Shanghvi’s novel brings Bombay alive in a startlingly new way.
The Lost Flamingos of Bombay; Siddharth Dhavant Shanghvi, Penguin/Viking, Rs. 499.
His first novel won the Betty Trask Award; his second, The Lost Flamingos of Bombay, was on the shortlist of the Man Asian Literary Prize last year. So you do tend to approach the book a bit cautiously only to find the caution was misplaced. This is an immensely readable book though it can’t be read at one sitting.
Just in case you’re misled by the birds in the title, this book has nothing to do with wildlife or the environment. Instead it’s peopled with characters that one can identify with.
There’s Samar, a young genius who’s had enough of fame at 25 years; Karan, the photographer on a personal mission to commit Bombay to film; Zaira, a popular film star; and Rhea who’s given up a career for marriage. When Zaira is killed by a well-connected stalker, their lives fall apart. How they cope with the heartbreak, the loss and the miscarriage of justice that follows forms the rest of the story.
Put like that, it does sound rather bald but something urges you to read further. And then there’s the endless scope for speculation.
The murder is very obviously based on the Jessica Lal case, down to the mother-daughter duo who owns the bar where Zaira is shot dead while mixing drinks.
If you’re careful to open the book page by page, instead of jumping straight into the action, you can’t miss the author’s note: “The Lost Flamingos of Bombay is inspired, in part, by a range of events discussed extensively in the print media, films, and on TV. While some of the events... do bear echoes of such reports, this novel remains a work of fiction.”
Just as Karan seeks to preserve images of Bombay with his photographs, Shanghvi’s writing offers the reader many wordscapes of Bombay (not Mumbai); Karan’s search through Chor Bazar for the Bombay Fornicator (read the book to find out what that is) and his trip to see the flamingos at Sewri are just two instances when the city comes alive.
The perils of instant celebrityhood thanks to 24-hour TV, the economic liberalisation (described as “the economy stretching its ravenous mouth for access to foreign booty), moral policing and cultural terrorism, the annual flooding of the city… all that we find ourselves debating today have their part to play. The focus here is on urban society just as India’s underbelly was the focus of The White Tiger. But this one is not so in-your-face though it does not shy away from highlighting the negatives. And all said and done, this seems like a labour of love as far as Bombay is concerned.