books: Hooray for Bollywood
Maya Jaggi on sex and violence beside the Arabian Sea; Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra, Faber, pounds 12.99
Saturday 19 April 1997
In "Dharma", a general whose missing leg begins to ache confronts a child- ghost - not the kite-flying brother he unknowingly pushed to his death, but his own repressed boyhood guilt. In "Artha", a Muslim programmer on the trail of a computer virus loses his gay lover to the gangster underworld, while in "Shanti", a man mourns his twin, killed in communal riots.
As Subramaniyam, the retired civil servant who spins these tales to a fellow-drinker in a Bombay bar, insists: "Some people meet their ghosts, and some don't. But we're all haunted by them." Chandra skilfully layers and textures each story with sub-plots and slippages in time, splicing the present with what the general of "Dharma" sees as "the poisonous seep of memory".
In "Kama", the most resonant tale, a Sikh police inspector uncovering the banal lonely-hearts cravings of a murdered man, along with the sinister Hindu fanaticism of his son, struggles with his own erotic memories and self-disgust at his job - the backhanders, and the violence against suspects that estranged his wife. In a remarkable sex scene with her, which melds physical pleasure with emotional tumult, his fleeting recollection of their first time together vies with the despairing knowledge that this will be their last.
The book is filled with such small epiphanies. In "Shakti", a shopkeeper's daughter turned air hostess, married to an unlikely suitor ("USA-returned and all, but from some place called Utah") achieves a strategic ascent up the affluent slopes of Malabar Hill. She finds her way barred by a cocktail-circuit rival who flaunts a "careless imperfection ... that can't be learnt, only grown with the bone". As her poet son falls for her rival's daughter, she sees with a sense of bitter justice that "getting what you wanted from the world meant that your own struggles became grubby and irrelevant to your children".
Bombay emerges vibrantly as a city haunted by gangsterism and simmering communal violence, and riven with distinctions of religion, ethnicity and class. As the Bombay-born Sikh policeman reflects when he is warned off a case: "There were outsiders and outsiders." Snobberies between old and new money find expression in bilious envy at the perfect crease in another man's trousers, while gay lovers long for a place to meet other than the beach, in a city with the most expensive real estate in the world.
Yet Bombay's tiered exclusions give rise to hope as well as envy. Faced with a silk-clad artist's "expensive English-medium arrogance", his rayon-shirted rival feels only "the eternal dazzlement of the outsider".
Attempting a vast range of characters, from the Malabar Hill elite of Dolly Boatwallah and Cyrus Readymoney, to the Bollywood-crazed Frankie Furtado - assistant station master but "really a movie star" - Chandra occasionally falters. A sub-plot involving a Malabar Hill cleaning woman fails to come to life. Yet the book's appeal lies partly in its optimism. Despite an undertow of loneliness and mortality, moments of clarity make these short stories journeys towards freedom and peace. The telling and hearing of tales, Chandra insists, can heal and exorcise. As one character says, what is death but "the world stripped of all its fictions".
The titles - "Dharma", "Shakti", "Kama", "Artha", "Shanti" or, loosely, faith, power, love, meaning, peace - remain untranslated. Chandra belongs to a confident generation of Indian writers in English who feel little compulsion to gloss. On the evidence of these absorbing stories, that confidence seems more than justified.
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