19 December 2010

The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay

Author: Siddharth Dhanvant Shaghvi
Pages: 348
Published in: 2010

Somewhere towards the middle of Siddharth Shanghvi's overwritten second novel, one of his characters bitches about a fictitious Indian author saying so and so's book is self-conscious, lurid and seems "like a creative writing workshop on an overdrive."
Surprising that such a sentence would land up in Shanghvi’s own book, lyrically titled, The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay, because nothing can more aptly describe his own florid language.
Even someone who might usually appreciate the high-flown language found in classics, will find the writing here overly decorative and cumbersome. The first few pages are especially hard to get by as the showiness and smug nonchalance of the writing starts to revolt you.

It's not like Shanghvi cannot write. He has a falicity with words, and has perhaps used up half the dictionary, but this excessiveness serves an early blow to the narrative because you're so turned off.

Firstly, the creative writer in Shanghvi is painfully self-indulgent.
He writers: “On Tuesday morning a big fat sun careened through thick layers of cloud, revealing a sky the colour of joy. The same evening, on the bust to Samar’s house, Karan saw the prairie-blue sly darken , opalescent grey turning to leaden silver”

Even banal sentences are stilted.

“In front of the portal, under a big rain tree, liveried chauffeurs traded flashes of filthy gossip about their bosses, and the tipsy memsahibs, smelling of their husbands abandonment, waited for valets to pull up their fancy cars.”

The metaphors are frequently tasteless and meant to shock: “Priya had a crusty librarian’s voice, one that could only be relieved with a dildo”
The sexed up language by itself is not a problem, but the phrases seem to appear out of nowhere

All this should be enough to dump the book, right? To be fair, the novel does gather some steam and good-will by the end of the second chapter. You start to invest in some of the characters, the language begins to compliment the narrative rather than stick out like a sore thumb, and this is where you can appreciate the author’s ability to enter the inner most recesses of his character’s hearts and articulate their emotions so well. Many passages are moving and insightful, as much as they are lyrical and apt.
The title suggests the book would be about Bombay – all that is stands for, what it has lost and so on. But no among of evoking places and people of the city brings about a resonance.

However, as a story about three people, Samar, Karan and Rhea – on different journeys, all of whom violently fall in love for different reasons and are torn apart by their own confused states and stations in life, the novel holds quite well. The Rhea-Karan relationship rings true, and some of the scenes involving this tortured, tumultuous married women- single man affair is genuinely captivating.
Shanghvi successfully brings out the many shades of love, its changeability and conflicts to the fore. And he anchors this around the Jessica Lal murder case, where the central characters are directly and indirectly involved in it.
Shanghvi’s strength lies in characterization and he etches out a human drama looking at all sides of story and the compulsions that drive its numerous players.
The resolution is not as powerful and the characters start getting hazier by the end, so your interest in them steadily starts to wane.
The book then is a mixed bag – many lows, many highs.

Brief chat with Siddharth Shanghvi

The author was in the city last week at Crossword to release the paperback edition of the novel and I did take the opportunity to ask him about some adverse reactions his book generated when it released earlier this year. "Not some, there were many negative reviews," he corrects, as he picks up another book to sign. Did it bother him? The author merely gesticulates that he didn't care. His life and education in England could have also influenced to the way he wrote, he admits.

At the event were also present Childrens' author Sonja Chanradhud and Anjali Joseph, author of the recent Saraswati Park. The Lost Flemingoes of Bombay uses several real-life incidences and people as fictionalised parallels. The Jessica Lal murder case is at its core. Joseph's question was related to 'transmuting' real life into art. She observed how fiction has always been considered a 'precious zone' and our real lives are not supposed to be the stuff of art. Shanghvi answered that he chose the subject because it was the only reality he could understand. "I needed to understand this climate that allows a politician's son to get away with killing someone for a banal reason like turning down someone's demand for a drink. The upside is that with enough amount of noise and media working with you, you can make a difference," says the author, who contributed to the case by the way of newspaper columns he wrote around that time.
The other aspect about the novel is its undercurrent of sexuality. "I was offered a scholarship abroad to study Sex. My parents objected, and I didn't end up going. But it gets sublimated in my novels. I believe sexuality has a profound impact on how you negotiate your roles in the world," he explains.
Shanghvi has written two novels, the earlier one being The Last Song of Dusk, but the author is ready to give up writing. "Something organic and magical seems to get lost for me in the process of exhibiting. I will continue with what I do, but the instrument will change. But it would really depend on the story and my mood," he says with an air of nonchalance.


Silvia Merialdo said...

Hi Sandhya, I have just found this wonderful blog.
I am an Italian blogger, interested in Indian books, so I will follow your blog with great interest!
I read The lost flamingoes, and I agree with every single word you have written about it!

sandhya said...

Hye Silvia, thanks for visiting. yes, I do a fair bit of reviews of Indian works. Just out of curiosity, which other Indian novels have you read and liked?

And it would be great if you educate me on any English language writers in Italy whom i could perhaps read as an introduction.

Silvia Merialdo said...

Dear Sandhya,
some of the Indian (or of Indian origin) authors I read and I liked are: Kiran Nagarkar, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Khushwant Singh, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, Shashi Deshpande, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, Ruskin Bond...

I also gave a try to some books written in Indian languages and not in English (of course in translation!). I loved Manto, and some Malayalam (Basheer especially) and Bengali writers.

I am quite a fan of Indian writing: you can have a look on my blog (though it is all in Italian...).

About Italian writers, they all write in Italian. There is not something such as IWE ("Italian writing in English"!), but you can get translations.
My Indian friends appreciated Calvino, Pavese and Moravia.
Among more recent ones, I would suggest Maurizio Maggiani and Antonio Tabucchi.

However, I must admit, I read more Indian writers than Italian!

sandhya said...

Wow I had no idea that there is nothing like Italian Writing In English. And great to see you reading all those Indian authors :-)