Shanghvi’s native ground is the complex play of feeling between troubled adults. In his work, the chance alliances of love and friendship that his characters forge are seen as a kind of redemption from the intrinsic emptiness and loneliness of life, the troubles of aging and suffering. The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay is a chronicle of the linked lives of four protagonists and the Bombay they know or seek: Karan Seth, a young photographer; Samar Arora, a brilliant pianist who has now lapsed into silence; Zaira, a Bollywood actress; and Rhea Dalal, a middle-aged housewife who was once an outstanding young potter.
Karan, newly arrived from Shimla, is dazzled by Bombay. He believes, like many immigrants to the city, that "from the day I came to Bombay, I felt like I was staring destiny in the eye". His dream – and this is also clearly Shanghvi’s dream, though realised very self-consciously and jarringly – is to create “an epic record of the city” with his camera, an encyclopedia of its moods, characters, and possibilities. Karan’s relationships with the three others all contribute, in their own way and at their own pace, to the deepening of his vision.
Shanghvi can be insightful when working within this field of human striving and desire. When, for instance, Rhea, many years after her marriage has broken up, looks back at the wonder of it and thinks, simply, that “Love is good luck”, the truth of this modest thought surprises us. When Samar dies of AIDS, and Karan says of him that “Even if he couldn’t save what he had loved, loving them had saved him”, we are moved by this.When we see Rhea thinking about "the familiar, consoling details that parented her childhood", we recognise that this odd verb sums up the experience of growing up introverted and withdrawn, and when we are told that Karan's enthusiasm and dedication reminds Rhea "of herself as a young woman, an artist preparing for her conversation with the world", that last phrase seems exactly right as a description of artistic work.
But Shanghvi is so intent on capturing – above, around, and behind his characters – the rumble of the city and the evils of this world that he continually leads his own writing away from good places into black holes. His most dubious move is to turn a crucial event in the book, the death of Zaira, into a hamhanded reprisal of the notorious Jessica Lall murder case, complete with scheming politicians thuggishly working the system, a witness who claims he does not understand Hindi, and cartoonish portraits of a fashion designer and her socialite mother who seek to derive social capital from the tragic affair.
Shanghvi’s account – inspired, he tells us in a somewhat callous prefatory note, “by a range of events discussed extensively in the print media, films and on television” – tells us nothing about the case, or about the excesses of celebrity culture, that we do not already know. Shanghvi's one addition to the facts of the case is to make the murderer, a man called Malik Prasad, the son of a high-profile politician belonging to “the Hindu People’s Party”, a move that allows him to laboriously open fire on the venality of right-wing Hindu politics. Searching further for pilferable scandals, Shanghvi throws in the Salman Khan hit-and-run case. But merely copying reality has never made events in a novel seem real.
Shanghvi’s prose style is totally wild. A collection of his animal metaphors alone (“Her voice was wobbly with emotion, like a hippo on stilettos”; "memories of Rhea took nips at him like packs of hyenas") would be enough to form an instructive masterclass on death by overwriting. As an example of how his narrative continually destroys the mood it has built up, here is a conversation between Malik Prasad and his father – a conversation in which we find out that Malik, in a fit of rage, has shot and killed Zaira:
'How many people were present at the bar?''Maybe two hundred or so.' Malik's heart was thudding so hard that he could barely speak.'Did anyone see you shoot her?''Of course, Dad!''Don't raise your voice, kutta!''How could someone not have seen me?' Blood had shot out from Zaira's temple and stained Malik's shirt.'Was someone with Zaira when it happened?''Yes. Bunty Oberoi. He's her co-star in her new film.''Do you know this Bunty chap?'Malik had met Bunty Oberoi in passing, and he told his father they were acquaintances.'So Bunty saw you shoot her?''He was the one who raised the alarm.'Bunty Oberoi's scream had been effete and comical, as if he was auditioning for the role of a widow in a Hindi film.'And then you left the bar?''Lucky thought it was the smart thing to do; I just followed him. We ran out. Everyone was looking at me, Dad. Her blood has messed up my clothes. I desperately needed to shower.''Is the gun with you?''Yes, it is.'As Malik had rushed out of the bar a few models, svelte and glazed-eyed, had shrieked and pranced out of his way like impalas taking on the plains of the savannah.
Let us leave aside the issue of whether this is good dialogue or not, and think of something even more basic. This is clearly a scene which is supposed to communicate the senselessness and the horror of Zaira's murder. Why then does it have such a puzzling air of bathos?
It is because of the two gratuitous and self-indulgent metaphors wedged into the dialogue by the narrator, one about Bunty Oberoi's scream as if he was "auditioning for the role of a widow in a Hindi film" and the other about frightened spectators running for cover "like impalas taking on the plains of the savannah". These metaphors would be bad, because overly extravagant and stilted, if taken just by themselves; in the context of the scene, they are doubly disastrous. Narratorial preening and showboating ("Her future appeared so blazingly bright, he was tempted to shield his eyes"; "He walked towards her, entering the private cosmology of her unabashed curiosity") make for a stream of jarring moments in Shanghvi's text.
Lastly, it might be worth noting Shanghvi's bizarrely oversexualised imagination, which manifests itself in an excess of hostility towards a chosen few characters. Page after page of his narration is besmirched by pointlessly bitchy and infantile sniping. Minister Prasad, the father of the killer, is not only ideologically despicable but physically gross, as if one kind of corruption inevitably follows the other. He has a habit, we are told, “of scratching his balls so savagely that his pubic lice experienced multiple orgasms.” The judge in the murder case is lured into corruption by the promise of a promotion, and gives his consent: "The words escaped the judge's mouth involuntarily, like a premature ejaculation." A mildly annoying character is dismissed, on the same page on which she enters the narrative, with this sentence: “Glee dripped out of Natasha like precum.” Karan quits photography and goes to work at a school, where the obnoxious principal, Mrs. Pal, has “an ass that looked as if it had been blown up with a cycle pump.” These tasteless smears seem uncannily similar to the casual bigotry of the “Hindu People’s Party” that so agitates Shanghvi, and they might be seen as emblematic of the many excesses and self-deceptions of this severely trying writer.
[A shorter version of this piece appeared last weekend in Mint.]