We Indians are literary fiction snobs. We are never happy without a sense of quotidian tragedy looming over our stories. We have relegated passionate romances to films and humour to stand-up comedians – some of whom are not even jailed. In literature, we want to sit around looking glum despite cutting ties with Russia and replacing it with diabetes from too much neoliberal cola.
We think sci-fi is about flying cars and fantasy means thoughts that mustn’t be spoken about. We think escaping into the reality of our sordid lives is diving for culture vulture carrion. And I state this in all self-awareness: as a recent entrant to the margins of Indian English writing, I’m also guilty of milking the melancholy of everydayness for literary seduction.
To be fair, this is not true of India alone. Modern literature is deeply rooted in the colonial / postcolonial enterprise and one must look at its larger history in order to understand its evolution. But that is beyond the scope of this essay and I’m merely beginning with this comment / lament to set the table for a look at Bombay Hangovers, a collection of short stories by Rochelle Potkar.
The title of the book, in choosing the erstwhile moniker of a city whose identity has known upheavals, is an endeavour of nostalgia – while flying in the face of hypernationalism. And “hangover” brings to mind nausea, headaches, dry tongues and vague memories of calling exes – indicative of the heady journeys that the stories take us on.
Bombay is “Maximum City”, where the best and the worst of the human spirit coexist, where every battle of passion and pride is set aside each day for the pressing need for livelihood; where hope is euphemism for the accident of survival. It has been the site and focus of a great number of literary works which have brought out its many facets through narrations from different vantage points.
Some speak of specific communities that are homogenous islands within a large, heterogeneous archipelago. In drawing from every social denomination, Bombay Hangovers is representative of the melting pot that is cosmopolitan Bombay.
The ordinary lives of extraordinary people
There are sixteen stories in this collection and they are all bound by the same register – a compulsive narration of routine. A story set during the textile mill strike, for instance, doesn’t tell us why Albert Pinto is angry. Rather, it talks about a man’s dreary life through quashed dreams ending with his two wives making peace after his death. The craft is interesting in that his abandonment of his first wife is signified by her abrupt abandonment in the narration mid-story, only to bring her out of oblivion towards the end.
Another one talks about the dispassionate marriage of a man who decides to start a perfumery in his home. His wife’s indecision about her approval of it is evident in the sharp contrast in her attitude in adjacent lines:
“‘Even a bare house smelling this good would be welcoming’ she told her friends, ‘like wafts of cooking from a hut can appease a hungry person…’
Day by day, Marinette got angrier with Russi’s perfumes.”
One of the stories talks about a man whose sexual fantasies comprise, in vivid detail, an affair between his wife and his friend; he is distraught and angry when he finds out that his fantasy is, in fact, being carried out. Another one is about an old man living in the poverty of lost grandeur and getting robbed by everyone in sight.
The writing is simple. There is no wordplay or poetic denouement or attempt to show rather than tell. Everything is no more or less than what there is.
But the most interesting of all is “The Arithmetic of Breasts”. It is the story of a marriage where the protagonists are a woman’s breasts. They are the focus of attention of the man who always has a “semi-hardon” in their presence, and an inventory of sex positions defines the zeitgeist of their conjugality.
They tried the Catherine wheel, ape position, butterfly and dolphin position, bridge and plough position, suspended scissors and standing wheelbarrow positions, their limbs akimbo, her breasts dangling precariously. The magic mountain position, her breasts squashed over three pillows. The snail, G-force, grip, Y-curve and shoulder stand position, her breasts jiggling happily.
The height of their courtship is narrated through classic male-gaze descriptions (“lovely dunes held in the lace calligraphy of her humble bra”) and her verbal communication being superseded by titular articulation (“he sensed her affirmation…in the way her nipples grew taut…like crazy raisins under her blouse”).
It doesn’t say why the woman who possesses a PhD doesn’t have a career. And the only time she speaks is to respond to her husband talk of his father several years into their marriage. The intention must be to depict a turn from the comely to the homely because it is around this time that they settle into slower, gentler forms of lovemaking.
It is with the line listing the functionality of said breasts (“They were good tools in attracting a husband, but they were the best when they furnished stomachful of nutrition into the babies’ hungry bodies”) that it dawns on the reader that the whole narration is aimed at caricaturing stereotypical male authorship – that it is parody through imitation. It may not be so, but we must give the author the benefit of the doubt.
When the tutor of Toru Dutt, one of the first Indian English poets, asked her to choose history over novels, she is known to have responded with “Histories are false. Novels are true.” On the other hand, Oscar Wilde derides the imposition of truth on literature in his satirical critique of realism, “The Decay of Lying”.
While straddling the implications of both these assertions, as inhabitants of the post-truth era, our literary choices are further complicated. But the increased emphasis on “subjectivity” and “interpretation” is the leeway one must have to live and love the stories one chooses for oneself. Bombay Hangovers is, therefore, certain to find a home in this vast milieu of words and afterwards.
Bombay Hangovers, Rochelle Potkar, Vishwakarma Publications.