A compelling vision of life in Bombay, seen through the author’s mytho-poetic vision.
The Bombay Quartet by the late poet Dilip Chitre — exquisitely translated by Jayant Deshpande from the original Chaturang that appeared in Marathi in 1995 — is a set of four novellas arranged in a descending order of length. Except for the third, The Full Moon in Winter, theothering three are fables inhabiting the surreal spaces of inexplicable obsessions, dreams and nightmares, set within Bombay’s concrete reality. In his foreword, the author describes Bombay as “the city where millions crave and fantasise, chase and collapse, taste reality and its tragic ironies mixed with magic revelations.” It is this idea of Bombay that provides the inspiration, the context and the narrative.
The Sapphire, narrated in the first person, is the story of a man’s obsession with the blue gemstone governed by Saturn. He sees in the brilliance and colour of the sapphire, a world of chance that beckons to him. According to Hindu astrology, Saturn can be a benevolent or a malignant force depending on how it is placed vis-à-vis your astrological sign. Despite being acutely aware of the gemstone’s equal potential for good and evil, the narrator finds himself unable to resist the desire to possess it. It is possible that taking risks runs in his blood: “A mysterious family tradition was drawing me into its invisible clutches and towards an incomprehensible fate.” Finally, when he does possess the sapphire he covets, he realises that good fortune can translate into evil when it alienates a man’s family from him. The Sapphire is not just a skilfully narrated fable, but an evocative meditation on the colour blue.
Rudhiraksha, the second novella, progresses in leaps and loops, disregarding chronology. The protagonist is sometimes Rudhiraksha, the man with red eyes, and sometimes “I”, suggesting a split personality. One part of this man appears to be an alien given to dizzy spells that cause lapses of memory and spatial displacement. At one point he is on the moon looking up at the earth. The other part is an inspector of drains who is obsessed both by sewage and a woman whom he watches from the top of a drainpipe making cold, mechanical love. Each day he hopes to see her body transform into a passionate expression of sexual pleasure, but it never does. Underlying Rudhiraksha is the idea of inclusiveness, of the inseparability of mind from body, culture from animality, the ultimate symbol of which is drain water into which is dissolved “every substance, every principle in the daily flow of human life.” Engaging as this philosophical idea is, one wishes the author had not interrupted the flow of the narrative with occasional didactic passages explicating it.
The Full Moon in Winter is a comparatively light-hearted tale told largely through dialogue. Two men and a woman, who have known each other distantly at college, find themselves in an impromptu all-night party where they are joined by another male friend and intruded upon by another woman. The conversation, crisp, witty and full of repartee, gradually builds up the erotic potential of the encounter, till the declining libidos of the five middle-aged people are revived.
Abraham’s Notebook, the last story, uses the familiar formula of an innocent man unwittingly caught in a vicious trap, but goes beyond it by basing it on a supernatural premise. Abraham Benjamin, an old friend of the narrator’s, now dead, has given him a notebook through which he takes possession of the narrator’s mind driving him to near fatal action.