The odour of dreams: Vikas Dhoot reviews Rochelle Potkar’s ‘Bombay Hangovers’

Stories that take you close to the sights, sounds and sweat levels unique to Bombay

June 26, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

This is the first collection of short stories from an accomplished poet, with all but one story revolving around India’s city of dreams. Rochelle Potkar, who grew up in Kalyan on the edges of Bombay, which is part of what is now known as the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, demonstrates her intimate connect to the city’s denizens with an easy verve.

From the bylanes of Kamathipura to the Ambarnath fast local, from the hopeful textile mill employee of 1980s’ Bombay now serving as a security guard in the very malls that have replaced the mills and become the cemeteries of the aspirations of thousands of mill workers, to the “humid passion” with which Flora Fountain’s second-hand booksellers operate, places and people are brought alive with Potkar’s skilful keyboard strokes.

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The plots serve as the canvas on which she paints the metropolis’ various hues, taking you close to the sights, sounds, smells and sweat levels unique to Bombay. As Salman Rushdie, quoted in the introduction by Selma Carvalho, says, “almost every sentence [here] bears a touch of the poetic”, as the poet’s lyricism seeps into her prose.

A few editing lapses serve as minor distractions. For instance, in the longest story, Paranoia, where different protagonists leading parallel, unfulfilled lives find a catharsis of sorts from the founts of their troubles, a key character’s name flips between Preeti Vaani and Preeti Jain on alternate pages. One hopes future editions will fix such errors.

Quite a few stories stand out — in particular, Parfum , with its olfactory delights wrapped in irony, The Arithmetic of Breasts with its wonderful twists of phrases, and my personal favourite, Our Lovers, with its pithy take on oft-misplaced notions of fidelity.

A few culminate abruptly just as the reader is getting invested in their characters’ fates. Of course, abruptness is often a necessary tool to ensure a short story remains, well, short. But wielding it with finesse, as Raymond Carver, John Cheever or Dorothy Parker did, is a rare art form.

But Potkar’s maiden short fiction compilation has more hits than misses, and her style is unique and refreshing. This is a voice that one hopes will evolve further with time and throw up bigger, better manuscripts to relish.

Bombay Hangovers; Rochelle Potkar, Vishwakarma Publications, ₹280

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