The City and the Writer: In Mumbai with Chandrahas Choudhury

By Nathalie Handal



Chandrahas Choudhury. Courtesy of the author.

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Mumbai as you feel/see it?

Mumbai seems to me to have two main, and contrasting, modes: a pulsating energy, and a profound exhaustion. In Mumbai I find myself walking faster, chasing after buses and trains, thinking about how to steal a minute or two against all those plotting exactly the same thing. Life is a pitched battle here and nobody remembers a time, or dreams of a future, when it was or could be anything else.

The Mumbaikar is almost a mutant species: let’s say homo mumbaicus. He or she prides himself or herself on nothing more than being worldly, wiry, and wry. But this imposes a tremendous psychic and physical cost, and people age quite rapidly here, a process they try to resist by becoming ever more resourceful. The same impulses can be heard in the city’s language: a tumbling patois in which beauty and poise are entirely sacrificed for efficacy and speed.

No city ever looks so weary at dawn, at the very beginning of the day, as Mumbai. It is as if one archetypal Day continues, forever and forever, across the waxing and waning of sunlight.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

There are many, but perhaps the most poignant is that of my late father returning home in his early forties after a long commute, completely exhausted and drenched with sweat, with his briefcase and a bag of vegetables bought on the walk back from the station. That, and some of the stories of striving, suffering, sacrifice and fellowship told to me by the auto-rickshaw drivers of Mumbai when I was at work on an essay on them a few years ago.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

How beautiful it is! Though it is a concrete jungle and everything has a layer of grime on it and the weather is swampy all year round, Bombay actually has great natural beauty: the sea and lakes and creeks and backwaters, hills and mountains and cliffs. It’s extremely sloped, which is something I’ve always loved about cities: it gives you scores of high views and low views. It’s India’s most democratic city: people of different classes and cultures mix more easily here than anywhere else in India.

What writers from here should we read?

The Bombay (I still prefer this older name to the recent Mumbai) school of literature can hold its own easily against that of any other city in the world. It gives us writers in five major languages: English, Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Gujarati, and there are writers globally who would call themselves Bombay writers first and foremost.

I’d count the novelists Vikram Chandra (Love and Longing in Bombay, Sacred Games), Amitav Ghosh (River of Smoke in the Ibis trilogy), and Jeet Thayil (Narcopolis); the writer of thrillers Kalpana Swaminathan, the short-story writer Sadat Hasan Manto, the poets Dilip Chitre and Namdeo Dhasal (“This is hell / This is a swirling vortex / This is an ugly agony / This is pain wearing a dancer’s anklets”).

In nonfiction, the urban historians Sharada Dwivedi and Neera Adarkar; Sonia Faleiro’s great book about the dance-bar girls of Mumbai, Beautiful Thing; the extremely sassy and savvy filmmaker and columnist Paromita Vohra; and one of the great poets of what it’s like to be a disabled man in an already disabling city, Rustom Irani.

And—almost my favorite—the crime journalist S Hussain Zaidi’s thrilling books about the gangs and gang wars of Mumbai. Ask me to put together an anthology of Mumbai literature, and I will give you all of life.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Mumbai has many dargahs, or Muslim shrines where even non-Muslims can enter. There’s one such on the edge of the sea, the Ma Hajiani dargah in Worli, which is an exquisite little oasis of peace and beauty in the tumult of the city, with almost no visitors. I often go there. The other place I frequent is the little Chinese restaurant Quick Bite in Prabhadevi, about which I am writing a book of short stories. I used to live just above it, the proprietor and staff are great friends of mine, and we’ve had the most amazing experiences there over the last seven years. Last, there’s the cacophonous morning fish market at Ferry Wharf in Mazgaon. I used to go there at dawn and come back with a bag full of crabs, and we’d cook those up at the restaurant in a garlic sauce.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Inside the famous JJ School of Art in Mumbai is the bungalow where Rudyard Kipling was born. A short walk from there is the hole-in-the-wall Strand Bookstall, a Mumbai institution for several decades: as a child, I dreamt of the day when my own book would be sold on its shelves. And a short walk from there is Theosophy Hall, a site where the Mumbai branch of PEN has been holding regular readings for many years now. It’s an old, dusty space, with the pictures of long-forgotten Theosophists peering at you from the walls: very atmospheric. Finally, no visit to Bombay would be complete without an afternoon browsing the copious stocks of the famous pavement sellers of secondhand books around Flora Fountain. These humble traders are as important to the city’s literary history, and to the development of its often hard-up writers, as any parent, teacher, or muse.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

There’s the neighborhood in and around Grant Road, full of old tenements, run-down cinemas, cheap restaurants, railway lines, and overbridges, which I describe in my novel Arzee the Dwarf. I also love the Catholic neighborhoods of Borivali, a suburb far up north where I lived for a few years, and the Marathi-speaking midtown neighborhood of Prabhadevi, where I lived a few years. Because Mumbai has so many hidden cities and parallel economies, it’s still possible to have a great day here, replete with food, art, travel, conversation, and a trip to the cinema, here for two dollars.

Where does passion live here?

On the street. The Mumbaikar goes home mostly to eat, rest, and prepare for war the next day. Even romance is mostly conducted out of doors, as most young people live with their parents, and most homes are so very tiny and so full of people. What can I say? Sometimes the very accident of brushing against a desirable human being in such a romance-unfriendly city can be an almost orgasmic experience.

What is the title of one of your works about Mumbai and what inspired it exactly?

My new novel about Mumbai is called Clouds. Those beautiful, ephemeral vapors have a special place in the city’s imagination: they drive the summer heat away once a year—actually, even Mumbai rain has its own abrasive personality—and remind the hardheaded Mumbaikar that life is also about the pleasures of dreaming and drifting. Part of the book tells the story of a man who has lived in Mumbai all his life, and is leaving because he cannot find love a second time after his divorce. In his last week, he roams freely and impulsively around this city of plans and programs, drudgery and doom, for the first time in twenty years—and falls in love again. He is also a psychotherapist by trade: he realizes he is developing a theory of the mind—and of the mind in time—modeled on clouds.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Mumbai does an outside exist?”

Yes—as heaven exists for the earthbound being. No one has ever seen it, but one feels sure there should be some place in the world other than this one.
Chandrahas Choudhury, now based in New Delhi, has lived most of his life in Mumbai. He is the author of the Mumbai novel Arzee the Dwarf, published by New York Review Books and chosen by World Literature Today as one of 60 Essential Works of Modern Literature in English. He is the editor of a short introduction to the pleasures of Indian literature, India: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, which features new and classic Indian writers in translation from several languages. A literary critic and essayist, his book reviews have appeared in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. His work on Indian politics has appeared in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy, and his travel writing in Conde Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure. He was a visiting fellow at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2010, and has given lectures on the modern Indian novel at many institutions, namely Yale and Boston University. His new novel, Clouds, is forthcoming in 2017, and he is working on a book of short stories set in a Mumbai restaurant, Life Lessons from the China Dragon.

This article was originally published in Words Without Borders.