The flap copy of Ministry of Hurt Sentiments, Altaf Tyrewala’s eschatological tract in blank verse, announces that it “celebrates the dystopia that is modern-day Mumbai”. How can dystopia be celebrated? One way is to spend almost 800 pages in a welter of gunfire and nuclear threats before arriving at the gentle supposition which occurs to Sartaj Singh, the good-guy protagonist in Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games: “Perhaps they would stay in their city even if they knew that a great fire was coming. Perhaps they would wait for the bomb in these tangled lanes, grown out of the earth without forethought or plan.”
At practically one-tenth the size of Sacred Games, Ministry of Hurt Sentiments has no time for such compromised peacemaking. It is not a celebration, but a disaster warning for an apocalypse that has already occurred. Over a hundred pages, Tyrewala powers the reader through the phenomenon of Mumbai rage, erupting with breathtaking speed and vigour at everything from traffic to beggars to the over-sweetness of “cutting” chai (the half-glass typically bought by busy or broke workers). It swerves through verticalization, globalization and ultra-nationalism, deplores both overcrowding and expatriation, and finally cuts itself off at terrorism. The narrative changes character, location and subject with gliding ease, even as its volume remains more or less pitched at a level howl.
The result is a jeremiad in the tradition of infuriated poets through modern history, in which the city is characterized not so much as a place as a midden of catastrophe, its residents cockroaches scavenging among themselves. Tyrewala chooses to take a direct route through anger, and perhaps sadness, in adopting the short form and poetic mode for this disquisition. There are memorable images here (“These waterless March clouds are politicians/surveying disaster-hit constituencies”), but for the most part Tyrewala works not as a poet but a novelist, more interested in aggregating human experience than in remodelling it. It frees him to jumble up humour and invective, character and moral, and so create a very local and specific stream of consciousness.
It is exciting to see a serious writer work in a new form, especially one that is so rarely seen in Indian English writing. But in substance it can read as though its author has come straight off a monsoon traffic jam on the Western Express Highway. A Ministry of Hurt Sentiments does make an appearance in the work, parodying Mumbai’s opportunistic political establishment, but this is really a highly solipsistic work, and no sentiments are more hurt than those of its undefined speaker or speakers. “Your inner Tagore has fared no better,” Tyrewala writes. “Your inner Rushdie has turned garment exporter/Your inner Chandralekha is a Bollywood item/Your inner Arundhati has moved to Australia.”
He has such a Swiftian relish for bodily effluvia that the prevailing mood may recall the reeling savant of Kala Ghoda in Arun Kolatkar’s poem The Shit Sermon, who says, “Shit City!/I shit on you./You were a group/of seven shitty islands/given in dowry/to the Shit King of Ing/to shit on/...and now it’s all/one big high-rise shit,/waiting for God/to pull the flush.”
In Tyrewala’s hallucinatory Mumbai/India, penises are stamped raw, chopped into half and stuffed into mouths. Women, in consequence, are uniformly dehumanized. The narrative even transforms one into a menstruating copy of The Second Sex. It can be difficult sometimes to draw a line between the author’s voice and those he parodies: in this book, you can’t be a Russian waitress without being called a mail-order bride, or an African orphan without having “nappy hair”; can’t be a hijra (eunuch) without being called a “tranny”; can’t stand on a railway platform without being pawed, before you “dash into the Ladies’ Special/To meet a worse fate at the hands of other women”. Nice try.
Tyrewala’s creation of that local stream of consciousness, the psychological equivalent of the Mithi river that seems to run through upper-class Mumbai, is meant to make readers flinch. It might have done more than that, had the kind of satire and seriousness which glimmers in his best lines been more consistent.