Written 12 May 2021
This novel is described as an epic, it is certainly sweeping and describes the interconnected lives of characters in post-Independence India. Most of the storyline is set during the time of the emergency laws of the mid-1970s and it wraps up shortly after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. The cast takes in Muslims and Hindus and Parsees, and it is set largely in Mumbai (the big “City on the Sea” in the novel is never named but it is clearly Mumbai).*
The book is long, but as with all well written books it soon took a grip with me and it repaid many hours of reading. It paints a pretty unromantic but very human picture of Indian life as lived by ordinary people with the concerns of juggling family duties and roles in traditional culture, forging a life for themselves in a big city and simply making ends meet. As well as a range of religious backgrounds, we also have women and untouchables as central characters. All swirl together with irreconcilable differences reemerging again and again. There is also a certain optimism that is developed and allowed to run as a theme and most clearly set out in the living arrangements between Dina (a Parsee widow who has a flat), Maneck, the son of her old school friend (and the closest the novel gets to a central character) who stays with her as a student, and the Uncle and Nephew pairing of the untouchable tailors Ishvar and Om who have come to the city to make money and return to their village. Over the course of the novel, this arrangement moves from one largely of necessity to genuine warmth and mutual affection. Maneck’s youthful idealism is a constant good influence on Dina as he stands up for Ishvar and Om and I think using Parsee characters to share living space with untouchables is a good device. Maneck’s idealism is slowly ground down by the seemingly endless injustices and coarseness of the life he sees around him, the full extent of his despair becoming apparent only towards the end of the book. Dina herself has lots on her plate being a widowed woman living in a flat under a precarious tenancy and with a brother constantly on her case to remarry but still striving to enjoy her independence. Ishvar and Om’s back story of changing their profession from leatherworkers (and hence untouchable) to tailors is really well done and it is of course they who really have the hardest lives by far. This little band grow together and make their lives surrounded by family members, rent collectors, beggars, quirky neighbours, bulldozed shantytowns, gangsters, corrupt policemen, crooked politicians, holy men and activist students. All against a background of a political emergency accompanied by almost total disregard for basic human rights or the rule of law with forced sterilisation into the bargain. The plot is full of twists and turns and draws well on the usual chaos of Indian day to day life as well as the political realities of the time.
It’s a great book in its own right, engaging and well written, and as a bit of a sucker for all things Indian I really enjoyed it. It also felt like a very honest and realistic portrayal of the lives of many people in what is now the world’s most populous country. It conveys well the sheer scale of the life and the problems of the place, the immense contrast between life in a small country town and a mega city, the care people show towards neighbours when they are thrown together as well as the shocking brutality of poverty which exists on a scale that it is impossible to grasp if you haven’t been there.
However, getting towards the end things do take a bit of a turn for the worse. Without putting in any spoilers, as you approach the end of the book and the happy household has dispersed I was expecting some sort of tying up of loose ends, the satisfactory conclusion that it felt I was being carried towards. It doesn’t happen: in what seems the space of just a few pages the individual stories are not brought together but reach very separate and rather abrupt and messy ends. In one sense this was I suppose in keeping with the rest of the book: who says real lives have happy endings? Why should loose ends be tied up? Why should the gang get back together for one last show before setting out again on well defined paths into the sunset? Nevertheless, the way it is done does have the feel of a writer who is in a hurry to end and is unsatisfying. There is an epilogue where we are taken forward perhaps six or seven years where the characters are (kind of) brought together after dispersing and seeing their lives go in different directions and suffering various mishaps (to put it mildly), but in a sense it didn’t really feel right. Dina and Maneck, whose nearly but never quite romantic relationship features so strongly earlier, meet without even sharing a meal. Maneck seems to have regressed rather than grown up and ignores Ishvar and Om who also it seems walk past him without saying hello. It didn’t quite stack up for me and left me with a feeling of deflation. Perhaps something like this was what the author was seeking to achieve, but I can’t help feeling that most of the book wasn’t written with this in mind. It felt like a conclusion thought of and executed in a hurry.
The conclusion aside, I did really enjoy this book. With huge books like this I often find myself reading them more than once, but I’m not sure I would with this one, the ending really did detract from it and would colour any second reading.
* I will use the modern official name but for me it will always really be Bombay, just as it will always be Calcutta and Madras.