Homer Merrill, a saintly social worker who toils for the uplift of India’s villages; and Carol Halma, a former Miss Minnesota and Bill’s divorced wife, who cavorts with princelings, but whose soul harbours hidden depths. Circling around these are some dissolute Europeans, each one with secrets and weaknesses to hide. They spend days and nights betting at the races, attending parties in royal mansions and drinking gin at the hotel bar. (The hotel itself is described as “having the air of a vast and dreary county jail”.) It’s when Bill and Homer both begin to nurse feelings for Carol that the actual plot kicks in. The Indians are primarily hotel staff, apart from one Mr Botlivala, a greasy social climber, and the implausibly-named and very upright Colonel Moti, head of an institute of tropical diseases.

All of this could well have been interesting to read in the present time, in the manner of a museum piece revelatory of the attitudes of an earlier era. However, Bromfield’s occasional attempts to “explain” India  give rise to generalities that range from the lazy to the comic. For example: "He knew suddenly why the Indian got beneath the skin of the stolid Englishmen, why it was that always the Indian won out. You could beat him or shout him down or even shoot him but still he knew all the answers and had a jump on you. That was the secret of Gandhi”. At other times, he makes you shift uncomfortably in your seat: “The automobile, it seemed, always produced an astounding effect upon coolies in the East; it intoxicated their downtrodden, starved beaten souls to feel beneath their bare souls an engine of great power, capable of immense speed, over which they held absolute power."

It’s also strange is that, given that this is the India of the late Thirties, there’s no mention of the turbulent political scenario, or even of the reactions of the British. Instead, Night in Bombay presents us with an insular hothouse environment in which the motivations and musings of the central characters are spelt out time and again. Even if it had been made into a movie, one suspects it would have been snubbed at the Academy Awards.

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