Coming Back to the City: Mumbai Stories by Anuradha Kumar
Lucid prose and rounded characters make this a novel to savourUpdated: Jan 10, 2020 19:01 IST
The city of Mumbai, edgy, crowded shoulder to shoulder and blatantly contradictory with its slums and Bollywood mansions, skyscrapers and hutments, deserves to be chronicled by a variety of novelists. Over the years, there have been a number of diverse novels set in the city. These include, apart from the novels by Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters and Such a Long Journey, Baumgartner’s Bombay by Anita Desai, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, Bombay Duck by Farrukh Dhondy, Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil, Ravan and Eddie by Kiran Nagarkar, The Boyfriend by R Raj Rao, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry, Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto, and a few others. This novel, the eighth by Anuradha Kumar, has its entire narrative set in Mumbai and its immediate vicinity, mainly in a crumbling 70-year-old chawl located around the Jupiter Mills area in Parel, a chawl thronged by feisty characters who refuse to be buried or dislocated by the threat of a tide of high-rise progress.
As befitting the cosmopolitan city, the cast of characters is varied yet distinctive. They include Pooja, who could be called the reluctant heroine of the book. Pooja is the supplier of home-cooked meals to families and offices in the vicinity. Humane, attractive and struggling to learn English, her greatest sorrow is her inability to bear children despite four years of marriage. Her counterpoint and opposite is the vile and notorious figure of Vidhyadhar Ghatge, an unscrupulous politician and compulsive womanizer, who will stop at nothing to stay in power and to keep his constituents in check. Among the plethora of other characters is Mahesh, Pooja’s husband, an obsequious and willing slave of Ghatge. Mahesh, however, makes a partial redemption of himself towards the end with a bizarre attempt at retaliation against Ghatge. Besides Mahesh is the doctor-painter Pankaj Doshi, whose expensive paintings are bought as soon as they are finished by a wealthy audience, including the villainous kind. He remains a feeble figure unable to confront gangster Ghatge despite being an eyewitness to a murder and with tangible proof at hand. There are several other characters: the radiologist Sneha Desai, hopelessly in love with Ghatge, and struggling to start a sex education school for adolescents, who meets a tragic end in Panchgani, the American researcher, Maria, who also lives in the chawl to gain firsthand knowledge for her studies, Ghatge’s wife, Gauri, who makes infrequent visits from Chiplun to Mumbai, and Pooja’s friend Vasudha with a newborn baby. Vasudha also becomes a lover of Ghatge, who, incidentally, is no ardent Don Juan-like lover but a quick-fix chauvinistic male.
Other characters include the committed journalist Raina Gupta, ironically the daughter of a real estate tycoon, a seasoned activist Neera Joshi, a pioneering assassinated leader Bhau Ramakrishna Desai, and pivotally, a wealthy 49-year-old entrepreneur and son of a decorated army officer in the UN, Suhel Kolhatkar, who takes an impulsive joyride in a helicopter over the city of Mumbai and falls heart and headlong in love with Pooja despite the class disparities.
This is indeed a wide and varied cast of characters, and there are a few more minor ones. It is much to the author’s credit that the reader does not have to continually turn back the pages to keep a tab on the players. This is testimony to Kumar’s narrative skills. Thankfully, there is no magic realism, that overdone genre here, but a straightforward narrative, a narrative which by no means makes for a gripping page turner, but one that, because of the lucid quality of the prose and the rounded characters, needs to be savoured and lingered over. At least a part of the city is brought alive, in this case the new, ‘modernizing’ area of Parel, which once housed a variety of chimney-filled mills. In a city where land is precious and slum dwellers are constantly under the threat of eviction to make way for premium skyscrapers, the central location of Parel only added to its real estate value, attracting hordes of greedy and unscrupulous developers and builders with their bulldozers. This fact is central to the novel with the inhabitants around Jupiter Mills forever living on the edge of displacement. There are also deft and unobtrusive touches of description that bring the characters physically alive.
Though Anuradha Kumar has published several other novels, for jaded reviewers, it is always a pleasure to discover an author new to them. Kumar, who lives in the US, has written seven other books, including two works of historical fiction, Emperor Chandragupta and Emperor Vikramaditya, both published under a pseudonym. She has a background in management and history and a Master’s degree in Fine Arts from Vermont College, USA. These degrees do not automatically bestow one with creative writing skills — at best they can only hone the talent that a writer already possesses. And Kumar has that ingrained talent. The only flaw — and a serious one at that — is the arch villain Ghatge does not, in the end, receive just punishment. The final denouement is absent. This leaves the reader vaguely dissatisfied, like a full meal not rounded off by dessert. If anyone deserves his just desserts, it is Vidhyadhar Ghatge. But the character of Pooja, honest, hardworking, pretty and deserving of her good fortune in the figure of the wealthy and decent Suhel makes for a satisfying counterpoint.
Manohar Shetty has published several books of poems including ‘Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems (1981-2017)’. He lives in Goa.