As a rule, I don’t use the titles of works I comment on as titles for my blog entries. In this case, however, the title of Vikram Chandra’s spectacular short storiny collection is really as apposite as it is possible for a title to be, and so I thought an exception was in order.
Love and Longing in Bombay is a short story collection by Vikram Chandra, currently best known for his epic work Sacred Games which clocks in at a rather intimidating 947 pages. Although I had heard positive things about Sacred Games, starting a work of that length by an unknown (to me) author seemed perhaps unwise. Happily, the protagonist in Sacred Games appears in one of the short stories in this earlier work, and so I decided to try this collection before immersing myself within Sacred Games.
There are five stories in this collection, each titled by a single sanskrit word each of which refers to some principle or theme to which the story relates. Dharma (proper conduct), Shakti (ability, feminine creative force), Kama (sensual pleasure), Artha (purpose, prosperity), Shanti (inner peace). Those are my crude translations, taken from Wikipedia, I suspect a reader familiar with Hindu teaching (which would include I suspect basically any Indian likely to read the book, including Muslim or Sikh Indians since they live within a predominantly Hindu culture) would be drawing subtler meanings from these titles. The stories cover a range of topics, a general’s encounter with a ghost, a battle between two society hostesses (one old money, one new), a policeman’s investigation of a murder, a young software business and its problems with seemingly inexplicable data errors in their first major account, a love story in immediately post-war India. Along the way, many other elements are thrown in, so that we see a range of Bombay life and capture the flavour of the city, it’s dreamers, workers, gangsters, mothers and the vast assortment of life it contains.
Each story is framed by the works of an elderly but respected man who sits in a down at heels bar and tells stories to those present. Subramanian:
Subramanian had white hair, he was thin, and in the falling dusk he looked very small to me, the kind of man who would while away the endless boredom of his life in a bar off Sassoon dock, and so I shaped him up in my mind, and weighed him and dropped him.
I should have noticed then that the waiters brought his drinks to him without being asked, and that the others talked around his silence but always with their faces turned towards him, but I was holding forth on the miserable state of computers in Bombay.
Subramanian acts in part as a framing device, in part as a celebration of the importance of stories and the delight of storytelling (and that delight is a key part of this work), and I think the quote above also demonstrates Chandra’s skill at swift evocation of character and description. This concept of framing the story as story, as a thing related person to person, is brought to its climax in the final tale in which characters tell each other even shorter stories so that within one short story are other nested narratives. The parallels with Arabian Nights are obvious, though also I think Chandra is reminding us that the story is a human thing, that the act of storytelling is an act of creation even when – as here – every storyteller in the book claims their stories to be absolute truth. Subramanian narrates the stories, but they are narrated to us by another unnamed narrator who sits in Subramanian’s audience. As the stories continue, that unnamed narrator finds his own life enriched by the stories, but also his inclusion as a framing device framing the ostensible framing device reminds us that each story contains within it other stories, layer within layer.
Throughout the work, Chandra excels at description, and displays considerable (though thankfully unflashy) technical skill as a writer. Sometimes this description comes in large and luxuriant paragraphs, dense with detail, sometimes in one line sentences made rich from context and subtle use of language:
The house stood on a square plot on prime residential land in Khar, surrounded by new, extravagant constructions coloured the pink and green of new money.
The five tales differ widely in subject matter, and improve as the book continues with the first being powerful and affecting but the second with its tale of the conflict of old and new money having even greater resonance and impact. So it continues, with the effect of the stories building cumulatively, each stronger than the last perhaps in part due to the impact of the others before it but also because the collection has been carefully assembled into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Unlike many short story collections, this work does repay reading the stories consecutively in a reasonably short time period.
The stories speak often of the complexities of love: of how a beautiful woman comes to love a short and dumpy man; of the love of married couples and the secrets within a marriage – which can be as simple as a fleeting caress at the kitchen table and the realisation of genuine affection. Infidelity is found here, as is the love of a gay couple forced to have sex outdoors as they cannot afford an apartment and certainly cannot use either one’s parents’ home, and so too is the love of young couples full of impossible confidence in their ability to supersede all barriers.
Similarly, the book is suffused with longing, often for the inchoate, often in the form of grief for loved ones (wives, brothers, lovers) lost. The general who feels phantom pain in a limb long since removed, the policeman aching over the break-up of his marriage unable to sign the divorce papers sent to him by his wife, the quest of a young woman for her air force husband lost in a WWII combat mission, the drive of a gifted programmer for perfection in her code, the characters in Chandra’s work are suffused with emotion and desire.
All of which makes it sound like a work of romantic fiction, which really couldn’t be further from the case. Rather, it is a work engorged with life, with the noisy contradictions of a great city full of people each striving after that which they believe will make them happy. And just as this is a work which celebrates the art of storytelling, so too it is a work that celebrates the mere fact of living. The sheer joy of it, which is so easily forgotten in the everyday, and the tragedy of those who do not value it.
In the rearview mirror, Sartaj could see Kshitij’s shoulder, the line of his jaw, and he thought, it’s always hard on the serious ones. They were always tragic with their earnestness and their belief in seriousness. He remembered two boys who were the grandsons of farmers in his grandfather’s village near Patiala. He recalled them vaguely from a summer visit to the village, remembered them in blue pants and ties. There had been a celebration of their results in the seventh class exams, and he had tried to talk to them about the test match that everyone was listening to but had found them boring and uninformed. After that he had never seen them again and had not thought of them for years until his father had mentioned them during a Sunday phone call. They had been caught by a BSF patrol as they came over the border in the dunes near Jaisalmer laden with grenades and ammunition. They had tried to fire back but had been neatly outflanked and machine-gunned. The papers had reported the death of two Grade-A terrorists and had reported their names and their affiliations. There had been a grainy black-and-white photograph of sprawled, bloodied figures with open mouths. Sartaj had never heard of their organization but had no doubt it was a very serious one.
Many of the stories are left deliberately incomplete in parts, explicitly so. Characters look for answers to things important but opaque to them, yet without any guarantee of success and more than one story ends with key elements left unresolved and at times even wholly unexplained. A character comments at one point that this too is life, that not all stories have endings, that sometimes we must just make do with such answers as we have however poor they may be.
Equally, where Indian words are used, they are not translated and we are left to deduce their meanings (if we do not already know them, I didn’t) from context. I said in another entry on my blog that a good work should not need a glossary, the story should make plain what the words mean. Here that is the case, although words are often used which (not being Indian) I am not familiar with, I was always able to see easily from the text what they must mean at least in large part and other than the story titles themselves I never felt any need of translation (and one could not translate those titles and still enjoy the stories in their own right). As with the endings, not everything in life is explained, not everything is comprehensible. Life is larger than we are, and keeping going despite sometimes not fully understanding everything is a key part of it.
And that is the other key theme of this work, as well as a love of storytelling we have a love of life itself, in all its sheer ungovernable mess. The sheer beauty of it, and with that the extraordinary vitality of Bombay with all that struggling life bursting within it striving and loving and longing. To be alive is to desire (a very Buddhist line that, on reflection, I wonder if it is the same in Hinduism?) and with so much life in it Bombay is a city of desire – of love and passion and ambition and the sheer glorious excitement of existence.
He had Katekar and the jeep waiting below, at Beach Candy, but he wanted to walk for a while. A van passed with that ugly throbbing American music that Sartaj could feel in his chest. A school bus passed, and three girls in blue uniforms smiled toothily at him from the rear window. Sartaj laughed. He twirled his moustache. In the blaring evening rush he could feel the size of the city, its millions upon millions, its huge life and all its unsolved dead. A double-decker bus ground to a halt at the stop across the street, and people jostled in and out. On the side of the bus a poster for a new movie proclaimed: ‘Love, Love, Love.’ Somewhere, also in the city, there was [ ] and his partymen, with their building full of weapons and their dreams of the past, and Sartaj knew that nothing was finished, that they remembered him as much as he thought of them. A light changed just as Sartaj was about to cross the road, and the stream of cars jerked ahead madly, causing him to jump back, and the sidewalk vendors and their customers smiled at him. He smiled also, waiting his moment. Then he plunged in.
This is one of the finest works I have read this year, it is graceful yet playful in its use of language. It celebrates storytelling as an art form and celebrates both Bombay itself and the sheer act of living. It is a work of excellence from a major talent, and one I am delighted to have read.