Thursday, March 30, 2017

Murders in Mumbai

The book review cum gift recommendation I am about to write will not be a patch on the three books I am about to discuss.

It seems to be that every month some friend or professional acquaintance publishes a book and there are a slew of book launches, most of which I do not attend. Many of these books are what we used to call 'reference books'--academic books you read when you need to for your work. Some are non-fiction, the kind it's nice to pose with on social media. And a very small number are immediately inviting, as fiction.

It does not matter that these three books are by people I know to varying degrees. Indeed, sometimes that is a deterrent because you hear that person's voice read the book out to you and it can be painful. You also spend time guessing why they wrote what they wrote and that is a distraction. There is so much pressure to love the book and express that love on social media that it is hard to feel the love without performance anxiety.

For a person who talks about non-violence and peace, you may be surprised to learn how fond I am of murder mysteries. Of course, I do not read books that describe the murder in detail and I am spooked by books that delve into dark, psychological depths. I do not really know about this stuff and honestly, I don't care. What I enjoy immensely in a good murder are the character profiles that are built up as the detective (or detectives) talk to the suspects and I love the final denouement of what happened and how they figured it out.

It does not matter that these are Bombay books--no matter what you call the city. These stories could not have happened anywhere else. These characters could not have been from any other city. And yet, they could. There is also something universal about the stories--and I don't mean that in the pretentious way that some contemporary writers make everything about the world's pressing problems. I just mean, you have met people in these books somewhere in your own life--even if you live outside Bombay.

I am writing about them because I loved them and I think you might too. I also think they would make a great summer reading gift--I can see the three, stacked and tied together with a ribbon, or being pulled out eagerly from a gift bag. And then being consumed with pleasure.

First, I read "A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge" by CS Lakshmi 'Ambai'. This is a collection of three short stories, all of which feature Sudha Gupta, a private detective. The stories were translated from the Tamil by Gita Subramaniam but they read so well in English--with all the Hindi and Marathi intact--that you do not realise they were not originally written in the language.

I will not tell you what the stories are about. They are feminist stories, for sure, but they wear their politics casually and in a way that makes you understand feminism is really about human struggles for freedom (from violence) and equality (of choice). Sudha Gupta's investigations are humane and diplomatic, and the stories are filled with light like the January sun and the breeze that comes through your auto as you drive past Juhu beach. You finish the third story with disappointment--what, she just wrote three, how could she stop here? A megacity holds a myriad stories, each waiting for Ambai's pen.

The second book I read was Jerry Pinto's "Murder in Mahim." I had not read his award-winning first novel because it seemed to require a commitment of seriousness from me that I am rarely able to make outside my work. (I feel the same way about Aamir Khan films.) But surely, a murder mystery is a light read? "Light" may not now be the word I use to describe Jerry's book, but "beautiful," "exquisitely written with a great loving heart" and "very moving" would be.

"Murder in Mahim" has the admirable quality that I find in Rohinton Mistry's books--I can smell the city. And much as I love Bombay, let's face it, fragrance is not one of its strong suits. But starting from the station loo where the story begins to the mixed odours of the breeze near Shivaji Park to the cooking smells of the housing societies visited in the book, you can smell the city in this book and so you are there.

I loved the characters--perhaps because I have met them before, a little of this person, a little of that. Everyone speaks at length but interestingly--which is a departure from real life and one that is welcome! The small details draw you into the world of the book and hold you there. The one that comes to mind as I write this is the discussion over the glasses and tableware that should be used for a visitor. The menu then is a discussion of how the fish (or was it chicken?) was used--some for pre-dinner snacks, some to be served with dinner. You have to have been very, very observant to write like this--to have absorbed every minute aspect of the world around you and people over a lifetime--to be able to recreate them in this way. Don't misunderstand--there is no ostentatious "look at me," "I am such a great literary artist" presence here. As in life, so in this book, the miniature artistry is just there--enjoy it if it is to your taste or else just use it to soak in the plot.

The plot is also quite complicated and you want to push, push, push through to the end to find out who did what and why. The journey takes you everywhere in Bombay and for someone like me, reintroduces familiar places with new stories. The story is actually so intense I could not read this book at night--life, like this, would be a nightmare. And yet, there is so much warmth in the writing and so much fight in each character, that at the end, this is an uplifting book.

Having said all this, I really do not do the writing justice.

The last of the three books is Aditya Sinha's 'The CEO who lost his head.' This book is so much fun! I have chuckled over the author's political columns and was delighted to see the same irreverent style here--in the characters' names, in their interactions, in the dialogue--and to see the real world in walk-on parts through the book. The allusions do not stop at front-page politics and security events but the book also makes room for the gender politics of the city, the workplace and the home in significant ways.

This is less of a Bombay book than the others--in that the city itself features less here than it does in the others, but it is a Bombay newspaper universe book! I chuckled over the main characters and relished the mystery plot, but equally I must confess I enjoyed guessing who-was-whom throughout the book.

I would be very disappointed if this were the only murder mystery--or only novel--Aditya Sinha wrote.

The three books together bring alive the nine rasas within one genre--murder. There is love, lust, beauty, laughter, grief, anger, courage, fear, disgust, wonder through all these three books, and shanta rasa--peace--comes when the mysteries are solve--but not entirely. And how have we managed so far without detectives or detectives of our own--Sudha Gupta, Jende and D'Souza and Solvekar and Ramteke... welcome to our world!

But forget all my words--I only write them for the pleasure that process brings me. Just get the books and get to the words that Ambai, Pinto and Sinha wrote!

Monday, March 20, 2017

A lament on waiting

One of the hardest parts of every single day of my life is waiting.
Waiting for people who are late for appointments.
Waiting for people who have yet to wake up and read their email. Waiting for them to decide to respond. Waiting for volunteers to have time to read email and feel like responding. Waiting for things to get done at another person's pace although you know time is of the essence in almost everything. Waiting for a Skype or phone call while the other person forgets and feeling like you cannot afford to get mad. Waiting for the moment as you work late when you will start feeling dizzy at your desk but need to push so that at least things on your desk will get done on time.
Waiting, and biting back the goading and pushing, and remembering to always sound abjectly grateful--you have no idea how stressful this can be. My ego is daily subdued by continuing to depend on other people for all sorts of things--their time, their money, their effort, their attention.
I will end this life having learnt great patience despite my fundamental impatience and a Bombayite's deeply embedded sense of urgency.
In my next life, I want to be surrounded by speedy people and the luxury of leisurely creation.
And I want never ever to put people in the position in which I constantly am-- of quelling anxiety and hypertension as I wait; of tempering the need to scream at them; of feeling very small because I depend on their goodwill; of feeling helpless; of knowing that a decade of just waiting for other people has decimated my stamina to the point that even tasks I can execute on my own now take help.