June 07, 2020
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Mumbai Masala

Chandra and Vakil have penned acclaimed books on the city but have been away too long

Mumbai Masala

HERE come the Mumbai boys, the latest arrivistes of literary fiction, resonating with the post-Rushdie buzz of the Big City which they see as a place where the stories are, a metaphor for all India. They have an engaging, self-possessed cool, a surprising lack of guile and lots of Mumbai bonding. Although their books have distinct voices, and they had never met till the New Yorker shoot in London this summer, their lives throw up some striking parallels. They are also the role models for a new kind of Indian fiction-writer whose work is likeable but not remarkable and whose ambitions make up for lack of focus.

Vikram Chandra is small and bearded, carts a laptop around and comes from a family with film connections. His second book, Love and Longing in Bombay, is a diverting, racy set of interconnected stories about warring society dames, a brooding Sikh cop in sexual overdrive solving a murder mystery, a wrecked gay affair and others. Ardashir Vakil is bigger built, with unmistakable Parsi looks and a faintly echoing broadcaster's voice that goes with his lazy swagger. His first novel Beach Boy, unabashedly about himself and rather less accomplished, concerns the adolescence of Cyrus Ready money and his obsessions with food, sex and Hindi movies.

Both Chandra and Vakil are about the same age—in their mid-30s—both went to boarding schools, studied abroad afterwards and now teach English there. Both had movie-mad childhoods. Chan-dra was expelled from Mayo College for going to see Dharam Veer four times: "I just had to, it had Zeenat Aman in it." Vakil came close to expulsion from Doon School but won't talk about it. Still, when Cyrus—a sort of Billy Bunter from Juhu—isn't dreaming of food, he is describing his experience of watching Haathi Mere Saathi over 10 pages and scheming to bunk school for Johnny Mera Naam.

As both of them remember it, their growing up was governed by the icons and fantasies of Bollywood. Yet, the curious fact is, despite the contrast of Vakil confessing to growing out of Hindi movies and Chandra developing a deeper fascination for the genre—he went to film school in America and is working on a Hindi filmscript—neither is able to explain or interpret that early submission to Bollywood further. What did that youthful longing for the movies represent, power, sex, money, aspiration, an escape from boredom or thwarted desire? Neither has scrutinised the ideas too closely. It remains a one-dimensional view of a two-dimensional world.

Chandra and Vakil always wanted to write and, after school, both have had fairly similar career paths. Chandra talked his father into paying for his first year at Pomona College, near Los Angeles. The liberation and loneliness that America represented hit him like a ton of bricks. He worked as busboy, dishwasher, security guard and night baker. "I liked the last. I like eating a lot," he confesses, sounding like the Cyrus Ready money for whom the importance of food, "the thought of having it, not having it, the taut expectations of its delights and the sweet torture of not eating it", is a way of life.

Chandra got into Columbia University's film school where he came across Col Skinner's life. Inspired to write a book, he dropped out, attended writing programmes and produced his first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain. He now teaches creative writing in Washington. He reads fiction widely, admiring the twisted, 'noir' vision of American crime writers and has a weakness for Victorians. But he gets eloquent about the "gritty lyricism" of Manmohan Desai. He is researching his next novel in which the Sikh cop, Sartaj Singh, reappears as the protagonist and enters the Mumbai underworld.

After school, Vakil ended up in a crammer trying to get into university, but gave up and came back. He taught at Doon and in Ladakh, then lived in France and worked as a BBC presenter before making it to Cambridge. Married to an English girl, he teaches in a south London school. "I like working with children," he says. "I was inspired to write by an English teacher at school and I always wanted to give that back." While working with children to produce stories for the school magazine two years ago, he also put in one of his own. A publisher saw the piece, liked it and asked him to continue in the same vein. The result is Beach Boy.

The boys from Mumbai also represent the dislocation of the NRI novelist. Their divided lives are affected by the problem of living and working in the West while rooting their books in Mumbai's constantly changing milieu. They dislike the label "expatriate writer" and are hurt by the "hostility and resentment" at home. Both admit that they wouldn't be noticed much in India if they hadn't been published and reviewed abroad first. But paradoxically, they are unlikely to be noticed much in the West if they write novels about a childhood in London or New York's cops and socialites.

Vakil sees the problem as something "that can't be resolved—like most things in life" and reflects the limitation of millions of Indians abroad: "The more you want to come back, the harder it becomes." He is trying to overcome the difficulty by setting his next novel in London among adults. Chandra describes himself as half an expat writer, meaning lives in Mumbai between teaching semesters in the US. Deeper down, however, a nagging fear is apparent: that they may slowly be losing touch with Mumbai, a city in which India lives but which is in the throes of rapid and sweeping change.

I asked them what they thought were the reasons for the decline of Mumbai from the orderly, integrated metropolis of 20 years ago. Chandra said, "corruption", proceeding with details of the police-criminal nexus. But surely that was an effect, not a cause? I needled them a bit about the rise of the Shiv Sena, and asked how, in their opinion, the most cosmopolitan and liberal city in India fell into the clutches of a party that terrifies Muslims and advocates a Mumbai for Maharashtrians. Vakil said that it was mainly because the rise of the religious Right was a nationwide phenomenon.

It was surprising to find that these young men, armed with enviable educations and successful novels inspired by and about Mumbai, never mentioned the corrosive alliance between politics and big business, the swelling tide of population or the seething frustrations thrown up by the city's grim disparities. They talked of the Mumbai riots and bombings, it is true; but their idea of the city was essentially pre-1991. They were keen on telescoping into details of Mumbai's corruptions and seductions but were hazy about the bigger picture; they had neither strong opinions nor penetrating new insights to offer. Although it was apparent that they loved their city, it was also clear they had been away from it a lot.

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