In the past I would read books for the oddest reasons: perhaps I was seduced by the cover and couldn't resist picking it up just so that I could caress its smooth exterior and show it off; at other times I would read a book only because it was on the bestsellers' list ( I guess we've all done that at some or another, so perhaps that's not so odd), and there was an occasion when I read a book simply because it leaped out at me (literally) as I was browsing; but hear this, I once read Anosh Irani's debut novel, "The Cripple and his Talismans" only because everyone claimed he looked like a former boyfriend!!! To be fair to Anosh, "The Cripple and his Talismans" was a great novel but I wasn't so much into the magic realism genre at that time and I remember plodding through it wondering if I would ever be able to figure out the fables and clues that would supposedly lead to the narrator's severed arm.
But, things have changed now. I have the "so many books, so little time" syndrome and can afford to spend time on books only when the subject matter interests me - not the glitzy packaging! Anosh Irani's latest book caught my attention, because he has set this novel in one of my favorite places: the big,brutal, bad, but bewitching city of Bombay.
It reads almost like an Indian Oliver Twist with an interesting cast of Dickensian characters. Chamdi (Oliver), the central character, is a 10-year old naive, innocent orphan boy who runs away from his orphanage to look for his father and the "real" Bombay, which in his childlike innocent way he imagines is "Kahunsha" (the city of no sadness). But without the protection of the orphanage, he finds himself on the streets of Bombay where he is forced to seek the friendship and protection of a ring of beggars. He forms close ties with a brother and sister: 13-year old polio victim Sumdi who has deep scar that stretches all the way from his right lip to his ear and 10-year old Guddi ( a little girl in a brown dress that is too large for her, orange bangles on her wrists, dark circles under her brown eyes, sunburnt hair curls). It is Sumdi (Jack) that teaches him the tricks of the trade.
Chamdi and the brother and sister all work for Anand Bhai, the Bill Sykes-like character and crime lord who carved off Sumdi's ear. The story takes place against the backdrop of 1992 Bombay Hindu-Muslim riots, which the author author lived through thus making his story even more realistic.
Anosh Irani has a wonderful descriptive voice and a sharp eye for detail. As he takes you into the gritty world of Bombay's underbelly with its beggars, pimps, drug lords, the mentally impaired and slum dwellers, you get a ringside view of how Bombay's 12m abandoned children live. This is not cheerful stuff: deliberate maiming of children so that they become beggars, not even being able to claim 2 sq. feet of a public footpath to sleep on at night unless you pay off a local goon, is all very distressing, and yet it is compelling.
My favorite passage from the novel is when Sumdi is giving Chamdi his first instructions on how to beg:
"...a van goes past and blows smoke on Sumdi's face. Instead of shielding himself from the black smoke, Sumdi inhales deeply. Then he turns to Chamdi and shouts, "Take it all in, it wil make your lungs strong!". He starts coughing. "Good way to get tears," he says, "to let smoke go in your eyes. Dirty your face, it's too clean. I wouldn't give you a single rupee! Stop walking like you own the world. Carry the world's weight on your shoulders. In a day or two you'll feel it anyway! Then Sumdi laughs, and Chamdi feels it is a strange sight indeed, to watch this boy walk with a limp, a face black from smoke, and the widest smile in the world."
Also, isn't the cover one of the most arresting we've seen in a while? Even though I have since moved on to another book, the eyes of that boy still haunt me for much of my day.