Literary Review

Tales from Mumbai’s underbelly

Englishh Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperral Nation; Altaf Tyrewala, Penguin, Rs. 450  

Altaf Tyrewala’s collection of short stories is mostly about Mumbai’s underbelly and the men and women who inhabit this cruel city. There is nothing likeable about Tyrewala’s Mumbai. The stories are dark satirical and clever. Some work and some don’t mostly because the tone and tenor tend to be repetitive and predictable.

My favourite is the first ‘New and second hand’, about the owner of a second-hand bookshop. Like most bookshops around the world, this one too is heading for its imminent shut down. What he says about browsing is something most of us belonging to the browsers’ era can relate to. “A reader may come looking for Naipaul’s biography by French, and might walk out with that and with Thoroux’s scandalous account of his friendship with Naipaul. Such are the incidental joys of browsing.” Then he describes the lamenters of fading Bombay. “ They fetishize the doddering, the decaying and the outdated, while ensuring that nothing and no one threatens their state of belonging to the swanky, the newly constructed and the state of the art.” He is caustic and unsentimental. How is the owner preparing himself for the inevitable?

‘An Indian Porn Director’s Speech to His Hesitant leading Lady’ is hilarious. It is a long monologue on the director’s attempt to salvage our sexuality from the onslaught of Swedish and Hollywood smut lords, peddlers of Nordic supermen and 38D Barbies! The other really funny story is the last ‘One-hit-wonder Literature Festival. The welcome letter says.” You are here because you once mattered: you once showed buckets of promise. People still possess copies of your book. They waited and waited for the next one, then they gave up and forgot about you. May be they thought you had died. This festival is to remind your fans that you are still around.”

‘World Trade Centre’, is a day in the life of people such as the coffee boy, mopping lady, lift operator and security staff who keep the giant wheels of this massive complex turning. ‘Nice Water’ looks at the maid who comes from the slums to work in a multi-storey apartment building. Nanda picks up a bottle of sealed mineral water from the railway tracks which is her toilet. For her it is a treasure she could not even dream of. It is all about the sharp cruel divide between haves and have-nots.This is a recurrent theme in most of the stories: ‘The Watchman”, is about a watchman in a posh apartment complex who is convinced that somebody in the building is going to die and what it does to the inhabitants. Tyrewala is scathing about the post liberalisation India coming under evil Western Influence. He is equally caustic about the bleeding heart activists. Nor does he approve of the freebie culture. His stories are filled with the loonies and crazies who lurk around in decaying cities. They also drip with irony. ‘The mint with the hole’, is about a man who has to check the notes at a currency minting machine. The rich poor divide again. Neta Nagar is a slum which survives on freebies providing a vote bank for the politician. This story has a neat little twist in the end. So does the ‘ The thirteenth floor’. A couple of stories do grip you. In ‘About your Cell phone’, a man casually steels a cell phone from another man buying condoms and faces all kinds of consequences thereafter. ‘Balance Sheet’ comes close to true emotions and does not sneer at anybody but the traffic. Death and birth confront each other. ‘Siddhartha’ is a grim little tale going nowhere. ‘We the happy ‘ is an essay pretending to be a short story . Ageing parents and their NRI children feel contradictory mixed up emotions.

MmYum’s, the longest story, which is almost a novella and is the most irritating. Arnold is the life-size clown on display at MmYum, an American food chain that has outlets all over the country. The clown is the mascot which is sent from the US to its worldwide outlets. One of the Arnolds in a Mumbai restaurant becomes sentient, escapes, has adventures, is accosted by all the low lives of Mumbai underworld, wants to return to the restaurant, but cannot as he has been replaced by another Arnold. An aspiring writer who has a secret craving for junk food rescues him and dumps him with bunch of anti-American activists who want to make poor Arnold the sentient mascot, a symbol, metaphor of all that is wrong. Poor Arnold after going through some cruelties makes his escapes again. However when the replacement Arnold also turns sentient and escapes, it becomes much of a muchness.

The titular story ‘Englishhh’ is the revenge of dyslexic Rohan Shah who is born in pre-liberalisation India and is sent to his uncle’s book shop to assist him and hopefully get rid of his disability.

He ends up reinventing English based on numerology as an antidote to the world’s most inauspiciously spelled language. This is the ultimate revenge of the post colonial brown skinned nation (all spelled in Englishhh). The idea is nice, it’s funny in parts but ends up sounding like the Internet joke, which ends with the phonetically spelt “After zis fifz yer, ve vil hav a reli sensibl riten styl.” Zer vil be no mor trubl or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi to understand ech ozer. Ze drem vil finali kum tru! And zen world! “

Go figure!


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