Two Parsis walk into a bar. And that is (almost) the beginning of a remarkable new novel

In Chandrahas Choudhury’s ‘Clouds’, the newly single Mumbai psychotherapist Farhad Billimoria meets Zahra, a vivacious visitor from San Francisco.

Zahra giggled. “What a strange lot we Indians are, don’t you think?”

“I’ll confess, after years of study I’ve come to the same conclusion – only, now, I’m bored of such strangeness. We don’t actually want more freedom, as some people imagine we do. That would be so mundane. We’d rather have a world of piety and prohibition so we can preach morality to others – all the while trying to circumvent those very same rules.”

“Hmm. So, lots of incest, too? What a world.” Zahra whistled, an act that curiously became her, the way priests can look their most charming when they run cassocked into a football game. “Sorry if this is boring for you, Dr Billimoria. I’m just curious about these things because I’ve been away from India so long, and I want to know how our society is changing. And who better than you to know the secret life of the Indian mind?’

“Ah, no, I’m sure my guess is no better than any other. How long have you been away?”

“Forever! Let’s see…I left in 1996. So, fifteen years. Yes, I know, that makes me very old. Older than you probably thought I was. But that’s not such a terrible thing. A woman must just accept, at a certain point, that her best years are behind her.”

“What a shocking thing to admit. If my opinion is of any value, I don’t think you’ll be getting there for many years yet.”

“What a sweet thing to say. Well, I’ll take you at your word and tell you how old I am. I was twenty-three when I left this city. I’ll let you do the math. I left to get married, actually.”

“Really? And how was that – is that?”

Zahra laughed. “It was like one of those diploma courses – it lasted only a year. The guy was Irani, but from Las Vegas – he worked in a casino there. Yes, I know. What was I doing? But I was so young. My head was full of all kinds of romantic illusions and fantasies. Eternal love and perfect union and all that.”

“Very interesting. And then?”

“Then? I already had residency when we broke up, so there was no point returning. I drifted around a bit. In the strangest places. Dayton, Ohio; Eugene, Oregon. Anywhere but Bombay. I knew that if I returned to my world of parents, aunts, uncles and cousins in Ness Baug, I’d become an object of sympathy, of pity. Everybody would go out of their way to be nice to me, and that niceness would be more terrible than anything else. In this world, it’s okay to make one wrong move. But you mustn’t let that lead you to another mistake.”

“How smart!” I said, with genuine respect.

“Just find some way of keeping your head above the water till you work out what you want to do next.”

“Exactly what I’ve said to many people who’ve come my way.”

“I read it in a book by Enrico Sanchez. Did you, too?”

“Enrico who?”

“Enrico Sanchez. He’s a bit like – a bit like Richard Bach. Or Paulo Coelho. Only better. Those two are pop. They write for money. This man is serious. His last book was The Secret of the Secret. But that’s not so good. His best is What You Didn’t See from the Centre of the Room. From the mid-90s. Isn’t that a great title?”

“It is.”

“It’s like it arrived in my life just when I needed it. All along, I’d been in the centre of the room. know…if you’re in the centre of the room, why would you ever move?”

“To look out of the window?”

“Dr Billimoria, now you’re laughing at me. But think about it. It’s true. All my life I’d been in the thick of it. Good-looking, popular, well-connected. People around me full of love for me; doors and windows open on all sides, positive energy in every direction. Then, suddenly, something terrible happened – in this case, my divorce – and the room became empty. For no fault of mine – but that’s how it was, that was the truth. To get to another room, find another centre, I had to first learn how to move around my own room. Oh look, here are our drinks. Well…cheers. What shall we drink to?”

“Why not aim high? Cheers to life,” I said, with a sudden flash of happiness and optimism brought on by the face in front of me, the last rays of the sunset, and a fresh sense of the pastness of my past and the promise of my future. “To the puzzle that is life, and to the pleasures of thinking about that puzzle. To the secret of the secret.”

Zahra laughed. “I can’t tell if you’re making fun of me, but I don’t care. These books changed my life. Actually, I love reading. And I love going to book launches, too. Just to see the mind of the person who made the book. I think a book becomes more interesting when you have some sense of the personality of the writer.”

“Really? I don’t think I’ve been to more than two book launches in my whole life.”

Zahra pointed a finger at me. “There’s one in Bombay tomorrow. Want to go? A big one…at the Trident. My sister told me about it.”

“Sure. Whose book is it?”

“It’s an Indian novelist. Very famous. He lives in America and he’s visiting. Amitav…Amitav Ghosh! It’s his new book. It’s a novel…but a novel about things that really happened. About Indian history. History that we don’t know. About the opium trade and Bombay, I think, and China. I read all about it by googling it last night. It’s called Cloud of Smoke. And, best of all, it has a hero who is a Parsi! We must go, for the sake of solidarity if nothing else. We Parsis have no literature about us at all. Iranis even less so. Hindus and Muslims have taken over the past of this country. But actually, we’ve had a bigger role in its making…at least if you count per capita.”

Zahra’s arousing laughter floated up into the sky, where the personal secretary of Zarathustra entered it in his logbook as an offering.

“Interesting. An aunt of mine, Freny Doctor, wrote a Parsi crime novel. It’s called Dikra, Your Days Are Numbered. The title is better than the writing though. Anyway…I’d love to go to this Ghosh thing.”

“It’s a plan,” said Zahra. “I’d like another Bellini. What about you?”

“I’m still only halfway through this. But okay. You sure drink fast.”

“I love champagne. Don’t you?” said Zahra. “Oh, look! The sun’s all gone. How beautiful it all looks. I know it sounds weird, but sometimes I think Bombay is more beautiful than San Francisco.”

Excerpted with permission from Clouds, Chandrahas Choudhury, Simon & Schuster.

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