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Bombay: Hieronymus Bosch on acid

On the eve of the Frankfurt Book Fair, where India is the guest of honour, writer Ilija Trojanow looks at three books that are remarkably successful in their foolhardy attempt to capture the Moloch Bombay in its entirety.

This year it was a terrible monsoon. First, it rained for a day and a night until the water had nowhere to go, since the sea had risen to the highest mark on the gauge in a long time. Bombay was flooded from above and below; water collected in the areas that had been wrested away from the sea, in depressions between the hills, in the former lagoons between the seven islands (myths are not only built on hills). Every flooded city is an unforgettable sight - Bombay under water looks like a painting by Hieronymus Bosch on acid. The temples close their gates in order to escape gurgled prayers; mudslides bury huts and workshops; the cursed and the damned are swallowed up by open drains; stranded drivers squat on the roofs of taxis and stare into the dark floodwaters like short-sighted vultures.

Bombay had barely had time to recover from the deluge, when news spread that irate Muslims were protesting on the outskirts of the city, because a chowki, a small police station, had been erected on their cemeteries. The police shot into the crowd and fatally wounded two men. On the evening of the same day, a motorcycle carrying two policemen skidded over on the wet streets, and an angry mob pelted the policemen with stones and stabbed them to death.

Three days later the statue of Meena Tai, deceased wife of Bal Thackeray, was anonymously defiled by mud smeared on the face. The insulted widower, a former caricaturist and, thus, a master of exaggeration - who portrays himself as the larger-than-life founder of the radical nationalist Shiv Sena Party and a man of the people invested with a historical mandate to save the Hindu nation - gave his goondas free reign. These party henchmen stormed the streets, set vehicles on fire and forced the closing of shops.

And two days later - between 6:24 p.m. and 6:31 p.m. in the evening - seven bombs exploded within seven minutes at seven stations of the Western Railway Line and ripped apart the first class compartments in which they had been planted to target the professional elite. The 4,000 passengers typically penned in together in a commuter train at this time of day staggered onto the tracks and pulled at the grotesquely twisted metal of the cars with their bare hands in order to rescue the numerous injured, or sat bleeding on the banks. The responsible Railway Police Force was overwhelmed: they had no first aid kits and did not even know the telephone numbers of nearby hospitals.

Over 200 people died that day, but what shocked the inhabitants of Bombay more deeply than the grief for their fellow citizens was the question whether this would upset the fragile balance of this "schizophrenic city" (as the reporter Suketu Mehta calls it). Could such bombing attacks destroy the cultivated hybridity, the sheer endless shades of grey that Bombay entails?

"Maximum City" by Suketu Mehta

Three books that are appearing this autumn in German offer answers to these questions. The Indian authors Vikram Chandra, Suketu Mehta and Altaf Tyrewala attempt to capture the city in as much entirety as possible, and they are remarkably successful in this foolhardy attempt, even if the three are somehow - whether linguistically, analytically or in terms of content - forced to their knees by this Moloch.

The problems that overtook Bombay like gangrene last summer are at the core of these three books, which take a holistic look at the city. The point of departure is a new struggle surrounding issues of difference, which is fed by an alleged compulsion for self-assertion - a fight that is sometimes carried out with rhetoric and sometimes with violence. Most of the city inhabitants are immigrants, and even those who have made their home here for one or several generations still maintain close relationships to their place of origin. Created and formed by the British, built and populated by Parsi shipbuilders, merchants from Guajarat, textile workers from the villages of Maharashtra, Dalit labourers from the south, musicians and teachers from Goa, Bombay has provided a home for different peoples since the start, without having any one community of its own. In Sonapur, the "city of gold" there was a place and a livelihood for everyone.

That changed when the city exceeded a tolerable settlement density (today Bombay has over 16 million inhabitants). Parties like Shiv Sena began raising the issue of belonging. It was easy to establish scapegoats for the urban crisis: refugees from Bangladesh and Muslims in general.

The Hindu-nationalist party Shiv Sena introduced a politics of exclusion and at the same time established itself as a social organisation, which built up a welfare network parallel to the crumbling structures of the city administration. Through its social work Shiv Sena won the sympathy of the slum inhabitants. With its demagogy it gave the largely Hindi middle-class, which was fighting to maintain its meagre privileges, a new sense of self-worth. By founding unions that undermined the traditional, communist-leaning worker’s movement, it secured the support of the rich and influential.

When difference is rebuked and publicly dramatized, the excluded search for their own rallying points. Each side digs in, barricades themselves inside a shelter with their short supplies of identity and builds up their arsenal. The explosion is merely a spark away. Suketu Mehta logically starts his fantastic portrait of Bombay, "Maximum City", (excerpt) in December 1992 when a mob, spurred on for months by fanatical slogans, destroys the Babri Mosque (news story) in a northern Indian city called Ayodhya, supposedly because it had been built on the site of what had been a particularly holy
Ram temple. Within hours the building was desecrated stone by stone until there was nothing left but a burning wound.

The shock felt by India's some 150 million Muslims was huge, and there was an enormous readiness to strike back. In many places authorities responded with self-restraint: the directorship of the country's largest Koran seminar locked the gates of the school for three days, so that the enraged students could not get out into the town.

However it was in Bombay of all places, tolerant, cosmopolitan Bombay, where the inconceivable happened. The city ignited, people were raped, lynched, set on fire. The police shot, sometimes randomly, at those who dared to go out on the streets. Who began the violence, when or how it started is difficult to tell in retrospect. The fact is that the news of the rape of Hindu women - including the rumour that a handicapped girl had been abused by a "horde of circumcised" and then burned alive - fomented the desire for revenge. In the following weeks around 2,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims. Suketu Mehta was able to get some of the murder-activists from that time to talk. The forthright and proud "confessions" of these male patriots are among the most bloodcurdling passages in "Maximum City".

"Sacred Games" by Vikram Chandra

What happened after this massacre is impressively recounted in Vikram Chandra's novel "Sacred Games" (excerpt). The bosses of the Bombay underworld, hitherto expressly secular, began to take sides. The powerful consigliere Dawood Ibrahim (profile) procured explosives in Pakistan, most likely through the help of its national secret service, smuggled them into the city and set off ten bombs on March 12, 1993 at neuralgic or symbolic locations, such as the stock exchange or the Air India high-rise. Chota Rajan, Dawood Ibrahim's former adjutant, split off with his followers, and - if one is inclined to believe Vikram Chandra's fiction - the Hindu Mafia boss became the informant of the Indian security service, their shield and sword in the underworld. The fight between the mafia groups developed into a completely new proxy war.

Vikram Chandra is not the first artist to take on this topic. Ram Gopal Varma shot the film "Company" years ago, a dark, unidealized and erotic portrait of the relationship between these two gangsters in grainy, quick-moving cuts. "Company" starts out with an off-screen voice, which could serve as a motto for all three of the Bombay epics discussed here: "You can say what you want. Everything you do in life you do for profit. This business also works for profit. It doesn't pay any taxes and doesn't keep any books. Because this business operates with fear."

There is much to be said for reading Suketu Mehta's non-fiction and Vikram Chandra's novel in parallel. The different layers of text flow into one another. Sometimes Mehta's formulations are more poetic and gripping; sometimes Chandra seems to have researched the unfathomable with greater precision. What can sometimes be starry-eyed portraits of high-ranking police officers with Mehta are corrected by Chandra through more murky images. His depictions correspond more to my own experiences and research where, in a nutshell, the police function as the most powerful mafia group of all: they control all the other gangs by instigating fights between them and pitting them against each other. When overlapped, the two texts meld into a dense, many-voiced and believable panorama of power relationships within the city, for both authors share the belief that Bombay after the bomb attacks of 1993 can be best understood in terms of the grey area between the corrupt police and rival gangs.

It is easy to die in Bombay, but it is impossible to forget that one is alive. During the night one's dreams are populated by the dense noise, and one awakes to be permeated by a singular energy that feeds on millions of struggles for survival - day by day, on every corner, on every curb - on a pulse that beats in the hysterical honking of the drivers and in the hectic movements of the paanwallas as they spice and roll up betel nuts.

To describe Bombay one must find a literary means of capturing this dynamic ubiquitousness, the syncopes between hope and despair, between cursing and rejoicing. To write about Bombay one must master the art of the poisonous declaration of love, and this is something true Bombaywallas (literally "those who belong to Bombay") have done: authors like Chandra, Mehta and Tyrewala. Their affectionate exposures of Bombay bear witness to the strong bonds that, for all the traumas and disappointments, exist between the megacity and its citizens.

Vikram Chandra - and to a lesser extent also Suketu Mehta - puts his faith in the realistic wide-screen panorama of the nineteenth century, not only in true-to-detail descriptions and a matter-of-fact, functional language, but also in the almost sociologically exact depiction of different classes and spheres of life from the homeless to ministers, from sadhus (hermits) to whores. This kind of realism is naturally based on a profound amount of research, and both authors have done exemplary work in this sense. Suketu Mehta is apparently an outstanding listener who has managed to loosen the tongues of those who are tight-lipped for professional reasons: a high-ranking police officer, a petty criminal and a courtesan. An impressive number of people have placed their confidence in him, and these testimonials are what guarantee the intimate authenticity of his documentary city narrative.

Since Mehta is usually restrained in his commentary and only seldom inserts his own sensibility, as a reader one falls under the allure of the Dancing Bars, like hundreds of thousands of men in Bombay. These are the dim shanties where young, demurely clad women twist and turn on a small dance floor, while they are surrounded by ogling clients who hang garlands of bound banknotes around their necks or scatter packs of bills over their heads like rain. With Chandra one learns how elections are rigged, what underlies Shiv Sena’s success, how bribes are distributed throughout the police apparatus and how the political system of India functions - far better than in any political science text book.

Chandra's novel is best compared with the novels of Vikram Seth ("A Suitable Boy") and Rohinton Mistry (Family Matters) (without, I might add, attaining the same quality) - with one small but essential exception: the Bollywood influence. Like Salman Rushdie, Chandra likes to borrow from popular Hindi films. "If one has grown up in India at the end of the twentieth century," he once explained to me "there is no way to escape the influence of films. I love commercial cinema, the variety of forms is fantastic. I also like the songs that function as a kind of sublime lyrical level, where for a few minutes the tension is forgotten only to be felt more intensely afterwards. This technique of maintaining the intensity of the viewers' emotions has a longstanding tradition: as far as we know, scenes with dance and song were an essential part of the narrative in classical drama. In our culture there is a pervasive idea that one can achieve enlightenment through pleasure."

To paraphrase Chandra himself, in his novel "Sacred Games" the author uses the tools of trash and detective novels to build suspense, but the essence of the text is Veda (knowledge). This procedure is not without certain dangers. Some tangential threads seem as flat as the content description of a Bollywood film. For example, there is the story of the gangster's daughter who consents to an arranged marriage although she loves another man, and she apparently resigns herself to her fate only to throw herself in front of a car one night in Switzerland on the honeymoon. Or there is the wondrous transformation of gangster boss Ganesh Gaitonde, who discovers his libido in his wife's bed only once he has become a ringleader during the riots. Incidentally, in his first novel "No God in Sight", Altaf Tyrewala offers a reverse transformation: the young Babua becomes a Hindu fanatic because he cannot satisfy a village girl. There have been more elegant plottings of the interplay between power and potency.

Chandra and Mehta worked together on the film script for a movie (sadly unconvincing) called "Mission Kashmir", which (surprise, surprise) dealt with violence against innocent people, atonement and revenge in the context of the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims. In his extensive reportage Mehta dedicates over 100 pages to the Bollywood film business, the relationship between the stars and gangsters who reciprocally romance each other, the projections of chauvinism and reconciliation. However, he does not shy away from gossip and is enamoured with himself as a member of a select caste of technical-hypnotists who reach and influence millions.

"No God in Sight" by Altaf Tyrewala

Altaf Tyrewala, who should not go ignored - even if his book looks thin as veneer next to the other two bricks - takes a very different tack. No, "God in Sight" is a masterpiece of brevity, replete with broken voices that are shooed offstage as soon as they have expressed their grievances - a roundel of figures familiar or even well-known to each other, whose appearances are as fleeting as those of passers-by. Formally Tyrewala orients himself more along the lines of Robert Crumb than Charles Dickens. His metaphors are sometimes verbal translations of typical visualisations from the world of comics. When the mother of the narrator is trampled to death during the Hajj in a mass panic and the family is notified too late, he remarks: "Ma's two-dimensional remains had already been buried on the outskirts of Mecca."

It is gutsy to portray the endless megalopolis of Bombay in two dimensions, in subchapters as long as video clips. But it works, because Tyrewala reduces the complex expanse of the city to niches and chambers and their claustrophobic confines, to which people have adapted without even being able to stand up. Men like Kaka who works in the attic above a shoe store, squatting like a frog and passing down the shoe boxes that the salespeople request through a hole. I have often bought shoes in such stores, and I never asked myself who finds the right shoes up there and how it looks there. Since reading Altaf Tyrewala's brilliant description, I slip into my shoes with a feeling of shame.

Like no other, this author conveys the lack of space in Bombay. "In this neighbourhood full of one-room apartments everyone changes on the balcony. We expose ourselves to the outside world, so that those inside who are important to us do not see us exposed." His vision of a slum on the roof of a Muslim skyscraper is terrific. It is the starting point for a grotesque series of embroilments that take place on the 14th, 15th and 16th floors between the apartments 01, 02, 03 and 04, independent of the calculations of two peddlers who respectively orient themselves according to the numbers 9 and 6 for astrological reasons. Unforgettable is the 20 second count-down by the gangster in apartment 1403 before he opens the door to shoot the woman who has knocked in search of work. But he always stops at number 7, so the woman from the slum on top of the skyscraper is saved, and the woman selling ladies' underwear finds her lucky number confirmed, for in apartment 1401 there is a family with six daughters. These kinds of abstruse equations stylize reality to the point of it resembling a Sudoku puzzle, but despite all constructs and staged scenarios, in this book Bombay wheezes and coughs from congested lungs.

Initially built on rotting fish, Bombay has attracted countless numbers of fortune-seekers, mercenaries and megalomaniacs. Among them are the chroniclers of the city, from whom this Moloch demands everything. It is only too understandable that they sometimes buckle while trying to lift this excess weight. As in his novel "Red Earth and Pouring Rain" (exerpt) and collection of short stories "Love and Longing in Bombay" (exerpt), Chandra also constructs his stories in "Sacred Games" like Russian matryoshkas: he takes the encapsulated narrative forms from classical epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. However, the game sometimes becomes a means to its own end, and windows that are suddenly thrown open do not reveal another lively street of Bombay but a crudely whitewashed wall.

Suketu Mehta's greatest weakness stems directly from his greatest strength. In his closeness to the characters, he loses his critical, analytical perspective. His portrait of the one incorrupt politician suffers from the fact that this man, as informed friends of mine have confirmed, is in fact bribable, but only for a great deal of money. Also, Mehta's description of the Dance Bars glosses over the phenomenon of covert prostitution, because, among other things, he spent his evenings in the Topaz, the ultra-elegant boutique establishment on Grant Road and not in the vulgar pleasure palaces in the suburbs. Nevertheless, even if "Maximum City" is not the ultimate book about Bombay, it is one of the best we have.

Altaf Tyrewala, by contrast, seems to be no friend of research. Although his book is a tenth of the length of Chandra's, there are ten times as many mistakes in the content. His description of a village near Bombay is pure caricature, so too his descriptions of the Hajj. He writes that in the year in which the aforementioned woman dies, 300 Indian pilgrims were in Mecca - the actual number is around 70,000. The news would not have reached the family in Bombay by phone at 6 a.m., because at that time in Mecca it is four in the morning. It is also by no means correct that two million pilgrims throng to the column in order to be the first to stone the devil.

With Vikram Chandra one wades through flooded Bombay from Nariman Point on the southern tip of the city to Versova in the north; Seketu Mehta invites the reader to a Bombay-Addicts Anonymous meeting; and with Altaf Tyrewala one gets high on the literary equivalent of two hours of MTV India. In spite of all this, these are three thrilling reports from the most exciting city in the world.

This article originally appeared in German in the September edition of Literaturen magazine.
Ilija Trojanow is a novelist and newspaper commentator who was born in 1965 in Sofia. He lived in Germany, Kenya, Kapstadt and Bombay (between 1998 and 2003). His prize-winning novel "Weltensammler" (the collector of worlds) was published in Germany in 2006 (review here).
Translation: Laura Schleussner

The books discussed in this article are:
"No God in Sight" by Atlaf Tyrewala, published 2006 by Penguin Books India and MacAdam/Cage

"Sacred Games" by Vikram Chandra, due to be published
in September 2006 by Faber and Faber

"Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found" by Suketu Mehta, published 2004 by Penguin Books India and Random House

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