Book Review: The Black Dwarves of the Good Little Bay

Book Review: The Black Dwarves of the Good Little Bay

Varun Thomas Mathew’s fictional book takes us through a dystopian Mumbai that has lost all its old-world charm

Nayanika Mukherjee
January 01 , 2020
02 Min Read

In 2040, Disneyland is no longer the happiest place on Earth. It’s the Bombadrome—a looming structure holding the millions of Mumbai. It’s got every futuristic comfort, nicely-censored conversation, tech-driven lives, even synthetic vegetation. Everything is bonzer. But Godse, one of India’s last IAS officers, is having none of it. He remembers the magnetic city of old, when Mumbai was still visited by the southwest monsoons; before the waves jumped over the tripod rocks and destroyed the land, and before a single party turned into the messiah. As a quiet act of protest, he opts out of this moribund staycation for measly quarters outside the Bombadrome. Oddly enough, so does the CM who led to its construction. Curious? So were we.

In his debut novel, Varun Mathew does an immaculate job in building a darkly funny and original dystopia out of the City of Dreams. It’s not post-apocalyptic a la The Maze Runner, nor is it as fearful as Fahrenheit 451. Instead, tension softly brews as Godse recounts his life: from nameless child to civil servant, to a concerned citizen who watched a single election erase history. Unable to stay complacent, he becomes a chronicler, and starts collecting exhibits for posterity—the most awe-inspiring of which is the black dwarf movement.

These aren’t literal little people challenging the Snow White-ness of the Bombadrome, but a revolution led by Mumbai’s manual scavengers, who are soon joined by artists, students and other closet revolutionaries. It’s an allusion to black dwarfs in astronomy—stellar remnants that cannot emit heat and light, but still make their presence felt. The rebels slop sewage onto office buildings to create their own Pollocks; they joyously sing, dance and scrawl beat poetry across town. But ultimately, it doesn’t slow the descent of the iron curtain. And that’s scary. Because amidst the most captivating moments of magic realism we’ve read in a while, are the parallels with the soft rise of authoritarianism. Citizen activism may have stalled ecologically damning projects like the Coastal Road this year, but Mumbai’s demise, as described by Mathew, could actually play out in cookie-cutter fashion.

Impending doom aside, we loved the Tharoor-like perfection while making references (you must read Stark Electric Jesus), and the refreshing lack of a male gaze. If you’ve got a rebellious streak, or are just a fiery liberal (guilty!), The Black Dwarves is sure to find you, at least once, sniggering in anarchic glee.

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