Why are writers so compelled, so desperate even, to write about Bombay-now-Mumbai city? What is it about the urban centre’s concrete jungles housing migrants from every imaginable background that sucks authors into their thriving, starving, surviving lives? Life in the face of poverty? Moments of calm, of fraternity, within the storm of a hundred pressed-together bodies? However varied the impulses to write are – from a city stretched to its maximum limits to magical realist realities – the several Bombays of fiction are forces to be reckoned with.
Which often makes readers like myself pause before picking up a novel, thinking, ‘Ooff! Not another Bombay Book.’
As Amina uses a carefully concealed needle to jab unwanted exploring hands of the man seated next to her on a train, and Sharada betrays her guru by reworking classical Indian music in a response to the complexities of modern life, Crowfall, Shanta Gokhale’s translation of her own award-winning Marathi novel Tya Varshi, is indeed another Bombay Book. And unfortunately, it bears few characteristics that set it apart from the many others works that have sought to capture the nuances of life in the big city.
Loosely following the stories of several friends set against the backdrop of the city’s middle-class cultural world of art and music, Gokhale’s novel explores age-old tensions between the modern and the traditional in both art and life, asking the question, ‘What can artists do when the world is taken over by monsters?’ The pages of the book circle this question, mirroring the cawing of crows sweeping through the sky in one of the opening scenes, but never quite land upon an answer. Perhaps one reason for the continuing question mark is that the portrayal of the novel’s artists is as inconsistent as the stories themselves. Singer Sharada’s raags and melodies form exquisite onomatopoeias, whereas Ashesh’s struggle to paint using daunting black strokes falls linguistically flat on readers’ ears. Other characters resemble cardboard cut-outs, filling in the canvases’ backgrounds with titbits from their lives, unexplained lovers and unfinished paintings.
Many of these inconsistencies may be attributed to varying familiarity on the author’s part; with different forms of art, that is. Crowfall asks readers to enter characters through their work, which ultimately sets up a dynamic where access is granted or denied based on the ability of the novel’s language to represent varying art forms. Even for the most tone deaf readers, as ‘one powerful, sinuous taan, an unexpected tihai and the tightly wound skein of notes loosens, spills and slowly unravels into silence’, the music of Crowfall‘s world is brought alive on its pages. On the other hand, despite Gokhale’s background as an art critic, word-heavy descriptions of what art means to artists, (Says one painter, “the virtue of beauty…is or ought to be the soul of painting”) does little to draw readers into the visual culture of this world.
Ultimately, however, the successes and failures of Crowfall will be for the bilingual reader to judge, because from the outset of its English avatar, it is keenly evident that much has perhaps been lost in translation. A stiff, contrived language binds the novel together, where the forced use of metaphor punctures even the book’s finest moments. Artificially moulded into English, words are heaped upon each other in large servings, keeping readers at bay from fully entering the world between the pages.
It must be said, though, that like all good Bombay Books, the premise of Gokhale’s work is large and overflowing the cup which seeks to contain it: filled with lanes and bi-lanes, stories and digressions. Politics meets art meets old meets new, and even without a discernible plot, readers of Crowfall are content to amble down its paths, following characters and lives from a distance. For Bombaywallahs, especially, the names of streets, the taste of the monsoon and the hot, self-contained experiences of local transport evoke memories and even a smile or two.
For a writer to enter the complicated mess of Bombay city requires courage, not unlike the first marks of paint on a once-empty canvas; like the one Ashesh struggles, throughout the novel, to fill. However, to do so with skill, to carry this migrant world of a hundred languages, a thousand buses, and a million faces over into the written word, is quite another thing. Unlike the ‘house-shmouse’ sing-song words of grandparents in Rushdie’s Bombay or the slow, langorous linguistic exhalations of Thayil’s recent dragon-chasing Narcopolis, Crowfalls‘s language is, as the saying goes, the limits of its world. As readers, we amble upon the surface of this world, but are rarely compelled to chase and enter Gokhale’s characters and stories, leaving our experience of the novel skin-deep and largely unrewarding.
This piece was originally published under the title ‘Lost in the familiar maze of Bombay-now-Mumbai’ in The Sunday Guardian on 9 November 2013