The Book in Search of a City
February 26, 2011 § Leave a comment
When a great novelist writes about a great city that he is intimately familiar with, he defines the city. He captures her many moods, her vanities and caprices, her very essence. The greatness of the city and that of the novelist reaffirm – and reinforce – each other. You can’t have one without the other, as the song goes.
When a mediocre novelist writes about a great city, he achieves nothing. His voice is drowned out in the shrillness of the million wannabes who scream in vain to be heard. The city swallows him whole and does not spare him a second thought: he is useless to her.
When a competent – but not yet great – novelist writes about a great city, he sets out to define the city but merely manages to define himself. The city provides him with a mirror, through which he looks and sees what he thinks is the city, but it is only part of it; it is, in fact, the part that provides him with his particular identity. The city provides others with other identities as well, but this fact is hidden from the novelist, and so he makes no mention of it to his readers. The city indulges him, half-mockingly; but then she’s a tease. She’s not really interested but she will watch, half-heartedly, to see what he does next.
I have lived all of four months of my life in Mumbai, 14 years ago. While I came away with a lot of respect for the city, I do not presume to know it as well as some. But I know enough to suspect that Vikram’s knowledge of Mumbai is partial as well. There are parts that he is undoubtedly familiar with, but it is a tell-tale sign, I think, that his characters, nearly all of them, are English-speaking, even convent-educated, South Bombay types. His main protagonists are Parsi, Tamilian, Sindhi, Sikh, Gujarati and Anglo-Indian; they are snooty old money; retired armymen; smoking, drinking arty young women; policemen and homosexuals with hearts of gold; old boozers who sit in clubs and tell stories. They are all very believable, and all unmistakably Bombay – but they are very Western Line, very South of Santa Cruz. And at the risk of sounding like Bal Thackeray: they are mostly – how shall I put this?… non-Maharashtrian. I suspect Chandra writes – and writes well – about the Mumbai that he is familiar with. There is nothing wrong with that, except that isn’t the only Mumbai there is.
I think I would like to read more Chandra. It is almost shocking to note that for someone with such a widely-acclaimed debut in 1995 (Red Earth and Pouring Rain), he has only published twice since. Something tells me he has not written his masterpiece about Bombay yet. And she’s watching.