The Unadorned

My literary blog to keep track of my creative mood swings with poems n short stories, book reviews n humorous prose, travelogues n photography, reflections n translations, both in English n Hindi.

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I'm a peace-loving married Indian male on the right side of '50 with college-going children, and presently employed under government. Educationally I've a master's degree in History, and another in Computer Application. Besides, I've a post graduate diploma in Management. My published works are:- (1)"In Harness", ISBN 81-8157-183-5, a poetry collections and (2) "The Remix of Orchid", ISBN 978-81-7525-729-0, a short story collections with a foreword by Mr. Ruskin Bond, (3) "Virasat", ISBN 978-81-7525-982-9, again a short story collection but in Hindi, (4) "Ek Saal Baad," ISBN 978-81-906496-8-1, my second Story Collection in Hindi.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay--Just Another Contemporary Fiction


It took quite a month to complete this book. While reading this, I put it down in the middle in favour of reading Rushdie's "The Enchantress of Florence". Then, on finishing that historical fiction of Rushdie, I came back to "The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay". Does it mean I'd like historical fictions more than the contemporary ones? Well, maybe yes, or maybe depends on how the book absorbs me. Now that Shanghvi's "...Flamingoes..." is over and I've no plan to re-read it, let me try a snippet for review, or say, record a few lines of my impression about the book I finished.


The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay

by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi,

Pages 349, Penguin Viking, 2009,

ISBN 978-0-670-08175-2, Price RS 499

The title is definitely evocative, if not romantic right away. My quick impression after reading the book is, well, it is just nothing if not romantic, yet on a rethought I decided that I should rehash my impression. The book has narratives, rich and extensive, outlining the development of relationships that finally emerge sharply; situations are nicely constructed where solitude can be differentiated from loneliness; romance is taken to the height where it really belongs, say deep into the sweet-bitter territory out of the banal domain of marriage; talents get nurtured within the congeniality of empathy and appreciation; friendships grow and draw their sustenance not necessarily from the romantic bliss but many a time from the silent resolve to stay together; and so forth. There is of course some quibbles about the opus, say the homosexuality part of it. It honestly did not work for me—no amount of effort could convince me that the story I was reading gels well with that kind of characters. The person extending romantic vibes towards his own gender is depicted to be honest, friendly, talented, kindly, brave, well-travelled, artistic, and empathetic but, at the end of the day, he is only a homosexual, a fact that mercilessly hijacks one’s sensibilities away from romantic bliss the book otherwise succeeds in creating through its profound narratives.

The story goes like this. Karan Seth comes to Bombay to realise his photographic ambition in creatively depicting the megalopolis in all its liveliness: he had come to Bombay in search of images that would reveal its most sublime, secret stories.... He is employed in the newspaper called The India Chronicle and once goes to snap a few shots of Samar Arora, the eccentric pianist of the yesteryears who has chosen to seclude himself from publicity. The assignment is challenging but nonetheless rewarding. There Karan, shy as he is, is introduced to Samar’s friend Zaira, the most talented star of Hindi filmdom. Karan discovers what a gem of the person Zaira is when she sends her publicist to get Karan treated after he gets trapped and bruised while photographing her at the premiere of her film. She is the one who suggests him to photograph a lewd-sounding piece of furniture, the Bombay Fornicator. Then Karan the photographer goes the whole hog to search the object and in the process meets one Rhea Dalal, the childless lady with superb talent in pottery. She has herself seen the flame of talent within her getting snuffed, a realisation that draws her closer to Karan. She takes him to different places in the city where there are subjects to be framed and photographed. This intimacy develops into a relationship of love and sex, all of it away from Mr Dalal who is busy at Singapore earning sumptuously for a life to be lived cosily. Zaira runs into problem with the son of a Minister, one Malik Prasad, who does not hesitate to stalk the star and then kill her in front of guests present in a high-profile party. The minister has its way, and the witnesses, the investigators, the judge—all of them are gained over. Samar, the friend of Zaira, fights a losing court battle only to be humiliated in the cross-examination with questions on his homo-sexual relationship with his partner Leo. Leo is infected with HIV and goes back to the US but ultimately gets cured there to write a book on the murder of Zaira much to the chagrin of Samar Arora. Rhea conceives and gives birth to a boy child that dies in an indoor accident as the nurse carrying the baby is attacked by a monkey in the nursing home itself. The adultery of Rhea explodes and Adi her husband, already under trauma after the loss of the child, disappears being unable to endure the deception of his wife. Karan goes to England teaches there and again comes back to Mumbai to resume his photography. Samar dies of tuberculosis and till the last Karan gives him company and solace. Finally, Rhea patches up with Karan and while returning from their nostalgic revisit of Sewri, she is tragically drowned in the city flood.

Should I say I read a great story? Well, the book is without doubt a contemporary fiction with events and characters and fads drawn from the world around as we see them in their contemporaneous forms. There are urban pollutions and political crimes, corruptions of national scale and public acquiescence to them, film and photography and pottery and other artistic menu, sex and deception and homosexuality, AIDS and spiritual stuffs, crime and criminalisation and their acceptance, and even the mention of cataclysmic urban flood that had come upon the unmanageable city of Mumbai. Once fraud had got hard-wired into the national consciousness, the political machinery did not work to rectify the flaw but to embrace its ideals. Despite its contemporary theme, the book does not have any spectacular story to tell. At a point there is a definite build-up of the plot to make it appear a story of crime and its detection, but then it does not end up like that. At another point the plot unravels in great detail a love that grows and fructifies outside its accepted societal boundary, but at the end of the day it achieves some minimal success. It cannot be said to be a love story of a lot of twists and turns, nor of a great climax, but then again it is not a total washout.

And what about characterisation? There are a few characters emerging out of their traditional moulds and making some extra exploratory incursions. Karan is one of them. He is talented, ambitious, friendly, adaptive, and modern. His friendship with Rhea Dalal is the strongest point in favour of the book. Rhea Dalal is an equally interesting character, all the time trying to make Karan do all that it takes to complete his photography project. Whether the love and sex between them is incidental or whether it is a clever move by Rhea to acquire a child as she is convinced that her husband would not be able to help her conceive—this is one of the unanswered aspects of the book. I think it is deliberate on the part of Shangvi to leave it for the readers to conclude. Samar appears to be another principal actor, but somehow his friendship with Zaira the actor is not properly dealt. Similar is his relationship with Leo McCormick that appears to be less than convincing except when a friction crops up between them as Leo intends to write a book on Zaira’s murder and the trial following it. However, the best characterisation is that of Minister Prasad. Even if among the villains, his diabolical moves have been adequately captured. His episode actually accelerates the pace of the narratives.



A. N. Nanda






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