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Where Mumbai is the muse...

March 23, 2005

Great cities continue -- as they always have -- to inspire great literature. They take on garbs, filling out, becoming characters by themselves, often driving much of a plot. Which is why tracking down books inspired by Mumbai isn't hard at all.

Live here long enough and you won't be able to get the city out of your system either.

BooksA very good place to start, on this list where Mumbai is the muse, is Kiran Nagarkar's Ravan And Eddie. He started with a screenplay, apparently, but finished with this -- a much underestimated, extremely enjoyable novel. It documents the lives of two boys, Hindu and Catholic, growing up in CWD Chawl number 17, back in the 1950s, when Mumbai was Bombay.

Ravan has a role to play in the death of Eddie's father and, with this thread binding them, the two live bittersweet, parallel lives. There are hilarious anecdotes, colourful people, random digressions on human nature and a great many dysfunctional families spread across its pages. What the novel captures effortlessly, however, is the concept of time and space in a chawl, those much-maligned kholis that have given Mumbai much of its character. The cultural differences that abound in CWD Chawl are evocatively sketched, and there are all kinds of eccentrics, beliefs and rituals, much like the ones you would still find if you were to stop by a chawl today.

Then there's Beach Boy, Ardashir Vakil's homage to his own past.

'Generosity is often spiked,' says Cyrus Readymoney, referring to the snide comments he has to endure at homes he visits for free lunches. The eight-year-old Parsi narrator documents his life and times, and those of his family, friends and neighbours -- his servant Bhagwan, the friendly Krishnans next door, a mysterious Maharani, the funny Mrs Verma. Seeping through their tales is the spirit of another era, a time before Mumbai was taken over by nuclear families who socialised by appointment only.

This is a close look at the upper middle class, a coming of age tale, and a very readable sociological study -- all rolled into one. Readymoney's problems at school echo many of our own, and his talent for observation manages to draw more than a few smiles. And yes, there's the sea, caressing Mumbai as it always has.

The city also plays a huge role in another huge novel. Try and picture Rushdie's Midnight's Children without it. Consider the plot -- Hindu and Muslim babies switched at a hospital soon after birth. If that isn't born of Bollywood, what is? I once considered reading the book aloud to a few schoolchildren. For them, I realised, Rushdie's fantastical worldview wouldn't call for a gigantic leap of faith. The line between realism and magic realism, for Mumbai's children, is slim.

That said, if you haven't read this winner of the 1993 Booker of Bookers yet, please, please do. It continues, years after publication, to offer prose that is often unpredictable, yet always beautiful. Rushdie uses the English language much like a trapeze artist his ropes. There are dips, stunning wordplay, a lot of punning, nutty rhymes, Bambaiyya Hindi -- the works. We may not immediately identify with Saleem Sinai. By the time he's done with us though, you won't stop thinking about him for quite a while.

Next stop: Tales From Firozsha Baag, courtesy Rohinton Mistry. Through 11 stories from a Parsi colony in Mumbai, Mistry takes you to the heart of a community, lighting up the quasi-mysterious space in which they dwell in various pockets of the city. Through the tales of Najamai, the only refrigerator-owner, young Kersi, Rustomji the killjoy and Jaykaylee the ayah, we are confronted with facets of humanity -- rich, vibrant -- common to all of Mumbai's communities. That apartment building, then, becomes a microcosm of the city it calls home. Its tenants are like the rest of us -- Mumbai's masses.

Finally, Baumgartner's Bombay. Anita Desai's story of Hugo Baumgartner, from Berlin to Kolkata to Bombay. We join Baumgartner in the evening of his life, accepting all the tricks of fate life has dealt him. What makes this novel poignant is Desai's ability to describe the feeling of 'otherness,' the sense of not belonging that constantly haunts her protagonist. Until a debauched German hippie shows up.

There are other tales, of course, and other characters as much in love with the city as their creators. Vikram Chandra's Love And Longing In Bombay -- stories spun by his narrator Mr Subramaniam from a bar called Fisherman's Rest, off Sasoon Dock.

There's Eunice de Souza's Dangerlok -- a powerful, acerbic look at the petty politics constantly at work in the big city. H R F Keating's stories about a Mumbai cop -- his Inspector Ghote mysteries.

And a relatively new addition, Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram, steeped in the slums of Dharavi, and jargon from the underworld.

Multifaceted tales, all. Like the city that fathered them.

Image: Rajesh Karkera



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