A story of desire, duty and dreams

2008-02-01 00:00

JEHANGIR Moos, known to his friends as Jingo, comes from a comfortable, middle-class Parsi family living in a pleasant housing colony (we'd say “suburb”) in Mumbai. To his family's disapproval he lacks drive and is by nature a drifter and a drop-out, whose meagre living comes from work as a part-time door-to-door market researcher. In the course of this, naturally enough, he meets a rich range of characters and so convinces himself that this is background work for a novel he plans to write one day. Really, though, he's coasting - not going with the flow, but bobbing about aimlessly: the world is getting on without him.

This null-and-void condition is partly inherent, partly due to his bland background, partly the result of a failed romance - the sort of thing that conduces to a kind of grey inertia. But Jingo is not totally without strong feeling, especially for his city - huge, sprawling, overcrowded, noisy, polyglot, smoky, wildly colourful, ever decaying yet constantly renewed, a blend of poverty and gross opulence, of lethargy and seething activity, of tranquillity and violence, of despair and frantic hope. What ultimately galvanises Jingo, therefore, is a cataclysmic social upheaval that holds the possibility of his losing his beloved Mumbai. He leaves home and joins some pretty dangerous friends in a huge slum on the outskirts of the city, and finds himself caught up in a brutal sectarian conflict which will either finish him off or else open a door to a new beginning.

This is Mistry's first novel, but perhaps because he's already an experienced playwright, journalist and short-story writer, it's unlike the many one-off, flash-in-the-pan novels that have poured out of India recently. Both solid and mature, there's no quaint appeal to the Western reader here, no whimsy, nothing deliberately picturesque.

This is a story of desire, duty and dreams, of loyalties and lies, of families and of the passions concealed in even the humblest breasts - all against the background of the India visitors don't - or prefer not to - see. A fine piece of literary work.

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