Friday, April 18, 2008

End of Serendipity

By Sunil K Poolani

Serendip. Ceylon. Sri Lanka. A lush green island blessed with and famous for its spices, coconut groves, rice… An amalgamation of ethnicities (primarily Sinhalese and Tamil), influenced by Indian, Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese and English (to name a few) cultures, and practicing religions as varied as Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim... An emerald. A virtual coral isle. An ideal abode for blissful existence.

Then all went awry. The once idyllic isle got soaked in blood. The green hue turned red. Ethnicities clashed, heads blew up, bombs ripped apart the facades of its rich heritage.

The mayhem continues unabated. What are prevailing now are restlessness, hopelessness, unemployment and basic amenities that are denied to the hapless citizenry who have, long ago, lost their gleam in their eyes.

What went wrong? Instead of pouring over truckloads of newspaper clippings collected over the decades and trying to make sense in political commentary books penned by half-baked experts, read Mosquito (a fiction, nevertheless) by Roma Tearne, whose writing leaves a dent in your heart, unless you are one of those assassins who periodically bring chaos and confusion to the war-torn country.

Mosquito, an allegory of a skewed polity, comes as a whiff of fresh air in a literary arena (if you can really call that) that is infected by bad prose but brazenly supported by hype, hoopla, nepotism and sex appeal. Tearne tells us the story of Nulani, a hapless victim of an internecine war fought between Sinhalese-Tamil brothers (well?). Nulani is a talented painter, who befriends Theo Samarajeeva, a famous writer who, after the death of his Italian wife Anna, had left Britain to embrace the warmth of his land of origin.

Friendship takes turns and blossoms into love, despite a huge age difference between the protagonists. Into their delightful saga of infatuation, and then love, creep in characters who not only add misery into the duo’s lives, but to the country as well. The Tamilian Vikram, masquerading as a Sinhalese, is one among them. Then there are two of his mentors; one of the characters resembles Velupillai Prabhakaran.

There are kind characters, too: Thercy and Sugi (he even gives up his life for Nulani) who take care of the duo when in dire need; Rohan, a celebrated painter, and his Italian (again) wife Giulia who not only give solace and sanctuary to Nulani when Theo was believed to be slain, but help Nulani flee Sri Lanka and later try their level best to track her down in the labyrinthine lanes of London.

Theo, as the story moves on, was held hostage — first by the Sinhalese and later by the Tamils — then manages to escape to his seaside villa, a literal mosquito coast, from where he writes a novel based on his life and his kith and kin, present and past. In the meantime, Rohan and Giulia manage to locate Nulani, who has by then become an established painter, and that lead helps them to connect Theo and Nulani, lovers who were once separated due to cruelty in the name of ethnicity.

So whose story is this? It is fiction, that’s right, and penned by Tearne. It is also a novel penned by the protagonist Theo. But a brief profile on Tearne says she “fled Sri Lanka at the age of ten, traveling to Britain where she spent most of her life.” And in the acknowledgments section, Tearne comes up with this line: “…to my long-suffering family…” Tearne apparently is Nulani, and like Nulani, Tearne, too, is an accomplished artist (she has a Masters degree from Oxford in Drawing and Fine Art and was awarded coveted fellowships).

And do not assume that the novel is totally flawless: a) all the main characters in the book are not only world famous (or are going to be one), but exceptionally talented, rich and, despite living in a morbid country, have the company of a guardian angel who has a twenty-four hour duty; b) about the second-rung characters: well, the author manages to kill them at a time when they are becoming strong and when the story starts revolving around them; c) the language is at times a bit shaky and a tad disoriented — this is especially true when, despite being a Sinhalese by origin, Tearne tries to bring into the realm the ultimate truth that there is no serendipity in Serendip.

If you ignore these flaws the novel reads like a dream, shattering some, creating some. What more can you ask for?

(Author picture courtesy: John Lawrence, The Independent, London, UK


Roma Tearne

Harper Perennial

Pages: 296; Price: Rs 295

— Deccan Herald


By Prabha Shankar

Translated from the Malayalam by Sunil K Poolani

I used to call her Spade, the girl I loved. It was long, long ago, when my fiancée used to lie down looking at the stars through the glass pane of the tiled roof. Awake.

In fact, I wanted to call her Selfish. Reason: ignoring her younger sister and brother, she used to bring me sugar-toffees and laddus without anyone’s knowledge. Instead of taking her siblings for a stroll or playing with them, she loved to spend her evenings with me.

I wrote about all this: short stories, poems, and in the end — for money — even essays. Still, I vividly remember even now, I was left with a mere eighty rupees.

All this is for those who are born with a silver spoon in their mouths — this love and literature.

Then, there were roaming-arounds, searches…

Shouldn’t I too survive?

With time, I, a jobless youth, became a drunkard, drug addict, murderer, womaniser…

Moreover, I grew into a useless moron.

The village and the villagers believed I would be all right if I was locked up in a room.

When it became unbearable, I had to leave my village and bid goodbye to the loving (hating) villagers.

I swayed in the wind, floated in the water. At last, in a city, a metropolis, I had to calm down myself. Shadowless.

Shouldn’t I too survive? Wasn’t I born minus a silver spoon in my mouth?

For the time being, I sat in a cane chair in an advertising company and typed A-B-C-D. I gave colour and smell to the virgin lies about products. I earned a name, but the pay was little.

Isn’t it a shameful thing to tell four people that I am at the mercy of forty people? So, I didn’t complain. Didn’t crib.

Nevertheless, my all-time friends, who poke their noses into and learn all the nitty-gritties of my life, poked their noses once again and perceived the quandary I was in.

The prescribed the usual medicine: advice.

To borrow means to surrender oneself to the hands of a wild bear. Don’t go for all this. Get lost, man, get lost: try to live on your own. Sell whatever is allotted to you, sell your self-esteem (sorry, I had sold that a long time ago), and then earn more money and get whatever you can lay your hands on. There was a way out, a way to the Arab land along with Air India’s Maharaja.

I didn’t delay. I learnt that sunshine, rain, mist, everything, is part of nature’s immortal wealth. I realised them as much as I could. I sloughed off the knowledge (or, as I realise now, was it ignorance?) I had gained in my last twenty-eight years. I did the packing in twenty-eight hours.

At last, after spending four-and-a-half hours in a serpentine queue, I appeared before a fair-skinned Arab. Also, in front of an Indian, who was keenly observing whether any dust had accumulated on the Arab’s footwear.

What all do you know? — the Arab’s query, translated by the Indian who doesn’t allow dust to gather.

Dissection to dissemination.


Very little, but I can improve.

Agreed. But you have to love the flora, especially the flowers. And that’s not all. Love the spade, too. As a dividend, you can love the whizz of the air-conditioner. Also, the dirhams, which you can save and send home.

I was startled. Thinking about the impediments and losses I had to endure, and with tears trickling down my eyes, I started searching out for Gardener.

At last I met Gardner, the guru, and told him about my venture. I received a spade, accepted blessings and shoved the spade into the ground with all my strength. My first training!

I shoved the spade very hard and looked at the earth on it. Suddenly, I thought about the girl who loved me. Oh! this was the same thing she had told me once: “Give me, give me…”

This is so uncharacteristic of a spade. If the substance you collect is not deposited somewhere, it will get accumulated somewhere else.

My god, why did I take so long to know this?

Now what?

(Oh, girl, who is the perfume of my dreams, forgive me.)

It is ridiculous to waste thinking about mundane things. I want to be trained. Somewhere, in some corner of the world. Somehow, I have to live.

I ferociously started shoving the spade into the soil. Whatever I got on it, I deposited on one place. At last, there was a three-foot-deep, six-and-half-foot-long, two-foot-wide trench. With the mud taken from it I made a four-foot-long mound.

Now, I can live! This training is more than I had expected.

Or, I will relax. Isn’t the spade which made this trench and prattles “give me, give me” enough for that?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Ekdum bindaas!

By Sunil K Poolani

Breathless in Bombay

Murzban F Shroff


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