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Special: The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay

March 07, 2009 00:48 IST

It seems in fashion to examine the underbellies of India's turbulent megacities.


Whether it's Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire in cinema or Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger in literature, domestic and foreign audiences are gobbling up stories about India's urban poor.


But Mumbai-based writer Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi chose to ignore the underground in his second novel, The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay. Instead, the story follows the lives of four middle-to-upper-class Mumbaikars. 


In this excerpt, an affluent south Mumbai housewife, Rhea Dalal, introspects on an extramarital affair:


Several hours after her brief stop at Crawford Market and her subsequent trip to the clay vendor in Kumbharwada, Rhea sat on the stool before her dressing table trying to tighten an exasperatingly loose gold earring; she was terrified the earring, a family heirloom, would fall and get lost amid the crowd at Ban Ganga. A smart coat of mascara had made her eyelashes, already long and curled, all the more stark and feline. Priming her lips, she removed all traces of excess lipstick. She assumed she was ready, that she could face the crowds at the music festival.


She presented herself before the mirror.


Studying the reflection she experienced a familiar pang of discomfort: She did not know the woman looking back at her. But perhaps her discomfort really stemmed from the fact that she knew the woman in the mirror only too well, and her undeclared particulars were not all that flattering. Who was she then? A wife? A potter? A traitor? She questioned the ease with which she went from wife to lover to wife, slipping in and out of the roles as if exchanging one pair of shoes for another. Guilt made her want to flee her home, its marital stipulations, the adolescent, societal impositions on the human heart. Most of all, she wanted to flee the heart itself, its intractable ability to love variously, heroically, idiotically.


She knew that to try to come to terms with what had transpired between Karan and herself was like trying to catch a fish with one's bare hands. She believed that at the onset she had been genuinely taken with his work, and so she had chosen to show him around town. But when exactly did their friendship evolve into something larger, ineluctably dangerous, beyond definition? Surely it had not started when she had slipped on the staircase and he had gripped her, and they had united on the landing, struggling in the agony of lust. Such transgressions were all too easy to commit, and they did not result in the complicated pacts formed when people engaged the unlit portion of another soul. She did not know the exact moment, the hour or the day, when her feelings for Karan had spiralled out of her control and taken her hostage. She leaned closer toward the mirror. She could not believe her eyes. The woman gazing back at her was guilty of the final betrayal in love: she had surrendered her own self.


This realization filled her with an overpowering rage.


Taking a deep breath, Rhea resolved that she would not let the tumult of her feelings interfere with the evening ahead. Composing herself, she looked into the mirror again. This time, her inspection was superficial: she cringed at her reflection. In spite of the gorgeous guava-green silk sari, the ancestral kundan necklace around her slender neck, she was plain; at most, comely. She stood up and surveyed herself critically. Oh, she was hopeless, she was pathetic; she was far from perfect; she had chosen the wrong sari. As if to rescue her from the eddy of her insecurities, Adi emerged from the bathroom and whistled admiringly when he saw her. She blushed, his whistle like alchemy: what the mirror had established as ordinary was now transformed, before her very own eyes, into dramatic magnetism.


'I'm going to have to keep an eye on you.' His arms enveloped her from behind and he buried his face in her neck.


'No one would give me a second glance.'


'We're going to need security to keep them from you; I'm going to have to call in the commandos!'


When Adi straightened, and stood as upright as Karan did, she felt as if both men were watching over her.


'Yeah, yeah,' she said, waving her hand before his awestruck face. 'How else will you stave off the millions of imaginary fans?'





Ban Ganga, after locating a clean stone ledge of some vantage to sit on, they waited for the Sufi singer to take the stage. Rhea's thoughts wandered back to the concert the year before: Hariprasad Chaurasia had played the flute, and they had been so lost in his poignant, smooth recital of Raga Desh that the night had faded, the stars had faded, the crowds had faded, and she and Adi had been left together as guardians of each other's solitude. Tonight, in her husband's company, she felt adorned, and adored—so much so that if she were to meet Karan she would find it impossible to recognize him. She was deeply involved in her role of Mrs Adi Dalal; she was like an actor on stage, completely sold to her character, running on the fuel of an imaginative sympathy that burned down the subtle but significant divide between reality and performance.


Gradually, as voices hushed and the lights dimmed, leaving only the raised platform illuminated, the faint strains of the instruments being strummed and tuned floated out over the water. Fateh Khan, who had been sitting cross-legged with his head bowed, now looked up and faced his eager audience, humming a fine, unwieldy tune to himself. Hardly had he started on a song written by Bulla Shah than Rhea found unbidden tears pressing at her eyes; her head seemed to spin with the rising fervour of the music, the mesmeric rhythm, the timeless, fire-stroked words extolling love, its madness, its retreat, and its awful wound. The singer's voice was like the wing of a bird pressed against her black heart. Rhea wondered how she—devious, impatient, made of flesh and bone, an edifice of mortality—could hold so much emotion that she feared she might burst from it. Maybe that was the point of having children: to distribute what might no longer be held in oneself. In which case she was not, she would have to concede, an edifice of mortality but a sheet of music fashioned for reprise.


And Adi's desire for a child, an heir, was more than just the clamour of male vanity.


As the singer's voice opened up like the flames of a fire, she glanced at Adi's enrapt face. Briefly, she looked up, searching for Karan's room, his balcony. What if she saw him now? What she shared with Adi was rare and fundamental, a kind of oxygen, without which she simply would not exist. Karan, on the other hand, had been helium, and he had made her weightless, taken her higher, released her from the awful apathy of everyday existence. The sadness Karan had experienced at giving up his work filled her now, belatedly, making her choke. Without his camera, his world was unlit with either beauty or horror; it was in despair and pathetically mundane. Adi put his hand on her shoulder, but the tears continued to roll down her cheeks, a dark sediment of grief having broken out of her, its exodus illuminated only by the glow of music.




In the car on their way home she said, 'Why did you get me fireflies that evening, Adi?'


He was surprised; he had been remembering the fireflies when he had woken that morning, and now she was asking about them.


'Right after we started going out you kept telling me you dreamed of fireflies. You said you had talked to your father about what the dreams meant and he had connected them with some aspect of your childhood. When I asked you for details of his analysis you clammed up. I didn't probe. But you continued to complain that you were unable to sleep when you dreamed of them. I wanted to give you some so the dreams would stop, so you would be free.'

She kept disappointment out of her expression; she had been expecting a far more cerebral reason, on the lines that the fireflies had been symbolic of something. But a few moments later, studying his face intently, she was moved by the profound simplicity of his pure and vigorous concern.


'I just wanted you to sleep deeply, Rhea.' He pressed on the pedal of the car. 'And for you to wake rested.'


She gazed out of the window.


Bombay was a different beast at midnight. She saw the stall of a paanwalla with glossy clusters of heart-shaped vein-green leaves and papyrus foils of silver; she saw a monkey pedlar goofing around with his pet. On Warden Road she turned to face Adi, whose eyes were firmly on the road; she felt unreasonably lucky and safe


She raised her hand to her ear; the earring was loose again, and she tightened it deftly.


Family gold ought never to be lost.


Buy The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, Penguin Books India, Rs. 499 

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi