Review: Bombay Hangovers by Rochelle Potkar

Poet Rochelle Potkar’s first collection of short fiction includes 15 stories set in Mumbai and one set in Goa. They uncover the inner lives of characters while revealing the author’s knack for fashioning intricate plots and dissecting complex relationships
The teeming millions of Maximum City: A street in Mumbai during the festive season. (Kunal Patil/HT Photo)
The teeming millions of Maximum City: A street in Mumbai during the festive season. (Kunal Patil/HT Photo)
Updated on Dec 02, 2021 03:23 PM IST
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ByLamat R Hasan

This first collection of short stories from poet Rochelle Potkar gently yet determinedly uncovers the intimate lives of Bombayites and offers insights that give the reader goosebumps.

In the first of 16 stories, The Arithmetic of Breasts, Narain, a scientist working on “topologising DNA strands” is obsessed with Munika’s “delicious-looking breasts”, and wonders if he has found “The Female Utopia”, a good-looking woman with big breasts. After reluctantly marrying Munika, he lays down the rules: “Twice a day, and four times on a holiday”, just as his colleagues who x-rayed women’s bodies with a similar gaze would have endorsed. He saw her breasts as sand dunes, raisins, and once remarked: “You know, a woman’s nipple is the best indication of her age.” Munika, a PhD in computer science, absorbs such wisdom easily. She gives in to her husband’s demands, like a good wife, quite enjoying the journey herself. Two kids later, the breasts sag, and their sex lives become less adventurous. Munika then takes to a strict beauty regime to keep her breasts supple, yet their lives are thrown off gear by a sudden turn of events.

213pp, ₹280; Vishwakarma Publications
213pp, ₹280; Vishwakarma Publications

Steeped in nostalgia – hence the title Bombay Hangovers – the lives of seemingly ordinary, yet quirky individuals and their clockwork routines are documented with a precision that only an insider is privy to. Potkar whose roots are Goan spent her childhood in the Mumbai suburb of Kalyan. She is as good at sketching characters drawn from the city’s posh quarters as she is with describing lives spent in the sleazy bylanes of Kamathipura.

My favourite story, Parfum, features a Parsi man who marks people by their smells. Russi sets off on a “long odourifeous journey” after his graduation, converting his home into a laboratory, and cutting off from the rest of the world to create his signature fragrance. Potkar’s writing is almost poetic here: “Soon smells had names and associations. Like a nose bleed – heady and thick like a swim through a chlorinated pool, the darkness in a cinema hall like a smell of lost innocence, exhaust frames from a BEST bus like the fear of not completing school homework, or the smell of rain on the streets like a hooker’s armpit he had once seen at a Kamathipura bus stop.”

The love for the right fragrance that drove him to marry Marinette also becomes Russi’s undoing when he discovers, decades later, that smells are “made of feeling, longing, dreaming, wishing, caring…Wrapped in the silences of promises never spoken, emotions never mentioned, feelings never stated.”

Potkar’s knack for fashioning intricate plots and dissecting complex relationships is evident. Her sentences are thoughtful and impeccable. They convey an urgency to explore the social and cultural landscape of the maximum city.

The power of her writing is evident in Salad, the only story set outside Mumbai. Selma Colaco’s ancestral home was usurped by her uncle when she was a child. Now married to a Frenchman she returns to Goa to buy a piece of land which is not just “sun, beach, sand, women, drinks and partying” but also her “culture, history, story, prayer, faith, language, labour, love, and lore”. That she loves and missed the sight, sound, and smell of Goa is made known when she happily mingles with the locals and shops for Goan spices that she can take back to Europe.

After haggling with the broker – for whom “Goa was nothing but a whore” - Selma chooses to stay overnight in the white bungalow she has decided to buy, only to find out that, while she was away, the Goan neighbourhoods had been overtaken by human-wolves.

Most of these stories are about the lives of women, who usually rise to the occasion. As writer Selma Carvalho points out in her introduction, though these women are humiliated, brutalised, and traumatised, sheer resilience redeems and restores them.

Her men are not uncaring either. Russi from Parfum is a case in point. Also, Ismael from Mist, the story set in Kamathipura. Ratna, a prostitute, is taken to Bangkok by a client. Upon her return, Ismael notices that the twinkle in her eyes is missing and that there are red-blue marks all over her body. While the others ignore her, Ismael asks, “Did Pargat seth treat you well? Something happened?”

Author Rochelle Potkar (Thomas Langdon/www.rochellepotkar.com)
Author Rochelle Potkar (Thomas Langdon/www.rochellepotkar.com)

Three disillusioned protagonists, Arvind, Nitin, and Sharda, leading parallel lives is the theme of Paranoia. This is possibly Potkar’s masterpiece though the happily-ever-after endings seem unreal.

The only story that fails to make an impact is Euphoria, which is about the intersection of the lives of two women, representing the two ends of cosmopolitan Mumbai’s pyramid. A CEO and a member of Workaholics Anonymous, Naina, discussing her personal life with Fatima, a saleswoman in a lingerie shop, at Muthu’s cart outside Bandra station is just lame.

Potkar wrote Four Degrees of Separation and Paper Asylum, which was shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2020. There is no buzz around Potkar’s debut collection. This is surprising because Bombay Hangovers is a wonderful read.

Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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Thursday, January 27, 2022