My first copy of Raavan & Eddie by Kiran Nagarkar went the way of all paper, especially the kind of paper on which definitive novels are written. I fell in love with the story of a Roman Catholic boy who joins the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the RSS) and the Hindu boy called Raavan who falls in love with the fluid magic of Taekwon-do. I met the author shortly afterwards and told him that he had stolen my story. It was something I had always wanted to write about, a story set in a chawl.

He was gracious. “You should write your book anyway,” he said. “There isn’t enough writing about the city.”

When I told him how my copy had gone AWOL, he gave me his last hardback copy and wrote another inscription on it. As an object, it has not aged well. The cover is by the inimitable Manjula Padmanabhan depicting baby Raavan plunging off the balcony. But the production values themselves belong very much to that time.

R&E (yes, yes, Randy) started life as a screenplay, a four-and-a-half hour screenplay, that didn’t get made. Nagarkar wasn’t going to waste his work. He simply re-purposed it into an all-time Bombay classic.

To begin with, it was funny and there wasn’t that much funny stuff around. When I look back at what we thought of as humour in those times, I can hardly believe it. Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi was released on CD and I could not watch more than five minutes because it was so bad. I watched Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron and thought: I laughed at this? Not even the actors seem to believe what they are doing.

So I approached R&E with some caution. Nagarkar had become a friend. Our friendship had survived me telling him that the best part of God’s Little Soldier was the Kabir section; that I thought Saat Sakkam Trechaalis lacked compassion but more than made up for it in linguistic verve.

I read it again on a Sunday and found myself curling into it as into an old comforter on a cold winter morning. I was laughing again and cheering again and enjoying those staged divertissements on Afghan Snow and the Water Wars. In some ways, this was post-modern lite. Because while we were laughing at the ridiculousness of our FMCG desires, we were also being made aware of the vast lacunae that lay beneath. In the pots of Afghan Snow lay our fixation with white skin; in the chaotic amusements of the water wars lay the failure of the civic society; the richest municipal corporation in the country could not provide basic facilities to its hardest-working citizens.

Here is Nagarkar on the killer language, English:

“Chhya men, he’s a dutty bugger. Tree times I told him don’t climb the tree to look at my sass. Leave my sass alone, men. I asked him, ‘gain and again but he din listen, so I gave him a hit, straight on the face like. De bugger began to cry like a baby, men. He begged me like but I din listen. I told him, you look at my sass, and I’ll break your bones and balls. Goan English is easy to mimic and an easy target for well-educated and affluent Bombayites. It is burlesqued in plays, reviews and films. Such niceties and caricatures are lost on the Hindus from the CWD chawls. Ask any one of them in an unguarded moment and he’ll tell you that he would give his right hand, make it his left, to be able to speak like the people from the top floor. Because there are only two kinds of people in the world. Those who have English and those who don’t.”

Note then how the argot begins to spin its story, note how the use of the word caricature exculpates the writer, note how this segues into a meditation on the linguistic politics of a chawl, a city, a nation. Then there was the peculiar joy of listening to Nagarkar read out passages like this. Not for him the aridities of the modern deadpan; he brought drama to his reading, he punched those words in, he did voices, he came and got us and he found us laughing already.

But then my comforter began to be peeled away from me. Eddie does join the RSS but that was a time when we could laugh at politics and politicians. We all agreed that the santri was better than the mantri and that santri went well with fried sardines at one of the aunty’s shacks. These days, you cannot do that. We have gone from a healthy distaste of those who wield power over to us to a fawning adoration.

This was Nagarkar’s nightmare and it has come to pass. The author himself died in 2019, well into the dark times his book lampooned. Did that mean he thought this was all laughable? Hardly. There was a great heart in Nagarkar, a heart that responded to his city and its night terrors. He knew Mumbai as intimately as he knew Bombay and as the observer, he knew that he could not belong however much he wanted to. This was not because of his Jewish blood – his paternal grandmother was Jewish and so I would often laugh with him and say that he was a Jew because it is the only religion that passes down the female line – nor because of his professed scepticism. It was because he could not belong to any club that would have him, a position in which many of us find ourselves.

But that did not mean he did not care. R&E stands testimony to that. It is a populous novel, with characters coming and going in picaresque fashion, each one of them swearing up a storm, each one flavoured with accuracy and care. It is also a novel filled with women whose strength and savagery are a paean of praise to the Mumbai woman. Violet and Parvati, two women, two Amazons, two Kalis, two Chandis, two Madonnas. The gynarchy of the chawl is summed up elegantly, wryly when Nagarkar tells us that Eddy is not sure what fathers do exactly.

Only someone who loved his fellowman could have paid them so much attention. Only someone who hoped for the collapse of compartments and categories into which human beings have locked themselves could devise the cast of characters with which Central Works Department Chawl No 17 is populated.

Yes, we are still laughing but there is a knowingness to our laughter. It is the ache of experience.

This article first appeared in Motherland’s latest issue titled 1995 (Bombay) - 1996 (Mumbai) which takes a trip down memory lane to rediscover an overlooked year in recent Indian cultural history when Bombay became Mumbai.