Book review

One more Mumbai novel? No, perhaps ‘the’ novel of modern Mumbai

Ganesh Matkari’s ‘Half-Open Windows’ makes the reader part of the plot.

“Someone ought to write a poem on who killed the city of Mumbai.”

Half-Open Windows reads people you wouldn’t ordinarily want to read. There are corporate giants, hypocritical house husbands, overstressed students of architecture a la Peter Keating, and what’s more, the weather’s not that great. It’s humid outside, it might just rain, any moment, and you’re reading about Mumbai, which is not over there, the way New York is, or even Singapore. Mumbai, which is right here, is being read. Would you ordinarily want to read it?

I choose to use the word ordinarily because that banality comes prepackaged in Ganesh Matkari’s novel, except it’s not presented in a banal fashion, and so it coruscates. The reader knows, right from the beginning, that this is not a grand project (unlike all the architectural ambitions strewn across the story.) It is not a castigation of urban morality, nor an attempt at other disambiguations: more often than not, scenes in the novel end with the protagonist in question sitting at a table, wondering.

And that’s another thing: do you want one protagonist per novel? Or two, or three, at the most? Look elsewhere. Half-Open Windows has six, seven, eight protagonists. And each chapter presents a different protagonist speaking. It is the ultimate showing-not-telling of life’s great indifference to our solipsism. It is one thing to know that every person has their story to tell; it is another thing to have every person actually tell their story. And by choosing to do the latter, Ganesh Matkari does a remarkable thing: he displaces the very idea of protagonism from the body of the human being.

It’s not about anyone (unless it’s about something)

The city becomes the protagonist at times. Occasionally, it is the weather that does the talking; crowds are another huge contender for your imaginative attention, and more often than not, thanks to Jerry Pinto’s succinct translation from the Marathi, it is the quotidian machinery of an urban existence that grabs the spotlight’s fancy, not to mention your own – the interior of a car, the outside of a café, a drying balcony, an airport lounge.

Again, a disclaimer here is necessary: this is not a story about oh, do look how rich we are, how diversely but nevertheless uniformly rich, look how not one of us is poor or strapped for cash, look how we drive our cars! No. This is a story about life being lived, on paper, despite all these reasons not to live it that way: speeding cars, Café Coffee Days, Skype, iPads, Whatsapp messages, press junkets at the Marriott, skyscrapers under construction, porn featuring Sunny Leone.

Furthermore, Pinto’s translation of this novel (and as I imagine, the novel itself) takes the Marathiness of its names extremely seriously. It is beautiful to confront this destruction of this ever-extant coloniality, this presentation in the English language of a world I like to think of as terribly Marathi, but also futuristically Marathi, the kind of Marathi that looks to the past not for vindicative exhumation but for nonchalant, almost amused observations.

The effect – and for me, this is the desired effect – is not that you end up confronting your choices of Juliet and Romeo over Sohni and Mahiwal, but that you don’t end up confronting your unconscious prejudices, your inherent parochialism: you simply end up a part of the plot, and you stay that way.

Because no matter how complex their desires, or how stiflingly vicious the city they live in, these are people living an extremely simple story, not without an equally simple message. The simple story is that some children and some adults are trying to live their lives with each other, and the simple message is, simple is absolutely not what you thought it was.

The who, what (and maybe why, when and how)

Here is a brief presentation of the cast, and one of the plot as well: several timelines, lives, families, secrets, opinions, and most importantly, perspectives intersect. We begin with Sushrut, who sounds and seems attractive and is trying to decide whether he wants to play house-husband-plus-eternally-creative-writer to his partner Sanika. Sanika is an architect, who has a “real job” in cruel opposition to Sushrut’s mild artistic considerations and audio book downloads.

Sanika works with her business partners Niranjan and Anant. Niranjan is the openly, univocally bad person in the story, a get-things-done forty-plus cool dude with a few intelligent opinions. Anant is more like Sanika, who is upright and hard-working.

Then, all these people just mentioned have their families, their friends, their neighbours, their love interests, and their voices to find in this plethoric setting. And summarising this novel is tough because – and when you read it you will appreciate the irony of the words that follow – there is no denouement, no falling action. Matkari is simply – and by now you should be reconsidering what this word could mean – reading and writing people living their lives with each other, inspired as he is by cinema and its audiovisual catharsis.

But like the title of the book, this claim about simplicity could go any way, prone as it is to metaphorical readings. The cover is a tasteful one: the bottom left half gives us a wide shot of a skyscraper under construction, and the top right half shows a large dead crow pheasant (better known as the bhardwaj), all suspended against a yellow background.

And what could “half-open windows” mean? Whatever it is, it certainly has much to do with the sadness within the story, the halfness, and with the Hitchcockian desire to spot and anticipate things from afar. Go read this novel; it gets over fast not because it’s short, but because that’s how things work now – they get over fast, they end quick.

Half-Open Windows, Ganesh Matkari, translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger Books.

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