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Updated: October 5, 2013 19:38 IST

Garden of good and evil

Suneetha Balakrishnan
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Vanity Bagh by Anees Salim.
Special Arrangement Vanity Bagh by Anees Salim.

A delightful exploration of small-town India, with religious skirmishes, politics and cricket.

Vanity Bagh is the story of Little Pakistan, a mohalla that one can place anywhere on the map of India. As also Mehendi, a Hindu- majority neighbourhood that offers foil and balance to Vanity Bagh.

The title has exquisite connotations. It opens the ‘vanity bag’ of such lives that the urban ‘us’ never think about; it speaks of the ‘mango’ people we hear about but never know. It explores the vanities of some big and small people in a dimension of literary exploration.

Imran Jabbari is the son of the local Imam and, like everyone else in the mohalla, named after the successful, rich and famous of Pakistan. Imran is therefore the namesake of Imran Khan the cricketer, not the politician. There’s also Wasim, Javed, Benazir, Zia, Zulfikkar, Navas Sharif and Yahya, among a colourful array of characters. We see the mohalla through Imran’s solitary musings from jail.

And what do people in mohallas do? They live an eventful life certainly; with bomb blasts, dons and riots weaving in and out of their day. They also go to school, marry and make kids. They sometimes form gangs like the ‘five and a half men’, as Imran and his pals did, aspire to be Dons, get into serious trouble doing ostensible small gang-stuff, and get 16-year jail sentences, like Imran Jabbari did.

Imran’s world is a microcosm of the reality that’s small-town India. The religious skirmishes, the joys, the sorrows, the politics, the underworld, the Indo-Pak cricket matches and their outcomes; yet, an agreeable life, or so we feel. Imran misses his mohalla so much that when he meets someone from his place, the first thing he does is ‘sniff like he had a cold’; but in reality ‘I am just trying to be like a dog, to take in the smell of the mohalla’.

Imran Jabbari’s soliloquies grow on you. The author uses the right tone of resignation and optimism to make this possible, even about life in jail. The other characters in the book come to us at times in the form of quotes interspersed within text, in innovative craft.

Vanity Bagh’s intricate sketches and tongue-in-cheek references to people and places are a reader’s delight. It offers satire and black humour and, although not a laugh riot, the book talks about mohalla life in such a deceptively light manner that one is lulled into thinking this is a ‘slice of life’ tale, which it is not. The author goes on to weave a tale of friendship, family, neighbours, hope, and much more. The voice of the book, which is the best thing about it, preserves the timbre of detached narration.

The pace lags initially, the first quarter makes for near-heavy literary reading; the reader actually starts making confident assumptions of where this tale would go; but then, the surprises come in, and the book becomes hard to put down.

Vanity Bagh; Anees Salim, Picador, Rs.499.

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