Sunday, August 31, 2008

Posthumously Personal

By Lajwanti S Khemlani & Sunil K Poolani

Bombay Tiger

Kamala Markandaya


Price: 495; Pages: 327

Bombay Tiger, published posthumously, is the effervescent and mysterious Kamala Markandaya’s eleventh and last novel. Markandaya’s life was something that you would come across in fable books. An unassuming Brahmin lady from a small town like Mysore, venturing into a new-fangled wide western world at around the time of India’s Independence is something dazzling.

To put it briefly, after her small stints in India, she moved on to London in 1948 to be in journalism at a time when, save a Mulk Raj Anand or two, nobody made a mark in that arena. She might have been failure in whatever she did. Life. Marriage. Journalism. Literary pursuits. But her outstanding novels like Nectar in the Sieve and A Handful of Rice, though inconsequential by today’s standards, are still path-breaking literature. And that these two books are still taught in universities in India and abroad still amuses one.

Now, coming to the present volume, had Bombay Tiger been published during the author’s lifetime, it might have read differently, and been considerably shorter. Set in the l980s, the novel is about the rise, fall and the ultimate redemption of Ganguli, the protagonist.

Having lost his inheritance at an earlier age, Ganguli leaves his village for Bombay save but a recommendation letter and ruthless ambition. In the city of ‘dreams’, he eventually turns out to be a big-time industrialist. Ganguli always knew what he wanted and how to get it. But being a mere mortal, even he could not control his love — and losses.

In certain ways, he is no different than his classmate Rao, who too migrated to Bombay but became a financier. Rao is jealous of Ganguli’s astounding success. And this has always been a sore point with Rao, no different to others who are competitive and hate one’s guts. Rao’s aspirations and his family are also more ordinary. The two have always disliked each other, but have maintained a relationship of sorts; both are busy-bees, but it is Ganguli who is sentimental and a larger-than-life figure. It is he who loves anything and anyone passionately, suffers losses more tragically and is bullish in appearance akin to his personality.

Rao is leaner, softer in several ways; he spends lots of time and effort plotting ruin of the business magnet, rather than making even a miniscule attempt to understanding his only offspring.

As life may have, when the business giant falls, others follow suit. Storm-ripples are felt by Rao and his family. They, too, cannot escape their harsh destiny. It is the dramatic loss of their children that shakes them to the core of their beings. This abruptly pulls the rug from under Ganguli’s feet and brings him, bang, crashing down. Rao does mourn his son’s death, though he was never emotionally nearer to him. Yet, the tragic event alters his veritable existence. He can now let go of his all-consuming hatred for Ganguli.

Some characters, important nevertheless, show up towards the end, which is a back draw. Markandaya should have introduced more of Ganguli’s private love life earlier in the story, to give the readers more of a picture of his sexual sexapades — Ganguli, the man, rather than a mere businessman.

This literary pursuit portrays Indian life quite accurately, especially where issues like abortion are concerned, though the author migrated to England before Nehruvian socialism started. It is vivid that Markandaya wrote for a foreign audience in mind.

Bombay Tiger would have grabbed my attention had it been tighter and shorter; it tends to wander off the main character in many places. The pace of the novel slows down towards the middle, and, ahem, suddenly picks up in the last 20-to-30 pages. So, folks, Bombay Tiger does not have anything novel to offer. Buy it if you can afford it. Amen.

-- Deccan Herald / 31 August 2008