Love and Longing in Bombay

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.

Love and Longing in Bombay

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22 Comments

Filed under Chandra, Vikram, Indian Literature, Short Stories

22 responses to “Love and Longing in Bombay

  1. KevinfromCanada

    One of us is probably going to have to crack open Sacred Games, since we’ve already made the buying investment. This review certainly suggests to me that I do have to try it eventually — perhaps in a few weeks. Thanks for the review and best wishes for a Happy Reading New Year.

  2. And a Happy Reading New Year to you too Kevin. I’ve been in Libya on holiday, checking out Greco-Roman ruins, hence my being a bit quiet the past couple of weeks.

    I’m definitely planning to read Sacred Games this year, I may take it with me on my skiing holiday around Easter – I think it will need a fairly decent block of time to get stuck into it.

  3. Pingback: Vikram Chandra: Love and Longing in Bombay - World Literature Forum

  4. KevinfromCanada

    Max: It seems to me that if your are going skiing (I’m presuming it is in the Alps somewhere) you want a book that has a) mountains b)snow or c) ideally both. Teeming subcontinent Asia is excellent as an opposite, but I think your holiday reading should be more site specific.

    Rereading The Magic Mountain is probably too obvious. Having said that, nothing would delight me more than wrapping myself up in a couple of blankets on a terrace and dipping into Mann.

    If you are willing to consider some North American alternatives that meet my criteria, I suggest:
    1. The Outlander by Gil Adamson, due out soon in the U.K. An intriguing book, which European readers have tended to like even more than Canadian ones did. It is a very good first novel, does have mountains (including Canada’s most famous collapsing one) and tells a very good story.
    2. Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. I don’t know if you have read Wallace Stegner (if you haven’t, you should) but Williams is without doubt the unrecognized inspiration for Stegner. This is another book set in the frontier in the late 1800s but its strength (for your holiday reading purposes) is that a large part takes place in the Colorado Rockies (think an undeveloped Aspen). It is a wonderful book, very well written.
    3. The Englishman’s Boy by Guy Vanderhaage. Sorry to keep promoting Canadian stuff. Another historical novel, this one centred on the Cypress Hills massacre. It also explores the role of English remittance men in the development of the North American west.

    All good reads and, I think at least, better suited to a skiing holiday than The Sacred Games.
    Kevin

  5. Actually, I’ll be skiing in Canada, Banff again this year (I’ve been there a couple of times before). I tend to prefer North American skiing. Canadian suggestions are therefore remarkably apposite.

    I’ll look up the books you mention, all three of them, I’ve never even heard of Wallace Stegner but in any event the John Williams sounds very tempting.

  6. KevinfromCanada

    Max,

    If you are coming to Canada — and Banff no less — and have any time at all, why not drop by for a coffee? We can scan the shelves and discuss books. I live in Calgary so you’ll be flying in and departing from here. If there is an hour or two to spare (or if you’d like a lunch or dinner) it would be an honor to see you face to face. All of this moves The Englishman’s Boy and The Outlander up on the list — you might also want to look at Elizabeth Hay’s Last Nights on Air, although it is set in the NWT not Alberta. Sorry, there is no Banff specific book that comes to mind.

    The good news on the skiing front is that so far this has been the biggest snow year in recent memory. I now have a reason to hope that that keeps up (I’m no skier myself).

    Cheers,

    Kevin

  7. I’d love to meet up for a coffee, I’m going to struggle to make it into Calgary I’m afraid though near as it is. We get picked up from and delivered back to the airport, so we get no free time in Calgary on our arrival and departure days (we’re travelling with a package group, it’s much cheaper). There’s a trip to Calgary available during the stay, but only one and it would involve cancelling a day’s skiing which could be a hard sell to my wife.

    Any odds though on your being able to mosey over to Banff one day?

  8. KevinfromCanada

    Max: A trip to Banff would be wonderful — even though we are not skiers or hikers, we often head up to the mountains for a lunch or whatever. And I certainly see no reason to cancel a day’s skiing just to come to Calgary. Plus, my wife would jump up and down in joy at the chance for yet another visit to the mountains. One of her first summer jobs was looking after the tea hut on Mount Norquay so she is always up for an excuse to visit Banff.

    If you are up for scheduling a dinner, there is a wonderful French-type dining room called Cafe leBeaujolais in Banff that we would be happy to revisit (because it has been a few years) and we would certainly pick up the bill. (Alas, they have taken to booking in some Japanese tours at times but that is the price you pay for wanting to eat in a mountain resort town). Another option would be to head back down the road a few miles to Canmore — don’t know if you have ever been there but it is interesting.

    Anyway, it would be a pleasure to meet you and your wife — and my wife has heard enough about you that she also looks forward to it with great interest. Just as a matter of interest, where does your package group book you into as a hotel?

    Cheers,

    Kevin

  9. Kevin, that’s great. I look forward to seeing you. My email is mcairnduffATgooglemail.com (the AT is @, changed to foil webspiders looking for addresses for spam). If you drop me a line, I’ll email you nearer the time with our dates (I need to check with my wife). The French place sounds excellent, as might be Canmore (we’ve not been there).

    I’ll look into the books too, and add them to my TBR pile.

  10. May

    It is nice to see virtual friends coming together for real!

  11. Hi May,

    I see from your old blog you’re an Edith Wharton enthusiast. This post by Kevin might interest you:

    http://kevinfromcanada.wordpress.com/2009/01/08/the-house-of-mirth-by-edith-wharton-everymans-library/

  12. May

    Thank you for the link.

    I read Edith Wharton’s classics in my youth and really enjoyed them – hence the pseudonym “May” that I use on the internet, which is not just the month of my birth. Last year I picked up a couple of Wharton’s books that I had not yet read and was quite disappointed. I wonder if I would still like the rest of her works if I read them again.

  13. I read this book in a very fragmented way back in May. I remember enjoying each story back then, but I wasn’t able to put everything together in my head as you did. This review brings back unbelievably affecting memories of it anyway.

    To me, Chandra seems the most exciting Indian writer in English today, despite having the dubious distinction of having screenwritten the (highly toned=down) Hindi adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs. In fact, I stumbled onto this review because I ordered Sacred Games recently.

    Also, his unfairly ignored first novel:Red Earth and Pouring Rain. You think this book demonstrates a love for storytelling? Most of that book is the narrative of a monkey telling the story of a man who’s narrating the story told to him by a woman who’s seeing the story of the monkey’s past life through a bit of water(and some divine intervention). Love and Longing… seems deeper, but Red Earth… takes the cake in terms of making literary fiction a joyride.

    Finally, your question about whether ‘to be alive is to desire’ is a Hindu tenet too is halfway to meaningless. Not because of the meat of the question, but because of Hinduism as it is now; it is a fragmented religion that has way more interpretations than Christianity and the like, but never had any formal schisms. In fact, to be more accurate, it’s hardly a religion, just a label for a set of related cultures (think of the word ‘Semitism’, except significantly more inclusive).

    More finally: I’m sorry for such a long comment on such an ancient post.:)

  14. Ronak,

    There’s no need to be sorry, I really appreciate such a detailed comment.

    Red Earth and Pouring Rain is one I plan to pick up at some point, I still have Sacred Games on my shelf though so I’ll be reading that first.

    He’s an extroardinary writer isn’t he? This was one of my real finds of the year, such talent and not nearly as appreciated as it ought to be.

    Thanks for the comment on Hinduism, that makes sense, it’s not a faith I know well (I have a passing familiarity, but no more than that).

    I have some Siddartha Deb at home (Surfaces), and Akhil Sharma (An Obedient Father), so there’s more Indian literature coming this way in a bit. To be honest, there’s some great stuff coming out of India (hardly a surprise all considered), but I don’t think it gets the attention internationally yet that it merits. One thing I liked about Chandra is it wasn’t movie India, it wasn’t all picturesque poverty and land of extremes stuff.

    Of which, more shortly, as I see you commented on Q&A which was precisely that.

  15. Yeah, he’s an extraordinary writer.

    Clue about the state of English literature in India(by guess who): ‘The Cult of Authenticity‘.

    There’s good stuff out here, but it is seriously hard to find for me, because there’s no reliable reviewer (all the mainstream publications’ reviews are, well… you can guess)(the best review I remember reading).

    PS: You are fast, man.

  16. I’ve read The Cult of Authenticity, I thought it an excellent article.

    Yeah, I struggle too, the Deb and Sharma were recommended once by a poster to a Guardian blog and he seemed to know his stuff so I bought them. I know of no good general sources though.

    Years of doing my own typing Ronak, years of doing my own typing…

  17. Pingback: “In the pause the waves gathered on the rocks below, and then Subramaniam spoke.” « Life as it ain't

  18. Thanks, Max, for the recommendation.

  19. I also just added you to my blogroll, as you’ll probably see.

  20. Yeah, thanks for that, too. 😛

  21. For better or worse, I tend not to edit my blog entries after posting them even if afterwards I can see how they could have been improved (which after the fact is generally pretty obvious).

    I noticed I’d said twice though “in my view”, which is inane (it’s my blog, what other view would it be?) so I’ve deleted those two bits and left the sentences they were part of otherwise unchanged.

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