Et in India ego

LOVE AND LONGING IN BOMBAY by Vikram Chandra, Faber pounds 12.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"I Want to praise," Amma said.

"What?" the sarpanch said, dropping the letter.

"The kindness of postmen, their long walks in the summer sun, their aching feet. The mysterious and generous knowledge of all those who cook, their intimate and vast power over us. The unsung courage of young brides, their sacrifices beyond all others, their patience. The age of trees, the years of their lives and their companionship. The sleeping ferocity of dogs - I saw two kill another last week - and their stretching muscles, their complete and deep and good happiness with a full stomach and a long sleep."

The sarpanch opened and closed his mouth. Before long all the women gathered too, with their children, and the whole village listened to Amma.

"The long song to those who drive trucks on the perpetual roads. The black faces of the diggers of coal, and their wives who try ever not to hear the sound of rushing water under their feet. The staggering smell of the birds that clean bones, their drunken walk with its anxious greed. The roofs of the village houses in the morning, seen from the ghats above the river, and the white glimmer of the temple above the trees. The roaring familiarity of the brickmakers with fire. The painful faith of unrequited lovers."

It is not easy to write so modest and true a psalmic catalogue for any country, let alone for India, where shocking pink always tends to assert itself over khaki, but Vikram Chandra has effected a number of miracles in his new book, a collection of interrelated short stories, which I believe stands up as a really fine novel. His first, the distinguished but - intentionally - rather histrionic Red Earth and Pouring Rain, was nothing like as good. Not that this new book is unambitious; it is simply at ease, in a fashion rare in the contemporary novel, rarer yet when that novel addresses India, which seems to whisk many of those who try to approach it in prose into a frenzy.

Love and Longing in Bombay is a book that seeps and chatters in the mind of the reader whenever it is set aside. When you finish it, you miss it, as you miss a city, as Bombayites must miss their city even while living in it, on account of its unchanging traditions and daily frantic adaptations to the demands of the population, the industry, the west and the century. The storyteller within the reported narrative is the charming Subramaniam, who weaves tales as disparate but as circular as gossip, which is either the grandparent or the child of myth.

The tales are widely different in terms of religion and class. The first story concerns a grand army officer crippled not by cowardice but by his own crazily disciplined courage and his devastating childhood despair. He cut off his own leg after being blown up in the India-Pakistan War, and his big brother died shockingly young, breaking the parents' lives. We move from this controlled Parsi world to that of village Hindus and shift to an idyllic yet eventually unhappy homosexual love affair between Hindu and Muslim , where the lingua franca is that of the computer. There is a sidewise glimpse of Bombay's Bohemia, and the familial clashes it causes that makes the reader wish for a whole novel on this subject alone. This impression is given throughout. We want each hint to be lingered over. How rare and calm a talent understands this withholding.

To write convincingly about India, it is necessary to exclude. Even the grand fabulator, Salman Rushdie, makes choices. These aren't purgative so much as intelligently metaphorical. The utterly inclusive writer can't start, or can't stop, and assuredly has no involvement with art. Chandra has decided to distil. The effect is dazzling. This is a book that places the reader in that ideally intimate position; that of the eavesdropper. We move between characters who engage us like neighbours, move on, and see further light shed by the new friends upon the old. in this way, city life is replicated.

Vikram Chandra wanders, it seems, between the plush apartments and haunted mansions of the city, its slums and go-downs, as he does between its beach- rimming rocks and fragrant snack-stands. He wanders, listening too, between parents and children, masters and servants. His quiet voice is absorbed into the first people of his narrative. To write with such a swing and ease about so great an area of contested preoccupation is to prove that one is born to it.

We have had from the remarkable Amit Chaudhuri a book that evokes a street, Afternoon Raag, and in so doing a society. Rohinton Mistry's Such A Long Journey was located at heart in one building, a block of flats inhabited by poor Parsis, and his Tales from Feroze Shah Baag (I believe his best book) also gave us a street. From Chandra, a rather meatier writer than Mistry, we have a book that reads like a beautiful reduced map that joins its fluidity to that of the reader's imagination and in so doing swells in suggestion and memorableness to become increasingly impressive.