Wanderers, All is Janhavi Acharekar’s first novel that is a seamless blend of memoir, historical fiction and travelogue. Murlidhar Khedekar, from a goldsmith’s family, migrates from a small Konkan village to Bombay of pre-independent India.
He is enamoured by theatre and wants to be an actor, but fails to realise his ambition, eventually transitioning, from being a clerk and wrestler to becoming a cop in the Bombay City Police. Interwoven within the story is the travelogue of his great-granddaughter, Kinara, who sets out on a solo and aimless trip across the Goan coast. Alternating between two contrasting eras, Wanderers, All combines history, politics and theatre. “I would like the novel to be known as a larger novel that throws up questions about Colonialism, identity and religious chauvinism.”
In the late 1800s, a quarter of Bombay’s population, which was 8 lakhs, comprised migrants. For a city built by several communities, more than a hundred years later, we are still talking about migrants. To identify yourself with a group with such certainty, to me, is ridiculous,” says Janhavi, who has also written a collection of short stories, Window Seat: Rush-Hour Stories from the city and a travel guide, Moon, Mumbai & Goa .
Though the story and characters in Wanderer’s, All are fictional, the basic premise of the book is inspired by Jahnavi’s family history. Her great grand-father Rao Bahadur Shridhar Acharekar was in the Bombay City Police, and most of her family members acted in amateur theatre.
“In almost every middle-class and upper middle class Marathi family at the time, Marathi theatre seeped into their culture. It was the heyday of Marathi theatre. In the early 1900s, my family was part of a larger craze of theatre. So, for me, it was natural to introduce theatre in the book and make it integral to the story. Even Parsi, Urdu and Gujarati theatre were burgeoning at the time.”
But the story of Kinara, Janhavi says, is not really close to her own. “My familiarity is with the travelogue in Goa.”
The theme of identity is central to the book. Janhavi stresses that the book is an exploration of Murlidhar’s evolution and the evolution of a city and the nation. “His family escapes Portuguese Colonialism and ends up in British Colonialism, so to speak. ”
The writing and research took Janhavi about three years, which involved, as Janhavi puts it, “a lot of serendipity and a lot of exhaustive research.” She read up on the Bombay City Police of pre-Independent India.
“There were very specific books I was looking for. I was lucky to find them. I also spoke to some people. I came across the story of Maxine Steller in Naresh Fernandes’ blog, Taj Mahal Foxtrot. Her father and grandfather had been in the Bombay City Police. I spoke with the historian Deepak Rao to make sure there were no factual errors.” The research, she says, was so fascinating that she found herself completely immersed in it.
But in these times of preference for quick reading, where does literary fiction stand? “Popular fiction has its place as well. I am not the sort to slam it. But the language, quality of writing, rather than the pace of the book are sometimes questionable.”
Wanderers, All is a HarperCollins Publication.