Updated: November 3, 2012 19:36 IST

Showing off the city of dreams

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Ministry of Hurt Sentiments by Altaf Tyrewala.
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Ministry of Hurt Sentiments by Altaf Tyrewala.

Fluent, image-rich poems that draw amazingly accurate pictures of life in Mumbai.

In this city/Every man gets one death to cheat/A life worth living is what’s rare/For that, there’s elsewhere.

That, in the author’s mind and work, seems to be the general image of Mumbai, the city of dreams, of gold, of commerce, of anonymity. You choose the one you prefer. This is a long poem; blank verse that, to many, would be off-putting just because of its lack of conventional narrative ‘flow’, no characters saying anything, no situations that can be resolved if not by the author, at least by the reader, open to interpretation and inspiration. But strangely, the language itself makes it work. It is fluent, fluid, image-rich, occasionally hilarious, charming, thought-provoking and often, plain dreary-nasty. As a loyal and jingoistic Mumbaikar, did I want to see my city thus? Honestly? No, even though I know that the reality of my favourite urban conglomeration is not pretty, not even endearing in every obvious way. But it is my home and do I want to read someone else being obnoxious about it? Not unless that someone else does it with a certain class and style and cleverness. And Altaf Tyrewala does.

He sees Mumbai for what it is, stripped bare of its high-voltage glamour in parts, cowering behind it in others. For him, as for anyone who has bothered to understand and accept the city for what it really is rather than what it should not be, the metropolis is a study in contrasts, opposing forces, paradoxes, where what is one moment bothersome becomes comforting in the next. And if you want to know more, all you need to do is ask... or explore. As the author says with startling imagery: There is nothing this unblushing city won’t reveal of itself/Its fanny splayed open like a mouth at the dentist’s office.

And there is that everyday rush and rumble that we all — as Mumbaikars — have been through at some point in our lives in the city, whatever our snob values may be. The daily commute on high-traffic roads or overcrowded trains — “A twice-daily ballet born of helpless necessity” — is described with ruthless pitiless accuracy, where men can feel up the women they are perforce crushed against, where impoverished fishermen bale out bodies from the creek and steal the money in their soggy wallets. The writer wanders the streets of Mumbai with every sense sharpened, observing, watching, absorbing and then drawing pictures that readers will recognize almost instantly.

And that is indeed the strength of the book; that extended poem. While hardly pleasant or easy to digest, it tells a story in an astonishingly graphic way. And it presents amazingly real-life pictures, which is what any good writing should be. Yes, it is exceedingly unpleasant in parts; it shows off the underbelly of Mumbai, which no city that is considered to be a sort of El Dorado should ideally do. It tells you in excruciating detail — with clever verse structure — what happens, for instance, in a crowded peak-hour commuter train, what walking through the red light district is like, what goes into acquiring even the smallest space to live in and what a riot does to people who are really not connected with its cause or action.

So why should you read Ministry of Hurt Sentiments? It may hurt every single sentiment any Mumbai-lover may have for the city that rarely, if ever, sleeps, but it makes it a city that needs to be experienced.

It shows off a metropolis that has to be known, at least in the pages of a slim volume… or the words that make up a descriptive verse.

Ministry of Hurt Sentiments; Altaf Tyrewala, Harper Collins, Rs.299.

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