Monday, May 09, 2011

Reflections: Bombay Time

I’m sure someone has noticed my recent trend in books. While previously I was guarded and lukewarm towards books written by authors of Indian origin, these days, I’m making up for my indifference by diligently scanning the library for the very same authors. I have to say that I am pleasantly surprised, both with myself and with the authors. Looking back at the books I have enjoyed and admired in the last few months, I’m thrilled to find that most were written by authors of Indian origin. I have been stirred and awed by the stellar writing prowess of Manil Suri, Abraham Verghese, Anuradha Roy, Salman Rushdie, and Indu Sundaresan. I’m proud of them, and of their beautiful writing that inspires and teaches. Therefore, I find myself in a quest to seek out books and authors that I have ignored for so long; to explore a genre I previously shunned out of the fierce protectiveness I felt towards my own country, home, and people, of the agony of reading about them in a less-flattering light, and of the fear of unearthing uncomfortable memories.

I’ve heard plenty of glowing praises for Thrity Umrigar, so I picked this book of hers. Let me cut to the chase before I embark on my rambling and state that Umrigar is yet another author I would go hunting for in the book racks.

This novel follows a different style of story-telling. It tells the stories of the different occupants of Wadia Baug, an apartment complex in Bombay, housing a well-knit Parsi community. In the throes of their late middle-age, the members of the community nostalgically look back at their lives and wonder at the early dreams, hopes and happiness their lives held, and the detours and disappoints that fate threw their way to break their wings of hope. Despite the uneven bittersweet journey they traveled, they were grateful for one robust pillar of support - the friendship of the Wadia Baug community. The novel is a seemingly simple story of the importance of community and companionship. But the stories are heavily layered with so many aspects of life, especially of life in Bombay.

This is a character-driven book, as some people would classify. The book teems with interesting characters, reminiscent of people we know, of people we probably are turning into, and of people we have struggled to understand. What I respect and marvel at is Umrigar’s honest and insightful psychological appraisal of these people. Despite the characters’ numerous flaws, she shows us the true person they are at heart. She articulates my hypothesis that people are inherently good, and even, simple. Yet, they become complicated, and sometimes reprehensible, because of the disappointments, tragedies, and painful experiences they are forced to go through. They continue to live life as their vulnerabilities, insecurities, guilt, regrets, and wounds threaten to never heal, and fester just under the surface.

For instance, we admonish and hate the gossipy, old woman in the neighborhood, but have probably never taken a moment to consider how her life had been before she became so; why she seems to unfailingly provide food and help when you need it; and why your parents implicitly trust her with their house keys, despite her petty talk and inquisitiveness. Or why the “apartment board” never fires the inefficient, ill-tempered, weak, watchman. Every person has a story, a reason for why there are they way they are. With a little empathy, and a little consideration, we look into the unsoiled person within them. Although we will continue to resent their flaws, their stunted maturity, their cloistered thinking, their intrusion and comments on your life, we need them just as much to establish a community and rely on their basic (sometimes, well hidden), harmless, good nature. We realize, grudgingly at that, that our quintessential Indian neighborhood does indeed do more good than the secluded islands of the western residential communities.

Digested Thoughts: Although at times I felt there were a tad too many characters and stories to keep track of, Umrigar beautifully unwraps the stories of six different Parsi families, and their connection to the Wadia Baug apartment complex. The stories cannot be more real, and honest, and they each involve the role played by Bombay - its boisterous, harsh, unforgiving part. They also shed light on subtle Indian customs, traditions, and its social and political dynamics that complicate life needlessly. As much as Umrigar emphasizes the benefits of being part of a community, she also brilliantly and subtly shows the flip-side. If we wrap ourselves too very tightly and comfortably in the safe cocoon of our little ethnic community, we remain ignorant, indifferent and callous towards the rest of the world operating around us. Secluding oneself within a community is just as bad as being intolerant of other communities. We all need to realize that we are part of something bigger than just our tiny community. It is important to connect with all of humanity, as being part of one big society. This is especially true of India, where there are a million different sectarian groups, that we tend to see ourselves as total strangers if we so much as move to a different religious neighborhood within the very same city. This feeling of being an alien if we step two streets away from our community, is the cause for communal tension and violence.

Anyway, to wrap up, I enjoyed reading this book, especially the character analysis, and will definitely recommend it. Umrigar's writing is simple, but evocative and insightful.


SecondSight said...

Suddenly feels like I've taken to silently stalking your blog- reading your posts and never commenting ;). Liked the sound of a lot of your recent posts, will get to the books themselves soon, I hope :)

As far as Indian origin writers go-
I think authors with multi-cultural backgrounds generally tend to write better than the rest, Indian or otherwise :)

Aparna said...

Sounds interesting. Hope to pick up the book for a read sometime. Have you tried Ashok Banker's Ramayana series? I just started with his first book and its .. well .. differently visualised. Try it if you haven't. And I love your little smiley icon way of rating :)

Neeraja said...

SecondSight, true about the diverse and mature perspectives authors with multi-cultural backgrounds can bring. You should try Anuradha Roy's book - I'm still not sure if I was sentimentally swept away ;).

Aparna, no I haven't tried his books. Will try to look for them here. Always interesting to re-visit epics :). Not sure if the smileys are effective, but they are fun ;)