Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” This was the private detective of Raymond Chandler’s dreams, a man who struck a match in the darkness of the big city.
All travellers are detectives of a sort, determined to discover truth by following maps and guides. Stories are just another kind of map then: opening up a world in which plots become milestones and characters become a layer of the landscape. It’s why backpackers on Colaba Causeway are seen clutching, not the Lonely Planet guide, but Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram.
In the 19th century, hackney cab drivers in Marseille would call out thanks to Alexandre Dumas as he passed them on the street for bringing their ill-reputed port city to international attention in The Count of Monte Cristo (Suketu Mehta might have liked Mumbaikars to do that). Indian writing in English has similarly broadened the world’s imaginative horizons about the subcontinent. Readers may well complain that the last few years have cynically overexposed the slums of Dharavi (Vikas Swarup’s Q&A) and the gated colonies of Gurgaon (Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger). But not all of the most famous vistas that Indian writers opened up are quite so neo-Dickensian. Over the last few decades, each quarter of the country has had a representative who brought the landscape to life in complex, delicate feats of literary cartography. What would some parts of India look like if you used their award-winning novels to navigate them?
Canvas: (clockwise from above, left) History and geography meet in Ghosh’s Kolkata, Photo Indranil Bhoumik/Mint; Rushdie evokes Malabar Hill’s lovable humanity, Photo Wikimedia Commons ; Roy’s Kerala is far from backwaters tourism, Photo Manoj Madhavan/Mint ; and Ali’s Old Delhi is caught up in turmoil, Photo Sandipan Das/Mint .
Amitav Ghosh’s work
Other big cities may fight their respective corners, but like Renaissance-era Venice or pre-war Vienna, our expectations of a cultural capital are still deeply informed by India’s imagined Kolkata: not so much a place as a radical conversation between languages and histories, houses and streets, industry and intellect. It can be difficult to detect a physical city that frames the humans who loom so large over its literature.
But there are those books which shade the landscapes of the East into the lives of its people. In the fiction of Amitav Ghosh, for whom geography and history have always been simultaneous, ordinary settings develop startling backstories. To walk through bylanes in residential Kolkata with The Shadow Lines is to realize a whole complex of Partition and ideology that envelops their histories. To sit in a tea shop is to unravel the pasts of the unknown young men who share your table.
In The Hungry Tide, the story of an imaginary settlement on the Sundarbans reconstructs its entire ecosystem: to walk through its unparalleled forests in real life will forever be a quest for Lusibari and Garjontola. And in his Ibis trilogy, whose second instalment River of Smoke comes out this July, everything from Kolkata’s commerce in opium to the colonial histories of the India-Myanmar border becomes part of a wild intercontinental odyssey that begins on the banks of the Hooghly. There can be no better way to learn history, Ghosh says, than by making it personal.
Salman Rushdie’s work
There is no city that does not dream,” begins an Anne Michaels poem. If you went looking for the Mumbai of Kiran Nagarkar’s Ravan and Eddie, you would be hard-pressed to find a moment to dream in the unceasing churn of the working-class eastern dock neighbourhoods. In the Mumbai of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, you’d be too busy trying to preserve your morals and your life to care. Literary Mumbai’s most rococo avatar is still found in the pages of Salman Rushdie, who wrote of his childhood home in the key of both celebration and lamentation.
Rushdie’s Mumbai may seem overly dependent on the fluted columns and yellowed stonework of the neighbourhoods around Malabar Hill, with its parks where people from other parts of the city still come “on chutti” (holiday). But it is also the constantly crumbling, constantly remade world of the Irani cafés and art galleries of south Mumbai, of the Western Railway’s stations, of central Mumbai’s pickle factories and red light areas.
The star attraction of Rushdie’s Mumbai, though, is always its grotesque but lovable humanity. His disaffected Parsis become rock stars; his psychotic cartoonists become political overlords; his magical midnight’s children become seers, beggars, lose their homes, find love. Rushdie was perhaps the first English-language author to bridge the gap between two well-worn clichés: In his novels, it made sense that the city that never sleeps is also the city of dreams.
Twilight in Delhi
First published in 1940 by Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, Ahmed Ali’s novel Twilight in Delhi is the best guidebook to Old Delhi for the sophisticated traveller. While the area is fast shedding its history, one can glimpse the vanished world. Keep a copy in your back pocket. On reaching Turkman Gate, flip to page 14. “The air was filled with the shouts of the pigeon-fliers who were rending the atmosphere with their cries of ‘Aao, Koo, Haa!’” Look up. There are boys on rooftops, flying their pigeons, and crying, ‘Aao, Koo, Haa!’ At a kotha (brothel) on GB Road, next to Ajmeri Gate, open page 52. “From all around came the sounds of song, whining of sarangis, and the tinkling of bells, as the dancing girls entertained their customers.” The girls still dance. At Jama Masjid, turn to page 77. “Vendors were selling small round kebabs fried in oil, and others still fried fish or meat cutlets, pulao or vegetable cutlets soaked in curds. Many sold sherbet…” And today, the vendors are selling kebabs and sherbets. Set in 19th century Delhi, the novel traces a civilization’s decline. Through a world of lovers, poets, pigeons, havelis, kothas, kuchas, mosques, dargahs and bazaars, it elegantly records the inner turmoil of a great capital. Today, Ali lies buried in Karachi and his Walled City is a maze of open drains and overhanging electric cables. But Delhi’s soul has survived in hidden corners which a tourist can discover if armed with this novel
Mayank Austen Soofi
The God of Small Things
The killer massage. The hilly retreats amid the tea gardens. The pristine beaches. The houseboats glowing in the dusk. Kerala offers tourists so many easy ways out that these may often be the most overwhelming impressions that casual visitors take away from the state. The classical splendours of other places in the south are absent in Kerala’s vistas of blue and green, the human imprint reluctant to intrude on the tourist reverie.
There are neither beaches nor tea gardens in Arundhati Roy’s Kerala, a place anchored to its time, not its advertising. It is overflowing with human energy: a place where a stop at a toddy shack might bring you in contact with a communist radical and a factory-owning capitalist at once; where a bus ride can be overwhelmed by protesters walking in the other direction; where an evening by the village river can change your destiny. It is a place of whitewashed churches, frenetic party offices and homes full of secrets.
True, Roy’s Ayemenem is underpinned with such darkness that it may put you off the most quotidian activities, like going to a movie theatre (or at least its drinks counter) for some time after you’ve travelled through it. But unlike the tourist Kerala, it can be visited in the rainy season. It invites serious engagement.
And we hear the pickles are delicious.