Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Vikram Chandra's Love and Longing in Bombay

Chandra's Love and Longing in Bombay is a collection of five loosely connected short stories. The titles are in Sanskrit and they are as follows: Dharma (duty), Shakti (creative female power), Kama (desire), Artha (gain), Shanti (peace). I looked it up on an online Sanskrit-English dictionary. They are all told by a retired military man named Mr. Subramaniam to a young, unnamed hotshot in the software business. Though that being said, it is much more than a moral education through story-telling. The writing is beautiful, organic, and expansive.

This is a book that you can read purely for its craft, if you’re interested in that sort of thing. The prose is thoughtful and powerful. His stories sprawl, I guess like big cats sprawl. It may look elegantly languid, but there's something lurking underneath, a wry sense of humor and the more traditional lurkers (ghosts, gangsters, and lovesick men). My favorite stories were the first Dharma (a ghost story) and Shanti (a sort of courtship of story exchange). My least favorite was Artha, because though acknowledges and emphasizes that not everything ends neatly, the handling of Artha's characters and plot felt more clumsy then his other stories which were neatly plotted (Kama) or seemed to magically fall into place (Shanti and Dharma).

In Chandra's 2001 essay titled "The Cult of Authenticity" he does battle with the accusation that since he writes in English his writing is packaged for western consumption. This couldn't be farther from the truth, well because if it was, I shouldn’t have to work so hard. Vikram Chandra is not taking us around Bombay in an auto rickshaw labeled “Bombay Tours” with one of those nifty tour guide mikes. Chandra does not take up the mantle of explaining India. If he does anything at all, he’s shoved us down a flight of stairs into a murky bar where an old man is telling a young man stories in English, yes, but an Indian English. It is both one of the intrigues and frustrations of this book. A stranger to Indian culture loses out on a lot of the subtext and it’s not just foreign words which can be looked up, it’s how certain lines are set up. There's the dramatic pause, I can sense it but I don't know what it means.

Reading Chandra is a strange experience. While it has those deep underlying "human" themes, a great deal is culturally based. The "Bombay" in Love and Longing in Bombay occupies a central place. And if you don't know Bombay, too bad. It's one of those books that dares you to "keep up, if you can." This is not a book that everyone will love, but it's a book that everyone should try.

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