22 September 2008

Review: Breathless In Bombay

Author: Murzban F Shroff
Pages: 306
Publishers: Picador India
Price: 295
Genre: Short stories (fiction)

Of magic and mayhem

Of late, one is getting more and more sensitized about how Mumbai – by far India’s most multicultural and economically vibrant cities—is slowly slipping into the abyss of bad governance, terror scare, crammed spaces, and heavy concretization…all of it which is steadily eating into the essence of this dream city. People living here rue the fact that many of the city’s authentic places are being sold off to builders who are constructing residential skyscrapers and shopping centers for the ever-bourgeoning class of the brand-flashing, mall hoppers.

Nishikanth Kamat made a poignant portrayal of it in his wonderful, Mumbai Meri Jaan and here again, writer Murzban draws to attention this utter hopelessness, a tragically increasing class-divide that is threatening to deconstruct everything that the city stands for – peaceful co-existence and the spirit of brotherhood. All of Murzban’s 14 stories draw to attention various aspects of the city. Dhobi Ghat and The House Of Mine refer to the problem of displacement where in old structures ---emblems of the city's sparkling authenticity --- are being sold off. There is a strain of regret and sadness in Murzban's narration, as he sees his city being stripped off its uniqueness and warmth and replaced by cold affluence and almost sickening homogeneity.

Class divide seems to be one of Murzban's overarching concern, as he highlights them in his chapters, Breathless in Bombay, The Great Divide, Busy Sunday, The Queen Guards Her Own. This disparity of income -wherein one sizeable class indulges in all kinds of obscene accesses while another grovels in squalor (the author takes the readers through some extremely poverty-ridden, crime-infested, morally depraved streets and lives). Busy Sunday is especially interesting because it brings to light the repercussions of this unsavory class divide and an all round atmosphere of distrust and fraudulence it promotes.

Not all stories deal with problems that are necessarily about Mumbai. For example, there's a highly charged story, Traffic about a live-in couple and the bitterness that seeps in after the scent of idealistic togetherness. Now, this is a story that could have happened anywhere but it nevertheless finds a resonance with the city's fast-paced life, where survival and self-advancement is the only mantra and human emotions are daily crushed under the weight of clinical practicality and opportunism.

The biggest reason to recommend this book is because it draws you in within no time. Murzban - with his ability for detailing -- manages to create a setting that grips you from the word go. It’s obvious the writer feels a great amount of sadness and angst at the city’s dismal state on various fronts but Murzban tackles it with a great compassion and understanding of human frailties. Also, he makes sure to create extremely well fleshed out characters, studying their motives with care and empathy.
Yes, not all stories end well. There could be a feeling that some of them have ended abruptly after starting off so well. But Murzban succeeds in acquainting readers with the colours, flavours and temperament of the city.
A well-mixed Bombay Bhel and some food for thought as well!
-Sandhya Iyer