After being deeply affected by the events surrounding his previous novel, city-based writer, Murzban Shroff is back to loving Maximum City. But this time, his protagonist is a jocular gent schmoozing with his Bandra pals in search of being grounded. An interview with the author about his past shaping his current work, his deliberate theatrics with prose and fondness for the island we call home.
Your previous work, Breathless in Bombay , 2008, was nominated as among the ten best books set in Mumbai. You return to Mumbai once again with Waiting for Jonathan Koshy . How profound is your relationship with this city, especially since your were forced into litigation with Breathless when a social worker objected to your use of the word ‘ghaati’?
It is my terra firma and a microcosm of India. I don’t hate the city at all; I love it, I despair for it. Some people gave me grief but never the city. It did make a difference to my voice yes. After all, the police gave me a favourable verdict by saying, “the book is unifying not divisive”. Even the High Court threw the claims of the social worker out. Yet, January 30, 2010 was possibly the worst day of my life – the social worker went back to a lower court, had the police verdict thrown out and restarted the whole thing.
I questioned everything about my life then. However, I would never have gotten to know the real India unless I had spent those days in court. Ironically, at this time, I was shortlisted for The Commonwealth Prize, 2009. On a reading tour to the US, I spoke at the Gandhi Memorial Centre. On one level, there was recognition and acceptance, and on the other, I was battered by guys who hadn’t even read the work.
It changed me. My writing became leaner, more experimental. Breathless was specific to Bombay. It was modernist; it took very definite positions of right and wrong. Jonathan Koshy is more post-modernist, maintaining a socio- political construct and it is reflective of a thinking, feeling generation that grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. It talks about the city and the idea that rampant development isn’t necessarily a good thing. It brings up questions about civil apathy, corruption, injustice – and it believes in following a path of career fulfilment over success. It asks broader questions: What is India? Where are we going? It gets into an ideological rhetorical space. The third book I have in the Bombay series will be fairly experimental. I think then I would be done with Mumbai.
There is much love lavished in your novel on the iconic Bungalow 104, Pali Hill. In fact, Jonathan jokes, “104 Pali Hill is like Hotel California. You can check in any time you like but you can never leave.” What underpins the choice to make location such an important feature?
Without a sense of place I don’t belong here. Jonathan has a tremendous sense of place –– he’s looking to find a safe space. He keeps returning to Pali Hill, which is a haven, a sanctuary. Not only is the locality holding out from an external threat like the builders who are predators. But also, it is a personal retreat with four friends, who belong to different communities; it’s a place where personal crisis is sorted out. Jonathan gets outrageous at times, but 104 looks after him. A house is heaven, a guardian angel. As I say in the opening paragraph of a story in Breathless , “… you know by the lurch in your heart that you haven’t just lived in the house: the house has lived in you.”
Right until the last chapter, you describe the interactions of four friends who are awaiting the arrival of a swashbuckling fifth. This structure, and the fact that you often use the first person plural bring staginess to the narrative. Was this theatricality a deliberate choice?
It was absolutely intentional. I was inspired by Steinbeck, and in particular by Burning Bright – a play novella. I have an episodic format, which is more like a form of television. I was going for the idea of life in episodes. There is theatricality in that, and I combined that with the insights of a novel.
Not having him speak till the last chapter and looking at him instead through the eyes of his friends, gave me narrative distance. The challenge was about talking through the collective consciousness, and many writers don’t do that. That’s how we live, though, don’t we? We live through our milieus. If we have friends, they are friends for a reason. But how do you capture the ethos and pathos of a generation, to its optimum, if you don’t get into the first person plural?
Jonathan Koshy, the eponymous character, is no ordinary guy. He humanises mobsters who are supposed to rough him up, for example. Where did the inspiration for him come from?
I was so upset during this litigation period, that I needed to keep aside my novel on a eunuch in Bombay and create a jocular character that is more interesting than I am. How do I stay entertained for about three-four years?
Yet, Jonathan Koshy is incapable of helping himself? I think there’s a larger comment about human nature you’re making.
That is the beauty of having a character-driven novel over a plot-driven book… You need a character who is flawed and fallible that moves the story forward. I was following a hunch about this character; I didn’t have a perfectly drafted idea of him. He revealed himself as he went along. You may persevere to change your circumstances, but it’s left to life to redeem you to make you a hero or a villain.