& occasionally about other things, too...

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Two tales and a city - I

Guest post by Piroj Wadia

Cities form an interesting backdrop for books and films. Woody Allen has done a trilogy of three cities – Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris and  To Rome With Love. While two anthology films - Paris, Je t'aime   (Paris, I love you) and  New York, I Love You brought together international film talent to make a set of short films on each city. Closer to home,  the opening credits of Chetan Anand’s Taxi Driver which starred  Dev Anand and Kalpana Kartik scrolled to the legend ‘and above all the city of Bombay’. In recent times, a small budget film called Aamir, a thriller whizzed through the downside of the Mumbai – through the galli guchis (lanes and bylanes)  and showcased an altogether seamier vista of the city. On the flipside Bollywood and Indian television have shown the glitzy face of the city over and over again.

Literature too has exposed the city as a backdrop. The city, notably the heart of the city with its cheek by jowl buildings, lanes and bylanes intersecting found their references in the works of Sadat Hasan Manto. Salman Rushdie,  Suketu Mehta, Rohinton Mistry, and others  have also set their stories in Bombay/Mumbai. Two recent books join the list.   Yasmeen Premji’s Days of Gold & Sepia, a  saga   which spans Bombay of the 19th  century  to Mumbai of the  21st century;  and Piyush Jha’s Mumbaistan which is a set of three novellas set in  contemporary Mumbai. In both books, the city is a character which keeps pace with the narrative, especially in the case of Days of Gold and Sepia. Take away the city and there is no story. Coincidentally, both writers mark their debuts.

Though Lalljee Lakhia, is a fictional character, there is a deja-vu about him,  the city of Bombay stands shoulder to shoulder as a co-character.   Yasmeen Premji's narrative begins in a remote village of Ketch, where we meet Lalljee,  a  six-year-old orphan,  leaving behind his siblings, to work for   his uncle.  When  fruition of a requited   love (for his cousin Reshma) eludes him, as an orphaned poor relative he wasn’t suitable.  This has Laljee   resolve:  that he would become so rich and powerful that nothing he cherished would ever delude him.  From Kutch, he travels to Bombay on foot, empty pockets and  dreams, the year is  1877. The city was a salve to  Lalljee’s  old wounds:  Bombay didn’t care about  your caste or creed, it mattered not  whether you were a pauper or a king, for the city welcomed everyone and anyone with wide open arms.  The Laljee Lakhias amassed their fortunes  in this city   where   schemes, ambitions and dreams were realized,  fortune lurked round corners.  

Laljee’s life and times are skillfully intertwined with events which occurred in that span of time.   As Lalljee goes from a helper at a kirana shop to a textile mill owner, trader in opium, and landlord at large, the book chronicles the history of a new India -- spanning Bal Gangadhar Tilak's call for swaraj to Muhammad Ali Jinnah's fictional request to Lalljee to come to Pakistan. It also tells the story of the mosquito infested seven islands merging to form Bombay, the urbs prima. Just like the city, Laljee’s story  is an  elegant, but simple narrative, where characters connect, separate,  and  reconnect seamlessly. Lalljee Lakhia could well be one of the countless migrant fortune seekers who made Bombay their home and gave so much of their blood, sweat and toil to the city’s growth.  Days of Gold & Sepia is the story of  a city which grew as per the needs of its growing populace to shelter the bedraggled fortune seeker and exchanges the rags to riches.

A difficult  narrative  with its huge canvas enriched  with multiple characters,    Yasmeen Premji does that with √©lan, despite being a debutante. The richness and lucidity of language is in sync  with the  vibrant characters,  which jump out of the pages of the book. All through the read, one envisions Bombay of the days gone by.  The story is told in flashback by Lalljee’s granddaughter Shahina, as his formidable mansion in Breach Candy making way for a multi-storied building. A regular occurrence  in the morphing cityscape  of Mumbai,--   as the city of gold is now known   old stately, charming mansions are demolished  for more chrome and glass buildings – to make it the city of chrome.
  • Continued in the post below

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