The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay
Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
Rs 499 PP 368
I really wanted to like this book. I really, really did. I have been following Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s career with interest and always found him both intelligent and articulate in his guest appearances on television. So, I tried my best to get into
The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay
, searching desperately for a winning turn of phrase, a surprising plot twist, a blurring of stereotypes. But about half-way into the book I gave up looking for some redeeming qualities and concentrated on just getting through the damn thing.
This is a big book (or does it just seem like that when you’ve struggled for a week to get through it?) in terms of the themes it attempts to tackle, in the range and scope of the characters it attempts to flesh out. But it showcases a very slight talent, one that wasn’t really up to the job of bringing all these disparate elements together.
Surely, it takes a special sort of skill to take a story that gripped the imagination of an entire nation — the Jessica Lal murder trial — and turn it into a tale so tedious that is near-impossible to read through to the end.
But in the interest of fair reporting, I did just that. And boy, was it hard going, wading through all that ungainly over-writing, awkward metaphors, and a deathly profusion of adjectives. The writing is so bad that if you didn’t know better you’d think Shanghvi was doing some sort of clever, clever send-up: “smugness blasted out of her face like a fart”, “reading further would have been like bathing in vomit”, “Priya had a crusty librarian’s voice, one that could only be relieved by a dildo”.
And then, there’s the stilted, self-conscious phrasing that ties up the narrative — and the reader — in knots instead of taking the story forward. This is the moment when Karan, one of the lead protagonists, is handed a picture he took of Zaira (the Jessica Lal character) in happier times. “Karan picked it up, a misleading memento from a past that had been nearly perfect; its splintered existence ridiculed the present moment with a distant, hyena laughter.” Yeah, right.
There are times when the book resembles nothing more than the work of a precocious child who has just discovered a thesaurus and can’t resist dipping into it after each sentence. And then, there are all the sexual metaphors, each one more cringe-making than the other: “The words escaped the judge’s mouth involuntarily, like a premature ejaculation.” At one point, Samar, Zaira’s gay best friend, says about the Indian novel: “It’s like they’ve come gushing from the almost-a-pussy of a drag queen called Lady Epic.” (No, seriously, I’m not making this up.)
On one level, this book has everything: homosexuality, murder, the movies, love, passion, anger, hatred, betrayal, tragedy. But for all that it seems curiously empty.
It has many ostensibly shocking bits — the minister who lost his virginity to a buffalo and still fantasises about that encounter, violent death, a fleeting reference to anal sex — but even these lack resonance.
And though every Bombay cliché is firmly in place — brittle society ladies, dingy bars, Chor Bazaar, Ban Ganga, the traffic jams at Ganesh Chaturthi, the riots, hell, even the floods make their requisite appearance at the end — the city still resolutely refuses to come alive in the book.
As I ploughed on to the end, I didn’t know what was more depressing: the fact that all the characters come to such sticky ends; or that you couldn’t care less what happened to them.
This could have been a cracker of a story, properly told. What a shame it got lost in all that purple prose.
Seema Goswami writes the Sunday column ‘Spectator’ in Brunch