By Madhusree Chatterjee
The notion of the megapolis of Bombay (now Mumbai) — hugging the blue waters of the Arabian Sea — as a powerful literary theatre of quixotic lives, larger-than-life personalities, pioneers, dystopian urban-scapes, transformation and cinematic blitz set two new books, “The Fuss About Queens and Other Stories” by Darius Cooper (OM Books) and “Engglishh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation” by Altaf Tyrewala (Harper Collins-4th Estate) from the rest of the printed crop this monsoon.
Primarily, both the books which build themselves around the city of techni-colour dreams – the nation’s financial soul — as geography of change and its emotional manifests are monsoon “reads”. The products are best sampled, as Altaf Tyrewala (the editor and compiler of ‘Bombay Noir’ and the founder of the Chandigarh Literature Festival) refers to in his book — “like a chemist” – to bring a smile to the monsoon-heavy intellect resting its feet on a footstool, watching the “mildlings” mill in grey nimbus mass across the watery horizon.
The anthologies, however, are not fluffy – like the milling banks on the edge of the water. Tyrewala addresses the complex soul of Mumbai in his pithy collection of stories that verge on satires and soliloquy- while Cooper revels in a retro-nostalgia of a Mumbai lost, harking back to his halcyon days of youth when Bombay still responded to the “colonial” affectations — and the Anglo-Indian Parsi “dikra” was loved like one of the city’s “very own”. Cooper, born in Pune, taught in Sion for several years before moving to US (to Mesa College in San Diego) to teach critical thinking and cinema. Tyrewala, a Nineties child educated in US, is rooted in Mumbai, sustained by the changing weather and the fluctuating tows of the city and its water body. The two volumes touch two diametrically opposite chords of Mumbai – but on a common par, nostalgia.
“Mumbai as a city reflects the flaws within us. It remains imperfect- they have built gridways, new roads and urban railway, but the city is jammed; dotted with potholes. Despite itself, the city manages to balance perfection and imperfection, symbolic of our fears. It makes you feel at home and comfortable,” Tyrewala tells this writer on the sidelines of the launch of his book in July 2014.
Tyrewala crafts his narrative on the strength of Bombay’s euphemisms and changing lingua — new tales spawned by a transforming Mumbai under siege from Bollywood-Hollywood, Ekta Kapoor’s “K” fetish, the real estate boom, fast luck, superstitions, numerology of luck and the vanishing relics of a city born in the cusp of metamorphosis — when a closed India was opening its door to the winds of enlightenment from the west.
Tyrewala’s stories speak for India in general where orders are changing swiftly to make space for the new. “It was a rich culture,” says Tyrewala. Almost like the old “marble table tops” that once decked the premises of a 100-year-old second hand bookshop at Dhobitalao in Mumbai owned by the author’s uncle. “The culturally-aware citizens, I guess, wanted to carry the marble table tops home when the shop closed. They wanted to take home a slice of old Mumbai,” the young writer explains.
In his story, “The New and the Second Hand”, Tyrewala recalls his uncle’s old and second hand bookshop in Mumbai in a wish-fulfilling monologue about how it would have been to have owned the shop. The writer tries to convey with passionate idealism about books – the seriousness of literature – and the unsullied objective of a bookshop to deliver to the intellect rather than the mass entertainment forum. The story is humorous and sad- funny and satirical. “My uncle closed down the bookshop in 2011 (it was set up in 1905). They are the landmarks of my imagination,” Tyrewala says. The writer uses satire as a tool to mourn the passing away of a historical Mumbai.
Don’t shut down the shop. “….Everyday, at least two customers say this to me with a sad sigh, while shelling out peanuts for their purchases. The wealth of this customer is evident from their oversized phones and leather bound tablets, branded wallets and handbags, the crisply casual clothing. I call them the lamenters of a fading Bombay. They grieve the closing down of the Irani cafes, rage against the fading out of the Padmini taxis…..”
This nostalgia contrasts with the impertinence, intelligence and astute humour that paint the theatre in stories like “Engglishhh”, “An Indian Porn Director’s Speech to his Hesitant Leading Lady” or the “One Hit Wonder Literature Festival: Welcome Kit”. “Engglishhh” heaps scorn on Mumbai’s “nameology-numerology” fad – which Tyrewala says has been triggered by “K” factor to invoke Lady Luck for her serial assembly line soaps on screen. An extra alphabet in a name or a proper noun changes the “aura” surrounding the word or name. “I have researched Indo-Puranic principles at the Asiatic Library. It exists,” Tyrewala insists.
“An Indian Porn Director’s Speech….” is a comic look at the spirit of nationalism sweeping through Bollywood interpreted by a pep speech by a director who wants to make a “desi pondy”, (pornographic movie)” about “Laila doing Majnu” at all possible places like the blonde beauties and white hunks of our childhood “blue flicks” smuggled into hostel dorms over weekends. We can better “them”, the director tries to drive home to his leading lady.
Irreverent, funny, audacious, ironic, scathing, sad and experimental, is how Tyrewala tries to define his oeuvre. The stories smells of Bollywood underbelly- the all-weather Mumbai bulwark which supported Tyrewala’s growing up years like the “seasons of Mumbai” which governed the tenor and language of the writer’s creative prose.
“because, I came of age in the late 1990s, when the Internet was flowering. The web 1.0 was about ground-breaking content, meta-fiction, monologues, experimentations, new offerings and liberation. I realized that experimentation was possible in short stories. But it does not lend itself fully to the novel form,” Tyrewala says.
In juxtaposition, Darius Cooper’s collection of 11 short stories, “The Fuss About Queens…” is a lament and an ode at the same time to a changing city, peopled with stark characters, quaint events, history, sociology and humour that layers Bombay just below its everyday de rigueur of existence.
Cooper says, there is a critical sensibility and a creative sensibility he likes to indulge in his study of Mumbai (and Pune where he was born). “The critical sensibility tends to override the creative itch because I am an academic. In this context, the creative enterprise becomes interesting,” California-based Cooper tells his writer over telephone.
His literary outlook is influenced by prose and poetry – that he alternative between — but the overarching inspirations are Bollywood and Mumbai’s “masala language” that pervade through his work like shrouds of ethnic colours. Cooper has authored two volumes on Indian cinema, “Between Tradition and Modernity: The Cinema of Satyajit Ray” and “In Black and White: Guru Dutt and Hollywood Melodrama”.
Movies, metaphors, spirituality, symbols of modernism, landscapes of Mumbai, human dramas and transformation form the core of his narratives. “The Metaphorical Spot” crosses the tedium of the mundane to the realm of the bizarre in a “ravaged Mumbai”.
“Neelkantha decides to kill himself the day his wife announced suddenly on the dining table that she is going to take fencing lessons….”
“Now, we shall have our own Nadia in the family,” Neelkantha says. The announcement hurtles Neelkantha to the path of “self-annihilation”— weighed in by his inability to accept change in the city, at the sight of old cinema hall renovated into a monstrosity, his tele-addicts of children and his own life. The tale climaxes with Neelkantha – in the true traditions of Shaivite theology where Neelkantha is the blue throated Shiva incarnation of mass clean-up having swallowed all the sins of the world — readies to kill himself with “poison from an ink-pot (prepared by his son)” on a “static” escalator in the city of Mumbai.
Neelkantha is described as the “last bastion of modernism being pulverized by the collective post-modern fury of his own family and the metropolis”.
“I have a problem with post-modernism. As an academic trained in the modernist era, I tend to go beyond the superficiality. Someone has to explain to the Generation Next what is the image and its significance – to read between the images,” Cooper points out. His stories are these images of a morphing Mumbai.
“The city has deteriorated tremendously. It is sad for me. I come to the city twice a year – and each time I return, a significant part of the city has disappeared. The Bombay I was associated with is not there any more. The Bombay I am writing about is Rushdie’s ‘Imaginary Homeland’. I am visitor to this new city,” Cooper says, lamenting “the loss of the consciousness of the Bombay (and Pune) of his childhood”. “There is a new sensibility, new residences and a new narrowness that have destroyed the Anglophonic sensibilities and the cosmopolitanism of the city. Bombay was such a feisty place. It is this aspect that makes writing about Bombay so pertinent now,” Cooper explains.
“The Fuss About Queens” – the story from which the anthology derives its title — is a study of this conflict-riven heart of Mumbai as chronicled by a young Parsi boy Gieve. It bears a whiff of an autobiographical slice of history- but Cooper refuses to commit to “specifics”.
It is mirror to the new nationalistic wave that marks the indigenization of Mumbai in the 1950s-1960s- or may be later. Queen Elizabeth II is about to make her maiden appearance in Mumbai and the city is gearing up to welcome the queen. Gieve sees the eatery next to “chawl highrise” Dubash Building “changing to menu” to make the fare “fit for the queen”. Gieve, who lives with father Kekobad and mother Freny, puts his foot down on the euphoria, arguing for a more “swadeshi” welcome to the queen. He anoints two new queens – his mother Freny who cooks a traditional Parsi breakfast vermicelli and eggs for the family in honour of the queen and Mrs Masceranas, an old Anglo-Indian neighbor — who go out arm-in-arm to greet the queen as the Big Ben chimes 12 noon, the arrival hour of the queen’s motorcade. He manoeuvres a new patriotism in the back streets of Mumbai.
A story has to go beyond the obvious, Cooper says. “I have been disappointed with the so-called contemporary Indian literature – what I really dislike about contemporary writing are glib literary devices,” the author says. A writer has to supply something that “you have not heard or known”.Mumbai pulses with such untold stories.