Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Book Review: Coming Back to the City

As someone with very little actual experience of Mumbai, most of the Mumbai lore I've absorbed comes from books and movies. Life in  Mumbai's chawls was exemplified for me by movies like Piya ka Ghar. One heard of the old textile mills being torn down, and being transformed into modern malls or expensive flats: real estate prices in Mumbai remain sky high. Politicians and their henchmen, trade union leaders, self-made entrepreneurs and their success stories, the NRI who decides to return, the conman and his moll, Mumbai has them all.

Anuradha Kumar uses all of these tropes, and yet goes way below the skin of each one of her characters. Each one of them is real, and each one's story links up with the others brilliantly. There are love stories, old and new, a deep sense of the history of a place and a movement. There is an act of raw physical courage, motivated solely by the need to save a few buckets of water for that day's assignment! The author has deep empathy for each one of her characters, whether it be the beautiful, unhappy Pooja, married to the henchman of the local don, her neighbour Richard with his constantly blinking eyes, his mother Rosie who finally finds happiness while working as a housekeeper after the death of her violent and abusive husband, poor rich girl Raina, who craves her wealthy parents' attention, Sneha, the extremely successful radiologist who is devastated when the sex education classes she conducts at a municipal school are shut down, Suhel who has seen the utter misery of his mother's life and his parents' marriage, the lecherous, successful Ghatge who will stop at nothing to save himself, his wife Gauri who manages to hold her own, Mahesh, the utterly frustrated henchman, Suhel's father, who decides to marry for love, despite his age, the doctor-artist, Pankaj Joshi, whose paintings have a seminal role in the story, Neera Joshi, journalist, who was romantically involved with trade union leader Ramakrishna Desai a lifetime ago, to name just some of them.

The writing is exquisite, painting vivid pictures of both people and locales with brief, succinct strokes. The book is beautifully constructed, layered delicately, in a spiral whose hub remains one single chawl. An unlikely love story makes you long for a happy ending. There is huge suspense.
And yes, the flamingos on the cover do find a mention!