Monday, April 14, 2008

Ekdum bindaas!

By Sunil K Poolani

Breathless in Bombay

Murzban F Shroff

Picador

Price: 295; Pages: 306

There is no middle business in Bombay (well, what is Mumbai?). Either you are a sharp-shooter or are a point-blank man. Straight, nevertheless. This unswerving candour is what makes the city unique, becomes an addiction and a bright flame where, like flies, migrants are attracted to — Raj Thackeray and his recent juvenile antics notwithstanding.

Bombay, the word, has this onomatopoeic quality to it, like its simplicity. And since centuries, Bombay’s pathos, ethos and voices have been recorded in every genre of writing. In recent history the best chroniclers of the city have been Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, and Suketu Mehta. And, now, Murzban F Shroff can proudly stake a claim to be included in this august company.

In just one month’s time since the publication of Breathless in Bombay, Shroff is hogging the limelight (critical acclaims; in best-seller lists). What is surprising is that he achieved this feat in his debut work (that too a collection of short stories, which normally gets a step-motherly treatment). And the man himself is still an almost-invisible character (except some souls in advertising, his bread and butter) in a city where only the glitzy and glamorous count.

And here is where Shroff scores. He writes about the poorest of the poor, the most ordinary of the ordinary denizens of the Maximum City — in a minimalist way of expressions, but convincingly narrating their stories in sepia tone. Colourless lives in colourful, careful and courageous words and style.

The period Shroff retells of Bombay is contemporary. Gallons of water have embraced the sea from Mahim Creek, and it is not the city of Salim Sinai any more. No soothsayer might have guessed when Rushdie wrote his magnum opus (thus immortalising Bombay in world literature), that it would, one day, instead of disintegrating, will become one of the most happening, prosperous and trendy cities in the world.

Rushdie was never wrong; ditto Mistry; and not even Mehta (his investigative journalistic account published was just a few years ago). But, Bombay is on a constant rollercoaster ride (what you see today, you will not see twenty-four hours later) and even the lower middle-class citizens are reaping the benefits. But is it the real Bombay? Read Shroff and you will realise it is not. Moreover, Shroff is no magical realist like you know who.

Shroff, like most Parsi gentlemen, is basically a philanthropist, if not in deed at least in mind. This philanthropy is personified in almost all his stories (and I hope in the next two books he is planning soon). Bombay’s snooty lot might get offended by the characters Shroff presents, if at all the Malabar Hill types know they exist: the washer man, the masseur, the bhelpuriwallah, the cabbie, the AIDS patient…

Shroff’s language is divine. Savour two. In The Maalishwalla: “Bheem Singh felt blessed and heavenly, holding his bride while she slept… He did not move, even when he felt a mosquito sit on his naked arm, even when he felt a piercing prick and a burning scratchiness thereafter.” And in A Different Bhel: “Hilda looked at her friends and, managing a smile, said, ‘Know what? I think I will try a sweet bhel today. I will try a different kind of chutney. The sweet date chutney. Then, perhaps, I will have a new taste to imagine and remember’.”

Shroff’s stories may not have an O Henry-type sting-in-the-tail ending; they do leave so much to imagine, and savour with relish. Remarkable, nonetheless, is the language used: the unique, Bombaiyya slang: tapori, if you like; bindaas, if you are in a care-free and ebullient mood. Ekdum.

The biblical simplicity is so evident in the stories that one is tended to believe Shroff dons a Christ-like robe, that of an evangelist, a rescuer and a chronicler of the downtrodden. Shroff’s is not an NGO work; though it might, for many, look like: most of the stories read like as-told-to journalistic pieces. Is it a bane or a boon to the overall nature of the works in question, (and to his further expeditions in literature and other writing)? Well, one is not sure about.

One of the best works of fiction that has emerged from Bombay in recent times, buy this book, enjoy it, and take pleasure in it.

-- Deccan Herald

1 comment:

Abhinav said...

Shroff’s language is divine.
I completely agree.

I love his style. His sentences brood utterly. Perhaps one of the few writers who knows that the art in literature does not lie in taking things forward or making them happen or in incident, but in standing back still and clear and introspecting on the way things are and could be.

Shroff's voice is akin that of Goddess Echo's sounding back the collective dialogue and story of the city of Bombay. I wish and hope that he becomes Bombay's Anita Desai.