Saturday, June 29, 2013

Kundalkar, Chattarji, Manto- 3 book reviews

I am archiving three recent reviews of books that I wrote for Time Out Mumbai.
Dirty Love
a collection of short stories by Sampurna Chattarji

Sampurna Chattarji inhales her city in like a deep toke off an unfiltered Charminar. Her exhalations, equally unfiltered, are the short stories in her new collection Dirty Love. While other authors, from Salman Rushdie to Jeet Thayil, may prefer to project their urban perceptions into myth, Chattarji positions herself in the city as it is today. There is neither the benefit of hindsight, nor any studied objectivity. This is Bombay, “das Ding an sich” – the object in itself, which makes Dirty Love a brave and compelling enterprise.

“It’s not where you come from that matters, but how long you intend to stay,” writes Chattarji in her story “How Far Away is Faraway?” Like smoke swirling through the lungs, she has internalised the city. Out of these vapours emerge places and addresses: Colaba Causeway, Café Mondegar, Goregaon, the Mahim Dargah, Bohri Mohalla, the Strand Book Fair. These are the fulcrums around which Chattarji peoples her stories, with protagonists like dosamakers, rat-killers, postmen, watchmen, gas-men, general lowlifes and every-women. These characters are reminiscent of the denizens of Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems. Only Chattarji uses a larger lens, a wide-angle that encapsulates the entire city in its gaze.

Mumbai today is all about people contemplating people, watching and being watched; everyone is an ongoing subject. Vinita, Kausar and Lara are “Three Women in a Restaurant”, strangers, literally and culturally, who spend their time sitting at their solitary tables, regarding one another with envy. In “Burn”, a stoic woman contemplates a howling body on fire from her upstairs window. Chattarji’s city is, after all, “built on a scream” (from the story “An Ancient Memory of Pillage”). Chattarji is a novelist, translator, author of children’s books, editor and poet, and her short stories are rooted on the bedrock of her poetic sensibility. Her stories are written montages, short takes and jump cuts, which interweave urban angst, nostalgia, popular culture and the city’s cultural histories. Her prose is intense, but with the staccato slant of poetic enjambment. This is best seen in the eponymous “Dirty Love” which is a prose poem and should be read aloud, the better to revel in its words while dealing with its explorations into less-than-salubrious odours and secretions. This story is the collection’s guilty pleasure, and perhaps the best one in the book.

Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Penguin India (11 March 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0143068008
ISBN-13: 978-0143068006

Cobalt Blue
a novel by Sachin Kundalkar
translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto

Cobalt Blue is the still-life of a family. Or rather, like dried and cracked paint leaked out of a tube: full of potential but never used. The younger Joshi siblings, Tanay and Anuja, find their existence transformed by the appearance of a stranger who takes centre stage in their lives for a while and then mysteriously vanishes, leaving them both bereft. Both have fallen in love with this man, of their own age but without conventional moorings, a bohemian artist who had joined their household as a paying guest. Sachin Kundalkar’s 2006 novel (translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto) delves into the vacuum of individual heartbreak, exploring those unconnected spaces inside people who live together, but are ultimately alone.

Kundalkar tells his story in two parts. In the first, Tanay directly addresses the absent presence of this unnamed tenant, who embeds himself with innocuous politeness and deference in the household. The memory of the man who became his lover in no time at all, “surges back, hot and fresh”. When the man elopes with Anuja, Tanay (who doesn't see this coming) is left unmoored twice over.

In the second part, Anuja confronts her own demons, having returned after running away with this rather inscrutable artist, who takes her to Pondicherry, then abruptly abandons her. Back home, she confronts her loss and embarrassment by writing a diary, trying to find an explanation for what went wrong. She sees her family’s individual aspirations pull and tug at each other, catalysed by this outsider suddenly introduced into the mix. In this turbulence, Anuja finds a way to reassert herself and makes a beginning at a life determined by her own choosing.

Despite this, Anuja and Tanay’s accounts are uneven. Their paths rarely cross and this leaves one thwarted – particularly in comprehending their motivations to seek love, especially Tanay, who wonders, after numerous casual physical encounters, “How long could I play this game of bodies?” Anuja, even after living in the claustrophobia of a close family never realises the physical nature of her brother’s relationship with her lover.

Kundalkar fills his canvas with colour, detail and hue, painting the Joshi family, their neighbourhood (the girls’ hostel next door, various kakus and maushis) and the conventions (motorbikes, Irani restaurants, kelwans) of the city, unnamed but filled with landmarks that remind one of Pune. His prose is sparse, using repetition and restraint, a quality of contemporary Marathi writing. Jerry Pinto translates, using instinct and imperfection (as he describes in an afterword), a strategy that allows him to remain satisfyingly true to English-speaking Maharashtrian soundscapes. This makes Cobalt Blue, a welcome addition to published translations from the Marathi.

Hardcover:240 pages
Publisher: Penguin (March 18, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10 0670086843
ISBN-13 978-0670086849

Bombay Stories
by Saadat Hasan Manto
translated from the Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed

Manto’s Bombay stories were mostly written in Pakistan, where he lived his last years. “It was almost twenty years ago that I used to frequent those restaurants”, he narrates in “Mammad Bhai”. Here, Manto himself occupies the same space as the eponymous Mammad. Ergo, both are real and fictitious, simultaneously. Most of the stories in this new anthology are situated in and around Byculla, its Irani joints, Pilahouse, Golpitha, Foras (not Faras) Road and Safed Galli. These ossified signifiers remain in Manto’s memory to become pegs on which his stories hang. But what stories they are!

Manto is always readable, his prose curt and direct, like Hemingway’s; but the specifics of these stories set in the Bombay of his past (and of ours) evokes enough nostalgia to stick in your side, like Mammad Bhai’s Rampuri. Even so, it is edifying to look back at a city, which is even now dematerialising, and of a time when the local strongman was still called “dada”, when one travelled by trams and tongas and played solitaire with real cards and called it patience.

In the spirit of Manto, this reviewer recommends reading Bombay Stories, translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed, back to front. Begin with the occasional writings in the Appendix to quickly get immersed into his milieu. The stories can come later. Manto spent less time around Filmistan and Bombay Talkies writing screenplays and dialogues, but more observing the shenanigans of Ashok Kumar and friends. Here, the quirky Manto describes why he does not see movies any more: “The cinema is delusion and those in the film industry get sucked into it too”. He also writes about the perception of “filmi” women, and makes a completely self-deprecating lecture at a Jogeshwari College on “Modern Literature”. If the publishers wished to sell many more copies, they could have called this book “Punters, Pimps and Prostitutes”. Was the Bombay of the 1940s populated entirely by this triumvirate of “lowlives” as Rushdie once described Manto’s subjects? Almost all these stories revolve around them. One does, however, look beyond this salacious potential, and empathise with his fellow denizens, dominated by havenots, trying only to get through the day. Stuck inside this unsettled city, women could be either housewives or whores, and men made a living in any manner possible. Unlike today, individual aspiration is dimmed in the miasma of the present, which is where Manto’s characters live.

And yet, in that, they are very real: a prostitute relentlessly examines her own sexuality in “Insult”; in “Ten Rupees”, the flibbertigibbet Sarita shocks with the unusual choices she makes; even Manto himself is an unwitting beneficiary in “Barren”, as postmodern a meta-tale as one can get. It is in this reality that Bombay emerges as a multicultural, immigrant city where, at the level of the gutter, all are accommodated equally. The translations suffer from some excess, such as the necessity to make “Achoot Kanya” into “Untouchable Girl”. Some folksy Americanisms like “Shit happens" throw you out of the stories. Quibbles aside, this book, based in a city constructed out of Manto’s fevered imagination, should be well received by its citizens today.

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Random House India (1 November 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 8184003056
ISBN-13: 978-8184003055

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