Monday, April 27, 2009

Same old, same old

That was the predominant feeling I came away with, after reading Window Seat: rush-hour stories from the city, by Jahnavi Acharekar. It plays with all the usual stereotypical characters we have come to associate with Mumbai- socialites, struggling models, cocaine heads, Parsi schoolteachers, Goan hairdressers - but rarely displays the writing skills to raise them from the mundane to the memorable. Indeed, a lot of the plotlines sound familiar, and remind me of stories I've read before. Several stories careen towards the melodramatic -'Moonshine', for instance, 'The City as Cinderella' or 'China'. Still others feel contrived and exaggerated, like 'Bambai ki Sair' or 'Driving Mr Dasgupta'.

The book begins with promise - restrained prose marks the narration of an encounter between two people at a beach and the relationship that develops, in 'A Game of Cards'. 'A Good Riot' is again a chilling and well crafted tale about a child's experience of a riot. I also liked the structure of the story 'Waiting for Ganesh' .But very soon after that, the book went downhill for me, with its uneven writing and rather marked tendency towards brand name dropping (a bow, perhaps, to the author's stint in advertising). I found these constant references to products rather annoying; they certainly add nothing to the prose, except to make the occasional story seem dated - are Smash Tshirts and Double decker chocolates even in production anymore?

This is a book of memorable (though hardly original) characters, but rather lacklustre writing. Florid prose abounds; sample this;
'.rancid abuse loses itself in the foetid environment", (A Good Riot); and
' ...brazen locks delicately held in place by cheap hair products framed a rugged face that flaunted a carefully rehearsed lopsided smile, blissfully aware of its more-than average good lucks'... (Discovered) .

I was also a little puzzled at first at the number of stories here that had nothing to do with Mumbai. 'Tivoli Park', for instance, is a wistful ode to a childhood in Kolkata; ' The Couple', an unremarkable retelling of the old 'canoodling couple mistaken for ghosts' yarn, set in Kerala. 'China' is again about a woman growing up in Kolkata, and finding self affirmation in a foreign country that is never mentioned, and who merely meets the narrator at the Mumbai airport. Similarly with 'First Cousins', a story about childhood betrayal. But then again, Mumbai is nothing so much as a city of migrants, of people in transit, often yearning to be elsewhere. And for many, Mumbai is not so much a place as a state of mind - glamour mecca for some, a nightmare for others, a constant struggle for everyone else in between. I wish this feeling , the grip this city has on its citizens, had been better captured.

There is an interesting device used in the second section, where a scene is first laid out and then individual characters are followed in seperate stories. But the characters remain stock stereotypes, and the reader never once gets a peek into their head or learns anything new. The section I was especially irritated by was the set of stories of women on a train about to blow up (inspired, no doubt, by the 2003 local train blasts in the city). And what irritated me, apart from the frothy prose - the rather flimsy use of a calamity to end these stories with a flourish. Again, choosing melodrama over language, to mark these characters.

A book like the train journeys it seems to hint at in its title - offering fleeting views of people you will forget even before you have turned away.

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