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A person like us

In his new book based on the Jessica Lal murder, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi focuses on the urban middle class – people just like us. Kushalrani Gulab chats with the author...

books Updated: Feb 07, 2009 20:55 IST
Kushalrani Gulab

In his new book based on the Jessica Lal murder, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi focuses on the urban middle class – people just like us. Come here, I want you to see this,” says Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, gesturing to the window.

You look out. The sky has exploded into a mass of seagulls, the sun turning them into thousands of pieces of silvery white tinsel, whirling and wheeling above the marshland behind Siddharth’s building.

It’s a mesmersing sight. You can’t tear your eyes away. Behind you, there’s a pleased chuckle. “This happens every evening at this time,” says Siddharth. “These seagulls, the flamingoes, they’re so…”

And you remember that, across the city, in another marshland in Sewri, flights of pink flamingoes are probably doing exactly the same thing at this hour. If ever you forgot why you love Bombay, the birds will remind you – fast.
Seagulls, however, are not why you’re at Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s Juhu flat this Saturday evening. Flamingoes are. Specifically The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay, his just-about-to-release second, and – he insists, shaking his head sadly – last book.

“Something inside me has dried up,” he says in response to your protest that a 28-year-old writer with just two books to his name can’t possibly make such a final decision. “So now I have to figure out what to do.”
For all that its title refers to lost flamingoes, this is not a case for the city’s rapidly dwindling wetlands. The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay is, to put it baldly, the story of four young people in Bombay and the effect that an unbelievable, un-understandable event has on their lives.

“I’ve always wondered how people deal with heartbreak,” Siddharth says, as we stroll down Juhu beach on a chakkar of his neighbourhood, peering at the occasional surviving bungalow in this city of high rises, making friends with a stray puppy and watching the local children, including one little girl, play football (“She’s good,” he says. “I see her here every day.”).

“How do you quantify heartbreak?” he continues. “People ask: ‘how long does it take to get over someone?’ But how can you measure the time?”

But this conversation happens later, when the sun has sunk a little, the sea breeze has picked up and it’s a good time to take a walk. Now, we’re in Siddharth’s spartan flat – no separations except for the bedroom and a glass panel around the kitchen, floor and walls done in a deliberately unfinished manner, minimal furniture, and as much and many windows as possible. “I supervised the workers very carefully when they worked on the floor and walls,” says Siddharth wickedly, “And when my Gujarati relatives visit and say, ‘no tiles on the floor?’, ‘your walls are not painted?’ I tell them it’s because I’m a writer. I don’t have money.”

This is an odd sort of interview. An interview that isn’t. Siddharth is not comfortable with face to face questioning, so he first insists on questions by email “so we have something to talk about when we meet”, and responds to them in the form of a letter. But when you arrive at his flat with more questions and you bring out the notebook and pen, he panics.

“Please, I don’t like this,” he says, looking so alarmed that the notebook and pen eventually return to the bag and the interview becomes a conversation, jumping from books to emotions to other-city-bashing to Gujarati relatives.
But no matter. The Last Flamingoes of Bombay is a big book. Not in terms of size (though it is definitely not a book you can read in a day), but in terms of emotion. The four main characters – Samar Arora, a genius pianist who upped and quit at the age of 25, Karan Seth, a photographer from Shimla who decides that his vocation is to chronicle Bombay on film, Zaira, Bollywood’s biggest star, and Rhea Dalal, a potter who gave up a promising career for her husband – are in a sense people like us. They’re from the urban middle and upper middle class; people who, as Siddharth says, don’t find themselves represented in our books, except perhaps in the chick-lit genre.

“I grew up in a middle class household, and my life presently lends itself to an occasionally glamorous milieu,” he says. “That’s why I wrote about a world to which I was audience, one I can understand; the writing had to have a tremor of authenticity. My writing is firmly located in the worlds of excess and perversion that are equally a part of modern India as the awful, inescapable poverty that surrounds us all. I write for myself, my friends, for people who are interested in the astonishing contrasts of modern India. What does it mean to have a family of friends? How do we cope with being single? Where do sex and politics collide?”

All this is explored in The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay – and more. The lives of the four friends are turned upside down and inside out when something completely unbelievable happens. Zaira is shot and dies, and the others have to deal with that, with the perverted trial that follows, with themselves during and after the trial, and with the world.

But this isn’t an ordinary murder (though there is no such thing as an ordinary murder). This event in The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay is based on the real life story of Jessica Lal, a model playing celebrity bartender who was shot and killed in full view of other guests by a powerfully well-connected person because she had refused to serve him a drink after closing time.

In the book, Zaira’s murderer is Malik Prasad, the son of a minister, who has been stalking and terrorising her for years and getting away with it because his father is who he is.

And in the book, Malik Prasad gets away with murder too. Unlike the real life Jessica Lal case, there is no retrial in the book to ensure that justice is done. Samar, Karan, Rhea and all the people around them, have to live with what happened.

“I wrote the book to examine the India I inhabit, not post-colonial India or Slumdog India,” says Siddharth. “The Jessica Lal case had a retrial, and justice was done, but how often does that happen? So I left the case as it was after the original trial to see what would happen to the lives of my four characters; show the moral ambiguity that forces them to choose between marriage and infidelity, between resistance and confrontation, between public justice and personal peace.”

It all sounds very political, and it is – but it isn’t. (Though Siddharth does make a point by using ‘Bombay’ in the title and throughout the book, not ‘Mumbai’. “Every time I was writing ‘Bombay’ in my novel… it was resistance, and it was celebration. You can change the name of my city. And I will change it right back. Watch me, sunshine.”)


Though the subject of Vikas Swarup’s

Q&A

(now re-titled

Slumdog Millionaire

) and Aravind Adiga’s

The White Tiger

, both books that highlight the India Stinking aspect of India Shining, comes up in conversation, all Siddharth says is: “I’d like to know what you think of them.” Nothing else. But you get the feeling that he doesn’t quite see them as masterpieces of literature.

Flamingoes does, to an extent, go the India Stinking route because of Zaira’s murder and the trial, but Siddharth didn’t write it in a ‘See? This is India’ sort of way. He wrote it as something that happened, inexplicable and pointless as it was, that had to be dealt with. Just as things happen in real life and we deal with them as best we can. Because things happen to middle class Indians too. As a minor character in Flamingoes says to a politician from a right wing political party: ‘Oh, puhleez! Save that Real Bombay – Fake Bombay crap. There may be six hundred and fifty million of us who live below the poverty line but there are also three hundred and fifty million of us who’re not doing too badly, thank you very much.’

“Where are these people in our fiction? Why do only exceptions, pariahs, the marginalised find their way into our literary fiction?” wonders Siddharth.

Flamingoes is a completely different kind of book from his first novel, The Last Song of Dusk, which Siddharth now calls “overwritten and conceited”. In terms of both style and content, The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay couldn’t be further away from the awkward magic realism that pervaded his first book. “Which means I’ll lose even the four and a half readers I had for The Last Song of Dusk,” says Siddharth wryly.

But naturally, he hopes to expand his readership with Flamingoes. “In which case,” he says, “I’ll tell my Gujarati relatives that I can now afford to tile the floor and paint the walls of my flat.”