This past week I made my maiden voyage to the city of Bombay/ Mumbai – a little late in my career as an Indian citizen, I’m aware, but as the adage reassures me, more timely than never. It’s true I had the benefit of post-monsoon, pre-October-heat weather and a convenient ignorance of what goes on on its darker streets, but what I saw of the city absolutely charmed me. With restaurants actually patronised by their owners (a seal of approval all franchisees so tellingly lack), entire streets dedicated solely to fabrics or hardware or… light fixtures (!), and auto drivers who voluntarily give you one-rupees change, I felt like I was in some sort of urban heaven, replete with all of the character my own city of Bangalore seems so glad to shake off.
I got back home and, flush with the excitement of a new city, got to work finding a book that would keep it fresh in my mind. I bypassed Shantaram, which I decided would be too obvious a choice, and singled in instead on Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay – a book incidentally recommended by what seemed like every book reviewer/ reviewing body on the planet. It won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book in the Eurasia Region and is, I’m told by James Wood of the Guardian, ‘full and free and utterly alive, crossing and recrossing contemporary Bombay… These stories offer a world.’
The book is a collection of five short stories related by a retired civil servant, Subramanium, about five unrelated Bombay personalities – a military man confronting a ghost from his past, a social climber on aspirational Malabar Hill, a police inspector simultaneously investigating a murder and the demise of his marriage, a man on a train with some homosexual + underworld linkages… okay, I’m just going to admit I didn’t finish the book. The writing isn’t bad. No, it’s lyrical and poetic and all it’s supposed to be. This got me through the first three stories, but I finally accepted that nothing was gripping me as I embarked upon the fourth. I gave up because, to me, that’s all they were – stories. They were interesting enough tales, I suppose, but I wanted something a little more insightful, something more than a booth bangla/ murder-mystery story, and I didn’t get it. More specifically, I wanted some sense of place, especially from a title that suggests the author was particularly concerned with cultivating this same sense. Saying something happened on Carter Road or Marine Drive or in Crawford Market isn’t enough to recreate that ‘world’ I was promised.
This is beginning to verge on scathing and I don’t mean for it to. I’d be more than happy if someone could enlighten me as to what I missing. I’m not saying it’s a bad book, just that packaging it as love and longing in Bombay feels a little gimmicky, and it left me feeling cheated by all those undelivered promises. No, I’m not saying it’s a bad book – just that I’ll probably read Shantaram instead.