Sunday, December 7, 2008

Mumbai Pages

This is from today's The Sunday Express.

He spent his last years with stray cats in a seedy lane in Mumbai, a stone’s throw from Nariman House and the Taj. Had he witnessed the recent terrorist attacks, he would have shaken his head and spoken sorrowfully about his Jewish upbringing in Germany and the depredations of the Nazis.

However, Hugo Baumgartner walked the byways of Colaba only in our imagination. He is, of course, the protagonist of Anita Desai’s 1988 Baumgartner’s Bombay, just one of the works of fiction in English in which the city plays a role.

Of the authors who have written about Mumbai, it’s Salman Rushdie who’s the most lyrical. Saleem Sinai of Midnight’s Children grows up in the privileged enclave of Breach Candy, and characters from The Ground Beneath Her Feet and The Moor’s Last Sigh share similar backgrounds. The author once remarked that the Bombay of the late Fifties and early Sixties felt “like a kind of enchanted zone…a wonderful, exciting, vibrant city to grow up in. And I fell in love with it then and forever.

Much water has flowed down the Mithi River since then, and Catherine of Braganza’s bequest has changed irrevocably There’s been a corresponding fictional shift, from a south Mumbai existence to the middle-class centre and the suburbs, notwithstanding Shobha De’s frequent forays into the lives of the cocktail-sipping class.

The hero of Ardashir Vakil’s nostalgia-filled 1998 Beach Boy, for example, though equally privileged, indulges in his adolescent passions from his parents’ Juhu bungalow. Rohinton Mistry’s characters live in crumbling apartment blocks in central Mumbai, afflicted by fatalism while national events from the 1971 Pakistan War to the Emergency cast long shadows. Manil Suri’s mythological-themed though dreary The Death of Vishnu and his later The Age of Shiva depict a middle-class milieu in which people trapped in the pettiness of the present dream of a better future. Further down the scale, Kiran Nagarkar’s boisterous Ravan and Eddie spring from the teeming chawls.

Notwithstanding the preferences of Vakil’s hero, tinsel town glitter doesn’t feature too often in Mumbai fiction. Two contrived early-Nineties novels, I. Allan Sealy’s Hero and Shashi Tharoor’s Show Business, tried valiantly to marry Bollywood and politics. More recently, the protagonist of Amitava Kumar’s Home Products arrives in Mumbai with the aim of writing a film script, an unfulfilled ambition.

The city’s other visible symbol, its slums, plays a major part in Vikas Swarup’s Q&A -- inventive, though with a whiff of the potboiler about it -- and in Gregory David Roberts’ swaggering Shantaram.  The latter dwells on that popular Mumbai pastime, engaging in underworld activities, and this is also at the core of Vikram Chandra’s mammoth Sacred Games, which can lay claim to being The Great Mumbai Novel. It encompasses not just the underworld but the city’s distinctive patois, cuisine, neighbourhoods and more while narrating the cat-and-mouse game between don Ganesh Gaitonde and Inspector Sartaj Singh, a character from Chandra’s earlier, heartfelt Love and Longing in Bombay.

It turns out that one doesn’t need first-hand knowledge of the city to successfully write about it. (Which may come as a surprise to Amit Chaudhuri, whose essays often dwell on his Mumbai childhood, and to Suketu Mehta, whose Maximum City is a non-fiction counterpart to Sacred Games.) Take the case of H.R.F. Keating, whose A Perfect Murder, the first of a series of detective novels featuring intrepid Mumbai police inspector Ganesh Ghote, appeared in 1964. Keating himself appeared in Mumbai for the first time a full decade after he made the city the backdrop to his novels.

With the new crop of writers, the city again assumes different forms. Murzban Shroff’s Breathless in Bombay revolves around those perched on the lower rungs of the social ladder: washermen, horse-and-carriage drivers, pimps and others. Nalini Jones’ nuanced yet precise stories in What You Call Winter delineate people coming to grips with time’s passage in the suburb of “Santa Clara”, a stand-in for Bandra. And Altaf Tyrewala’s No God in Sight ingeniously links the tales of those affected by an earlier Mumbai tragedy, the blasts and subsequent riots of 1992-93.

The recent onslaught on the city has been ineptly referred to as “India’s 9/11”. Well, one of the fallouts of the attack on the Twin Towers was the spate of “9/11 novels”, from the unexceptional (Updike’s Terrorist) to the overwrought (Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) to the elegant (O’Neill’s Netherland). It remains to be seen whether November 26th will yield such fruit, but a pointer can be found in a post on India Uncut by blogger and debutant novelist Amit Varma: “This book was written in a Bombay before these attacks; it will come out in a Bombay after these attacks, and it somehow feels… that it will be inadequate.” Ironically, Rushdie found himself in the same corner when he chronicled the life of New York, his adopted city, in the below-par Fury. The publication date of that book: one week before September 11, 2001.

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