Wednesday 15 February 2017

Bus Route 86

This story was first published in Telegram Magazine, September 2016 issue. To read the story in the original magazine, along with several other wonderful stories and articles, please buy it here.

Bus Route 86
In the Mumbai that is today, there’s any number of ways to get from Flora Fountain (or Hutatma Chowk as it is officially known) to Mahim. Expressways have been inaugurated; flyovers constructed and even a magnificent white elephant of a Sea-link that promises to make it easy and convenient to get around the city. But in the Bombay that was, back in that summer of ‘95, when I was the Captain of the cricket team of St. Michaels School, the only feasible mode of transport was to take the winding route past Metro talkies, Opera House, Worli and Prabhadevi before finally reaching the last borough of the old city, for beyond Mahim, as anyone will tell you, Bombay ends and the ‘burbs begin.
St. Michaels had never had the funding to provide a school bus to ferry its cricket team to and from matches. So after a crushing win over Sathe Vidya Mandir on a fast-paced pitch at Azad Maidan, played on a blistering hot April morning, we the members of the St. Michaels team, with our coach in tow, were standing at the Fountain bus stop, awaiting the arrival of Bus #86.
Flora Fountain / Hutatma Chowk (present day)

The stock exchange is closed on Saturdays, as are most banks. The thoroughfare, normally bustling, was rather sparse. Both the colonial-era fountain and the more recent sculpture honouring those who had martyred themselves to the cause of separate statehood for Maharashtra glinted in the hard light of the sun, with no crowds milling about to obstruct the view. At the Bus stop itself, posters asking for votes were glued on top of the advertisement for Liril soap. The face of a singularly ugly moustachioed man glared down at us from the shoulders of the lissom model. A lady in a hijab[1] and her son were the only other people at the stop apart from the team. Sathe Vidya Mandir had long since gone home – they, at least, had the funds for a dedicated bus.
“Good win,” said Vivek, who batted at number 3.
“Early rounds are always like this,” I replied. He had only made the team this year, I had been on it a year longer and claimed superior knowledge.
“Is that our bus?” exclaimed the Loomba excitedly. Vishal ‘Loomba’ Udaykar was the team’s wicket-keeper, a position he had earned due to the fact that no one else wanted it.
“It’s an 84,” said Coach, a man in his mid-twenties who played the minor leagues on weekends and waited to be called to play Ranji Trophy for Mumbai. Those of us who had walked half-way down the road, with the aplomb of a batsman who walks half-way down a pitch to tap it with his bat, returned to the footpath.
“You just missed the 86,” said the lady in the hijab with the self-satisfied smile of one who is about to impart unpleasant news. “There won’t be another for twenty minutes.”
A collective groan followed.
“And what bus are you waiting for?” asked Coach.
“86,” she replied.
“Wait, but why didn’t she catch the one she said we…” I began, but Coach shushed me with a movement of his eyes, and before I could wonder any further, a rectangular red bus with the magic number 86 written in the window at the top rolled up to the stop, missing running over the Loomba by a matter of inches.
“Lying bi…,” began Coach, biting off the expletive, as he shepherded us onto it. The conductor and three other commuters were the only others in it, and all the victorious heroes of St. Michaels found comfortable places to sit. As was often my lot, whether due to my being Captain of the side or merely a fault in my stars, I ended up sitting next to Coach. The lady who had assured us there would be no bus forthcoming seated herself a few rows ahead of us.
“She wanted to get us to try and take another mode of transport so that we wouldn’t be occupying all the seats,” muttered Coach. “These people, I tell you…liars, the lot of them.”
Metro Talkes, in the good old days

The bus set off with a lurch, and made its way towards Metro talkies, the revered movie-hall where Hollywood blockbusters had once premiered. It was showing signs of neglect already, the art deco exterior fading, and once-proud ushers hanging around the entrance waiting for patrons who never came.
A few college students climbed on, and then the bus began to move again. It snaked languorously through Princess Street and its multitude of pharmacies, past Chira Bazaar and towards Gaiwadi, an ancient housing complex with two huge cow’s heads made of stone on each side of the entrance archway.
The bus was getting quite full as it left Opera House, where once an actual Opera theatre had existed, or so my father continues to assure me. A hub for a trade in diamonds on one side and auto parts onthe other, it seems impossible to contemplate that it could ever have hosted anything as genteel as an opera. Sometimes, though, when the light is right, usually after a light rainfall, the outlines of the buildings seem to wobble a little and ‘Shankar Mechanic’ dissolves into the stone structure it must once have been where horse-carriages carrying the memsahibs and their husbands to the opera would have been stabled for the duration of the show.
Opera House

They did not wobble now, under the bright light of the afternoon sun, and we rattled on, past the old Babulnath temple, which I have never seen the inside of, and the relatively new Jaslok Hospital, where years later I would come to grieve at the bedside of a dying relative.
Three men got aboard, one clean-shaven and two bearded, dressed in shirts and trousers, carrying cloth bags over their shoulders. The conductor approached them, clicking his ticket-punch.
“Get that thing out of my face,” said the clean-shaven one.
“Where to? Take a ticket,” he said.
“Sena Bhavan,” replied the man. “Three for Sena Bhavan. Oh hey, is that you, Golya?”
He thrust the ticket fare into the conductor’s hand and came over to where we sat, placing a hand on Coach’s back. As Coach’s eyes lit up in recognition, I felt the sense of disorientation that I am sure my readers will understand is quite natural for anyone who finds that the Cricket Coach he has hitherto been terrified of, is called Golya outside of School.
“Pakya, how are you?” asked Coach – or Golcoachya, as I would forever know him after that.
“All good, man. Going to meet the Saheb.”
“Sit down, sit down,” said Golcoachya, gesturing to me to go elsewhere. I hopped into the seat just in front before anyone else could come and occupy it. The bus was just pulling in near Lala Lajpat Rai College, which was then little more than a name to me. I would grow to rather like the place in later years, when it turned out I had a knack for passing exams when LLR was assigned as my exam centre.  Unlike other buses, 86 did not go on to Haji Ali, emerging from the other side of the college and moving on to Nehru Planetarium, the dome-shaped wonder of my – and lakhs of other kids’ – childhood.
“We’re going to win this election, aren’t we?” said Golcoachya. I could see his face reflected in the half-closed glass windowpane, and he seemed to smirk in a self-satisfied manner. He spoke in a colloquial version of Marathi, but I had no difficulty understanding him all the same.
“Should have it tied up. After the dangal[2] from two years back…our people want to teach their lot a lesson,” agreed Pakya.
“Yeah, and the blasts. We need a strong hand to deal with them. And people know who has the danda[3],” Golcoachya laughed.
“They’re gonna be scared when we take power. Damn government has been going soft on them for too long, man. Now our boys take no nonsense. We can screw them in the open once we’re in power.”

“Doordarshan,” yelled the conductor, as half the travellers made for the exit door in front. The bus slowed to a stop just before the entrance to the offices and studio of the national broadcaster. It was no longer the only channel in the country – cable had made its entry a few years ago – but was still in a position of overwhelming dominance. This was where the driver and conductor changed their shifts as well, and I settled in my seat. These changeovers could take a long time if the pair that was to take over the route was late.
“You’ll come for the speech tomorrow? There’s a rally in Agar bazaar,” said Pakya.
“No, not him. It’s too small for HIM.”
“The son?”
“No, the nephew. He’s brilliant. Doesn’t mince words, not him.”
“I’ll be there. No school tomorrow, I can come.”
“How’s work, anyway? Convent school must be paying well.”
“Yeah, money’s all right. Bunch of no-talent kids. Half of them are bloody pav-walas[4]. They say english prayers in the morning, eat meat in their dabbas[5]and try to convert the half that are not.”
“That happens doesn’t it? I knew it!”
“Yeah man, it’s shameful. All these convent schools are joined up, you know. They want to spread their rotten religion in India. They get tons of money from foreign countries and use it to print their conversion material.”
I thought about Father Roderick and his threadbare coat, the sparsely-furnished apartments at the back of the school where he lived and the diligence with which he appealed to the parishioners of Mahim to donate money to maintain the school building. I had been invited to tea with him when the team had won the regional Cricket championship earlier that year, and he had told me that we could have new bats now for playing the national championship, as the Trustees had approved the funds. The cheque he wrote when the bats arrived was drawn on his own account, though.
We had won the match today using those new bats. I had made fifty-three of the finest. I wondered where this ‘tons of money’ was coming from, and to whom it was going.
The new driver and conductor hopped on the bus, and it gave another lurch as it started.
“About time too,” grumbled the woman who had boarded with us at Fountain. “How long you fellows take, eh?”
“What’s it to you, woman?” the conductor shot back, clicking his ticket-punch.
“My boy is getting late for tuition classes?”
“Tuition classes? Does he even go to school?”
“He can read and write, which is more than your mother can say for you,” was her response. The conductor made a dismissive gesture and began to troop to the back of the bus.
“Bloody arrogant woman. Look how brave they have become,” I heard Pakya’s voice.
“Pampering, I tell you. Fifty years of pampering. Give them everything because they’re a minority. They’ve become bloated on it,” said Golcoachya.
“That’s how it goes. Anyway, they’ll be put in their place come May. I broke enough bones in the dangal to earn a promotion. Good times are ahead for us, Golya.”
“Hey, I broke more skulls than you!”
Prabhadevi dawned, with the lofty Siddhivinayak Temple’s gold-plated dome looming in the foreground. Pakya and Golcoachya stopped talking to bow their heads reverentially. Then came Agar bazaar, soon to be the site of a rally addressed by Saheb’s nephew, as I had now learned. Sena Bhavan would be next, shortly followed by Mahim.
“How’s your sister?” asked Golcoachya, his voice changed – softer, somehow.
“You keep your eyes off Chinki,” growled Pakya.
“Just asking,” this in a low, apologetic tone.
Ranade Road, on any given day
The bus ploughed into the sea of shopping-crazy humanity at Ranade Road, named for a great lawyer and reformer, now famous for saree shops and jewellery. The going was slow now, the wheels moving slower than the old men with walking sticks walking in parallel to us. Behind me, there was awkward silence. It ended when the bus finally emerged around Plaza theatre, still shut down with the burned fa├žade, a victim of the serial bomb blasts two years before.

Plaza Cinema, back then

“I’ll see you tomorrow then,” said Golcoachya.
“Yeah, meet you at the bus stop,” said Pakya. “You’ll like his speech. Tells it like it is, man. Chala, bye!”
As he stepped into the aisle, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Golcoachya gestured to me to come back to the seat next to him, and I did so, having no reason to do otherwise.
“Old friend of mine. Same colony,” he said, patting my shoulder. I shrank from his touch.
Bus #86 took the left turn into Lady Jamshedji Road. It would be ten minutes more to reach Mahim and the sanctuary of the school.
“You all right?” he asked. “Sleepy, huh?”
“Yes, sleepy. Hard match,” I said, agreeing with him, and closed my eyes.
And though I did, I could still see through my shut eyelids. I could see Metro Talkies turned into a multiplex, its charm gone and its screens reduced to showing prancing poppets. I could see Gaiwadi remain much the same, but the cows on its arches were to take on a different shape, bigger, more menacing, and become the weapons with which the Pakya’s and Golcoachya’s of the world attacked their fellow men. I could see Opera House suffer a fire and re-invent itself as a hub for selling computer parts, powering the march of a new, IT-enabled India. I could see the ideals of Nehru, and the spirit of scientific enquiry his Planetarium embodied lost in grandiose claims of ancient knowledge. I could see Doordarshan being mismanaged, sinking into obscurity, deluged by shouting news anchors and wailing soap operas, leaving only a memory of better days.
I saw all this and more. And at the back of it all, I could see my Bombay become Mumbai, a place where decency would die of a cancer, just as my uncle would, where Azad Maidan would see desecration of the symbols of freedom, where two cousins would fight over a poisonous political legacy and drive themselves into oblivion, where Temples would grow ever larger and libraries ever smaller, where bridges between places and hearts would be replaced by flyovers, allowing the privileged to ignore those left below.
But what I could not see was any glimmer of hope. Not for Bombay, and not for Golcoachya’s hopeless love for Pakya’s sister, which would end in a three-inch column buried on Page five of the Time of India, about a fight between two friends, Prakash Joshi and Aditya Golekar, ending in the maiming of the former and the death of the latter.

Bus Route 86 is real. Broadly speaking, it does follow the route described above. Also real were the events and implications of the period from December 1992 to March 1993.
Any person interested in perusing more about the riots that ripped apart the fabric of Mumbai in 1992-93 may peruse the text of the Justice Srikrishna report, the outcome of a judicial enquiry committee that was not accepted by the Shiv Sena - BJP government, which was in power then the report was released.

It is available here:
Part 1
Part 2

[1] Headscarf covering the hair and neck but leaving the face exposed.
[3]Cudgel / Stick
[4]Literally, ‘bread-eaters’, a pejorative term for Christians common in Mumbai

Tuesday 14 February 2017

Percy - Ana Chronicles - XV: Crab Cakes on Valentine's Day

Because it's February 14th, and also because, why not? A Percy-Ana bit on the subject of True Love.
-- "It's Valentine's Day!" "I know, three department stores, four gyms and at least one cake shops have all sent me texts with special offers." "So,, Happy Valentine's Day? Is that something one says?" "Thank you. I, unlike your selfish self, want you to be happy on all days, so I won't wish you back." "That's unfair! Of course I wish you to be happy on all days." "What about nights? What about my sex life? I am an emancipated modern woman, and I demand that my right to a sexually satisfying relationship is respected." " one's even dreaming of denying you your right to a..." "You did! You just did!" "But, my very dear one, the person who benefits most from you being sexual satisfied is me, since I know, the one're just being difficult because you like pulling my leg, aren't you?" "Maaaaaybe. Besides, your 'Ana is being difficult' face is cute." "Right. Anyway, there's a Valentine's special at the fancy Thai place on Pearl street. Shall we go there?" "Yes, let's. What's special about their menu today?" "Heart-shaped crab-cakes." "This I've got to see." "And I've got to eat." "How are we paying for this, though?" "Don't you have any money? I thought you did!" "I have...five dollars and forty-eight cents. Paid the gym membership yesterday." "I've got three dollars. Paid the rent." " fancy heart-shaped crab cakes?" "I guess not." "Oh well, I'll fire up the blender. Banana smoothie?" "Ugh. Yes, I suppose." "Cheer up. We can always got sit on that bench by the creek when the moon is up. That's romantic." "And I suppose that's still free." "True love, you see, always is." "Even if heart-shaped crab cakes are not." "I'm beginning to think you love crab cakes more than me. Why don't you just go and wish a Happy Valentine's Day to the crabs?" "What, I never...I like *eating* them, which is quite different from..." "..." "Right. Point taken. Smoothie. Creek. Bench. Moon." "And then, if things go well, my right to a sexually..." "Yes, yes, of course." "Because true love is free." "Because true love is, as you rightly say, free." --

Monday 13 February 2017

Book Review: Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, by Mohammed Hanif

This review was written some three years ago, I think. At a time when I could still read a book by a Pakistani author about Pakistan and, if I squinted a little, and allowed myself not to think too hard, could believe that what applied to 'them' did not apply to 'us'.

That time has passed. Change the names, change the identities, and this could be about us. So much, us.

It’s an unconventional, not-so-little title, is “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti”. And it’s an unconventional, not-so-little book. Written by Mohammed Hanif, (who must surely count as one of the sub-continents better writers, and not only because competition is so thin), the book explores through a wickedly funny narrative of intersecting destinies, the condition of a member of the minority community in Pakistan.

It tells, as one might guess, the story of Alice Bhatti, a motherless Catholic woman in Karachi whose life is full of the little acts of bravery that perhaps only someone who actually has walked in her shoes can really understand. It’s the big acts of defiance that stand out though – her outbreaks into violence when pushed just a little bit too far. Hanif's writing is elegant and evocative – he manages to bring a smile on reader’s face every so often, even as the heart is outraged at what Alice has to undergo – and from casual disrespect to outright insults to attempted rape, she goes through a lot.

For make no mistake about it, underneath the deadpan humour style of narration is a searing indictment of Islamic Pakistan’s treatment of its Christian minority.

Alice Bhatti works well as a central protagonist. Gutsy but practical, defiant but believable, and oh-so-human even when deified by her patients, she remains the vulnerable but strong focal point around which the book revolves. The flow tends to go back-and-forth a bit, and some incidents are sprung upon us a little too suddenly, but it’s largely by design, and Hanif never loses the thread or allows the reader’s interest to wane for a moment.

The support cast is delineated with skill and substance. The ward boy who nurses a crush on Alice, the police informer and hero-cum-villain Teddy, Alice’s benignly neglectful father, even the relatively minor characters like the senior doctors and nurses, are drawn in strokes that are broad but firm.

The story itself stretches over a span of about a year, with flashbacks. It covers Alice’s career as a nurse at a decrepit Christian missionary Hospital. In an atmosphere of stifling majoritarianism as well as a yawning class divide, she tries to retain her independence, dignity and faith. Her story intersects with that of the police informer, Teddy Butt, and the air of grim anticipation begins to build up. There are light moments, there are moments of happiness, even, but as the story hurtles towards its climax, there’s a sense of foreboding that turns out to be all too justified.

There are flaws for nitpickers – certain aspects of the story are not resolved, the ending is a bit hurried, some bits might require a minor suspension of belief, but Our Lady of Alice Bhatti remains a brilliant book for all that.

TL;DR: A wickedly funny and gloomily sensitive look into middle-class Karachi, it’s pride and prejudices.

Buy it here.

Thursday 9 February 2017

Book Review: Half-Girlfriend, by Chetan Bhagat

The Importance of being Chetan

India has its share of divisive figures. We either passionately hate or madly adore our Prime Minister, we either vigorously defend or deride the late M.F. Hussein, and we haven’t even spared the long-dead figures of the freedom struggle in the quest for drawing room, Facebook and Twitter-based arguments.

The presence of Chetan Bhagat in that list of divisive figures feels like something of an aberration. His writing is not controversial, steering discreetly clear of anything that is not an existing stereotype. He has shown a tendency to make sweeping generalisations, but then that’s what, to make another, we Indians do.

The schism regarding Mr. Bhagat, then, probably has something to do with the perceived distance between his commercial success and his literary merit. According to an article I read, (which I sincerely hope was not accurate), his books outsell the next four hundred top selling books written by other authors in English. At the same time, his writing is not memorable, his plot constructions can be clumsy, and his characters tend to be cardboard cut-outs.

He’s been reviled, not without vitriol, on social media for years now. I have little to add to that discussion. As someone whose own literary achievements are currently about as far from my literary aspirations as my wealth is from that of Mukesh Ambani, I have no standing to dismiss Mr. Bhagat in the sort of derogatory terms that other commentators have used. Suffice to say that I do not think he is India’s worst author – there are many who have been published and quite rightly, unread, who deserve that title more.

But as a reader, well, I am entitled to review what I’ve read, and I did pick up a copy of Half-Girlfriend (to be known as ½ hereafter) recently, so I suppose I could give that a shot.

Theme / Message

Having read three other books by Mr. Bhagat (Five Point Someone, Revolution 2020 and Two States), I can fairly say that in ½, he has dropped the ball rather too openly.

While FPS and TS had a certain humourous quality to them, the first 2/3 of Revolution 2020 was genuinely insightful. In ½, the desire to emphasise a point drags down the tone and plot of the book. If anything, it ends up becoming neither entertaining nor particularly educational, and therein lies the tragedy, for the lesson Mr Bhagat is trying to get across is a valid one – India’s “Great Language Divide”. He is on record as thinking that the importance given to English in India is an insidious plot by the established elite, the ‘have’s’ to disinherit the teeming masses, the ‘have-nots’ from the rich spoils of India’s progress. In hindsight, this is perhaps exactly the sort of thinking that creates further divides in society and allows the lumpen to revel in a self-righteous frenzy of hatred. But politics may best be kept aside.

I have referred earlier to the writer’s tendency to deal only in very broad generalisations, and this book ends up being no different. In dealing only with English vs non-English, in making every urban-dweller a caricature of what people think an ‘elitist asshole’ is like, and then in dragging in wealth-divides and social service, the book ends up like a target on which a poorly-talented marksman has sprayed bullets willy-nilly.

For in ½ Girlfriend, though the language divide is referred to often, and always in a ham-handed manner, it is never explored in a meaningful way. We are given little reason to care, or to buy into the argument the author is trying to make. In fact, so lazy is this effort, that in a book that is specifically supposed to explore the difficulties faced by a Bihari boy with English-as-a-second-language, Mr. Bhagat absolves himself of the responsibility of being phonetically accurate by having the narrator say, right at the beginning something on the lines of, “I am writing this now, when my English is good, but when I said it then, it was when my English was bad, so you have to imagine as if I was speaking like I did then.” I realise that writing dialects is difficult, but on the whole, when the book’s salient point is to drive home the language divide, having the tone of every character to be predictably similar is a mistake.


I try to avoid spoilers, so I’ll refrain from delving too deeply into the plot, such as it is. Whatever I have revealed below can be understood by anyone who has seen the cover and read the sample chapter available on Mr. Bhagat’s website.

½ starts with an author self-insert and moves on to tell what is supposed to be a touching love-story spanning, I think, five years and three locations. The book is divided into three sections, helpfully named “Delhi”, “Bihar”, and “New York”.

The protagonists are Madhav Jha, a Bihari basketball player from a Princely family, who wants to run his mother’s “private non-profit school” and Riya Somani, a Marwari heiress and basketball player from Lutyen’s Delhi who wants to be a bar singer in New York (Yes, really).

Both enter Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College through the sports quota and after Madhav leches at Riya during sports trials, they become good friends. (Yes, this is pretty much what happens).

Over a period of a year they get closer and closer, until Madhav’s intent to get into Riya’s tight-fitting jeans / green churidar / shorts (her clothes are always described. Nothing else is) becomes impossible to restrain. Unfortunately for our protagonist, Riya has an aversion to physical intimacy that (as we find out later) stems from certain issues with her father that are only darkly hinted at, never mentioned.

Then, Riya tells him she is quitting college to marry a rich NRI friend of hers in an arranged marriage. Which struck this reviewer, at least, as lazy writing, A manufactured twist that suits a neophyte writer of two-penny trash, but not someone who sits at the apex of Indian writing in English.

There are a few twists and turns, there are times when one thinks the plot might have been tolerable in the hands of a better wordsmith, but the sad truth is that the end, when it comes, is a relief.

In-between we get snippets of life in Bihar, the relation between erstwhile Royalty and democratically-elected leaders, a cameo by Bill Gates (Yes,  really) and English lessons that are perhaps meant to be a substitute for foreplay. Finally we have a Shah-Rukh-chasing-the-running-train climax.. 


It is not just that the writing has issues or that the editing is distinctly sub-par, at least in the edition I read, a fresh-off-the-press Kindle version. (PS: Whoever handles this at Rupa, just because you’ve got a manuscript from Mr. Bhagat does not mean that you take the week off).The fact is, ½ fails on virtually every level. As a social commentary, it falls well short of conviction. As a romance, it is clunky and suffers from poor dialogues and juvenile plotting.

And while I could rail at length about what can be read and what should be, it would be a rather meaningless exercise. Nearly as meaningless as Half-Girlfriend, the book.

Verdict: Rather a waste of time.

Too Long; Didn’t Read: ½ Girlfriend is The King’s Speech if it was directed by Farah Khan and starred Salman Khan.

Buy it: You know you want to - here

Book Review: Moth Smoke, by Mohsin Hamid

"Moth Smoke". It’s an evocative title. Impossible to read those two words without visions of wafting smoke rising before your eyes, of moths drawn to flames, and inevitably, of junkies hurtling along to their deaths.

So which of these is the author getting at? Short answer: All Three.

Moth Smoke is set in Lahore, Pakistan, just prior to the turn of the millennium. The heady days of the late nineties - the coming of the dot-com era to South Asia, the clash of the rural, feudal rich with the aspirational professional middle class, the competing nuclear sabre-rattling by two impoverished nations that should have known better - are brought forth with clarity and panache.

With a naming scheme that I’d have given my eyeteeth for, Hamid’s narrative follows a brief period in the lives of Darashikoh the unemployed educated bachelor, Aurangzeb the well-meaning but callous-as-only-the-rich-can-be lawyer and family man, Murad the M.A.-educated rickshaw-wallah and armed robber and Mumtaz, wife of Ozi, clandestine investigative journalist and adultress. Darashikoh (“Daru”) and Aurangzeb (“Ozi”) are childhood friends separated by the fact that Ozi’s father is a high-ranking civil servant with access to extensive illicit funds while Daru is the son of a dead-in-combat soldier with limited resources.

The book begins with Daru welcoming Ozi back from a long stay in New York, where the latter studied law and acquired a wife and son. Shortly after, Daru loses his job in a multinational bank.

What follows is the story of Daru’s descent into the world of drugs, deceit and adultery, as he goes from being the occasional smoker of a joint to a heroin addict, from being an angry banker to a delusional, psychopathic robber, from a slightly jealous friend to…but whether he’s a victim or a perpetrator is for the reader to decide.

Daru essentially becomes the proverbial moth, drawn to his own destruction, unable or unwilling to pull away in time. Without ever becoming downright evil, Daru’s transformation is alarming to us, his ability to rationalise his acts almost scary.

Another interesting aspect of Hamid’s writing is his ability to make all the main characters sympathetic. The use of brief ‘POV’ chapters from Murad, Ozi and Mumtaz is the main vehicle to accomplish this, of course, but even otherwise, a detached view of the story shows us that all four of them are only following one very possible, very likely path of the multiple destinies before them.

So what is Moth Smoke about? The classlessness of drugs? How dangerously easy it is to slide down the greasy pole? The dynamics of an extra-marital affair? A bit of all of these, and in a way that is not muddled or pretentious.

The prose is simple, the plot is kept front and center, and while there are few moments of breath-taking prose, the attention to detail keeps it authentic and rooted in reality. The narrative structure is a little overused these days but still very intelligently done and the plot twists are really well-hidden, coming out to hit the reader like a well-delivered punch.  All in all, the book is definitely one of the most absorbing one’s I’ve read.

And finally, a thanks for the shout-out Hamid gives to Rudyard Kipling’s immortal Kim in the conversation about his manservant Manucci, who was ‘found by the Zam Zamah’.

Strongly recommend. Buy it here.

Book Review: Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil

Narcopolis” is one of those books that you just know white folk are going to love.

Maybe it’s the narrative tone, full of disjointed but well-written passages that make no coherent sense, or have no place in the larger narrative. Perhaps it’s the way the book (I was going to use the word “story”, but there isn’t any, so let's stick to 'book') dwells exclusively on Bombay’s squalor and dinginess. Whatever it may be, there’s no doubt that Narcopolis is India as the white man sees it. So it’s no surprise that it was short-listed for the Booker, and won the DSC South Asia Literary prize at that schmoozing ground known as the Jaipur Literature Festival.

In that context, I suppose it has a lot going for it. Jeet Thayil’s prose is lyrical at times, and there are pages your eyes glide over like a gull over water, smile on your face, as he describes the sordid little lives of his protagonists.

On the other hand, there are passages so laboured that the mind slows down, grating like the lurch of a Dombivali slow local coming to the end of it’s journey.

A peek it is supposed to be into Bombay’s underbelly of prostitution and addiction, and it does that job well enough. The book covers addicts of all social strata, from Dimple the eunuch hooker to Dr. Lee the once-genteel Chinese refugee to Ramesh the middle-class stooge. Characterisations are spotty at best. Dimple is the closest we have to a well-realised character. Ramesh, or ‘Rumi’ as the writer calls him, is as half-baked as a veg lasagna. The others fall somewhere in-between. The Chinese doctor is an inexplicable distraction without a narrative arc who floats in and out of the story for no discernible reason.

At some level, I wonder if Thayil was trying a con job. Narcopolis could have been a tribute to the Bombay that emerged from the mill worker – labour – management tussles of the eighties into the xenophobic bigotry of the nineties, had the author bothered to think of a story to hold his undoubtedly skilled penmanship together. But it smacks, in it’s way, of a lack of trying. Like a drug-fuelled hazy dream of the addicts it does such a good job of describing, but such a poor job of fleshing out, ‘Narcopolis’ ends up as a mist-veiled, foggy glimpse into a world of a Bombay that once was, and what it became, with it’s few moments of stunning clarity drowned out by the meaningless wisps of brain-dulling languor.

TL;DR: Stray pieces of brilliant writing obscured by tonnes of directionless blabber.