Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s first overwhelmingly verbose and florid novel was called The Last Song of Dusk, and when, early on in his new book, we read that “On Tuesday morning a big fat sun careened through thick layers of cloud, revealing a sky the colour of joy”, we know the writer is still composing gushing odes to mornings and evenings. Indeed, it is hard to think of another Indian writer in English who can match Shanghvi for crimes against the language: his alarmingly bad metaphors, his bewildering mixing of high and low registers, his excessively high pitch even when he believes he is doing understatement. But Shanghvi’s new novel is off-putting not just because we see in it a writer who has settled into his faults, and will now always perpetuate them. What is worse is that he does not even seem to be aware of what his strengths are.
Shanghvi’s native ground is the complex play of feeling between troubled adults. In his work, the chance alliances of love and friendship that his characters forge are seen as a kind of redemption from the emptiness and loneliness of life, the troubles of ageing and suffering. The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay is a chronicle of the linked lives of four protagonists and the Bombay (now Mumbai) they know or seek: Karan Seth, a young photographer; Samar Arora, a brilliant pianist who has now lapsed into silence; Zaira, a Bollywood actor; and Rhea Dalal, a middle-aged housewife.
City hub: In Shanghvi’s story, there’s a restaurant in south Bombay called Gatsby, reminiscent of Indigo. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Karan, newly arrived from Shimla, is dazzled by Bombay. His dream—and this is also clearly Shanghvi’s dream, though realized very self-consciously and jarringly—is to create “an epic record of the city” with his camera, an encyclopedia of its moods, characters and possibilities. Karan’s relationships with the three others all contribute, in their own way and at their own pace, to the deepening of his vision.
Shanghvi can be insightful when working within this field of human striving and desire. When, for instance, Rhea, many years after her marriage has broken up, looks back at the wonder of it and thinks, simply, that “Love is good luck”, the truth of this modest thought surprises us. When Samar dies of AIDS, and Karan says of him that “Even if he couldn’t save what he had loved, loving them had saved him”, we are moved by this.
But Shanghvi is so desperate to capture the rumble of the city and the evils of this world that he continually leads his own writing away from good places into black holes. His worst move is to turn a crucial event in the book, the death of Zaira, into a ham-handed reprisal of the infamous Jessica Lall murder case, complete with scheming politicians thuggishly working the system, a witness who claims he does not understand Hindi, and a fashion designer and her socialite mother who seek to derive social capital from the tragic affair.
Shanghvi’s account—inspired, he tells us in a prefatory note, “by a range of events discussed extensively in the print media, films and on television”—tells us nothing about the case that we do not already know. Trying to kill two birds with one stone, Shanghvi also makes the murderer the son of a high-profile politician belonging to “the Hindu People’s Party”, and laboriously opens fire on the venality of right-wing Hindu politics. Searching further for scandals to pilfer, he throws in the hit-and-run case in which actor Salman Khan was named as an accused. But merely copying reality has never made events in a novel seem real.
The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay: Penguin/Viking, 350 pages, Rs499.
Shanghvi’s prose style is totally wild (“Her voice was wobbly with emotion, like a hippo on stilettos”). But he also falls short of the main requirement of novelistic craft, which is to find a narratorial voice that knows when to be emphatic and when to be reticent, that expends its energies thoughtfully.
Page after page of his narration is besmirched by his pointlessly bitchy and infantile sniping. Minister Prasad, the despicable father of the killer, has a habit “of scratching his balls so savagely that his pubic lice experienced multiple orgasms”. A mildly annoying character is instantly dismissed with this sentence: “Glee dripped out of Natasha like precum.” Karan quits photography and goes to work at a school; the obnoxious principal, Mrs Pal, has “an ass that looked as if it had been blown up with a cycle pump”. These tasteless smears seem uncannily similar to the casual bigotry of the “Hindu People’s Party” that so agitates Shanghvi, and they might be seen as emblematic of the many excesses and self-deceptions of this severely trying writer.
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