Wednesday, March 04, 2009

On Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s first, overwhelmingly verbose and florid, novel was called The Last Song of Dusk, and when, early on in his new book, we read that “On Tuesday morning a big fat sun careened through thick layers of cloud, revealing a sky the colour of joy”, we know that the writer is still composing gushing odes to mornings and evenings. Indeed, it is hard to think of another Indian writer in English who can match Shanghvi for linguistic excess: his alarmingly bad metaphors, his bewildering mixing of high and low registers, his excessively high pitch even when he believes he is doing understatement. But Shanghvi’s new novel is off-putting not just because we see in it a writer who has settled into his faults, and will now always perpetuate them. What is worse is that he is so indisciplined that he does not even play to his own strengths. His prose is peculiarly self-defeating.

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.]


sumana001 said...

What a relief to read your review ...

lurker said...

relief, and somewhat bothersome frankly. I am beginning to wonder if there's space for a writer who wants to be imaginative - at whatever cost, they want to do stuff like this and put it out there. One is not forced to like it, of course, but what makes something jarring for one person may be total freedom and beauty of the brain and its wonders for another. I can see them, totally see them, these phrases you speak of, the jarring phrases, in an avant garde poetry. And you will suggest one must stick to a form then and leave them for avant garde poetry. But then how do people *create* new forms? What if they want to marry different styles. I love your writing; it's very smart and intelligent and purposeful, but I am becoming apprehensive about the role of a reviewer especially when it tears apart the work, and worst still the intent of someone who has, obviously, put in some decent amount of effort.

purplesque said...

You are brave. Thank you for suffering through this book and reviewing it so that the rest of us will be spared the same fate.

B33j said...

Its high time somebody checked the rot that has set in. Publishing standards are in free fall these days, and being blessed with a piquant face and lots of family silver can find you a spot in the sun, and also maybe a few Italian literary prizes. Such dressing down is badly needed to screen the reader from bad fiction, otherwise we risk a lot of people turning away from the medium.

Space Bar said...

Oh brother.

Hash, I demand that you set up a Razzies award on your blog for the worst excesses in writing for the year.

In fact, you should just have a bunch of people read it aloud, record it, and put it up here for our edification.

B33j said...

lurker, agree with what you say. But you can't pass such kitsch as avante garde. By picking such a theme, and that is the point Chandrahaas has made, Sanghvi has shown his economy of the imagination. You want prose that breathes out of the page read the masters of magical realism. If Sanghvi can't decide whether he wants his writing to be taken seriously, then how is it incumbent upon us to defer to it. Besides these pre-cum metaphors are pre-school and here is a writer who isn't even trying, and yet he is being showered with attention. If we must aknowledge something then its the sleek marketing machine that has put its weight behind him.

Madhu said...

Brilliant review of drek I might've been suckered into perusing because of the title. Does the book actually have anything at all about the actual flamingoes of Bombay? Has the author ever actually seen a real flamingo? Or is just another example of linguistic excess in the title? This birdwatcher from Bombay wants to know...

Falstaff said...

I can see them, totally see them, these phrases you speak of, the jarring phrases, in an avant garde poetry

What avant garde poetry would that be, exactly? Personally, I can't think of a single serious *avant garde* poet who would write a line like "glee dripped out of Natasha like precum" or "a sky the colour of joy" (shudder!). At least not unironically.

The only "avant garde" poet I can imagine writing "entering the private cosmology of her unabashed curiosity" is Ralston McTodd.

Anindita said...

Dear god! I was actually planning to go for the book launch on Saturday -- thank you for saving me the bother.

workhard said...

So shall i bypass reading this.

Haiku Poems

Anonymous said...

not since the review of kiran nagarkar's 'the little soldier' have you seemed so disappointed with a book.
i liked some of the metaphors ('hippo on heels' was amusing). but some of the other metaphors seemed downright juvenile.
i think what irked you more than the mediocrity of the novel was the author's negligence in making an extra effort. and tht's what makes your review sincere, despite its scathing comments.

A Bit of Company in the Evenings

Raoul said...

Okay - I thing you guys are being quite unfair to be honest. Parts of the "bad metaphors" are supposed to be precisely that. one can see quite clearly that the writer here is playing with language, toying with it, to disastrous effect even, quite purposefully. If you actually understood the gist, the intention behind the book - i.e. a reflection of the absolute madness/hypocrisy that is contemporary India - then I think you'll realise that these "bad metaphors" are of much congruence.

The story brings to the for emotional dilemmas we all face, woven in a tale that very realistically depicts contemporary lives. The Last Song of Dusk, I thought was beautifully written - some people appreciate language for its ability to be beautiful in itself, not merely as a means of expression. And this writer does.
The great thing about good books is that it encourages readers to push the boundaries of their imagination. And if writers didn't try to do that - then we'd be stuck with the likes of the Da Vinci Code and other such crass commercial fiction.

And I agree with lurker, your review is neither constructive, nor insightful.

Lurker again said...

It's odd, Raoul, I do think the review is insightful. In fact, I should've mentioned - i have *not* read the book. And perhaps I rushed to write a comment prematurely.

When I went back to the examples middlestage mentions and other comments, it became quite obvious how the writer does make his prose ineffective by getting distracted so to speak. There is certainly a kind of superfluousness and irrelevance to some of the metaphors he uses.
By avant garde - I was only suggesting writing where there might be space for seemingly wild analogies. But I agree - there has to be a need for something, and it has to fit the context, and the larger piece as a whole.

Thanks B33j for your thoughts also.

As anon clearly pointed out, what irks chandrahas more is perhaps that the writer falls short of putting in their whole effort.

i think my concern was somewhat different, with the benefit of hindsight. it is sort of tied into Raoul's.

i was wondering what if the writer *did* put in their best effort - what if they *are* aware of how 'silly' some of these phrases appear to some. In this context, what is the role of the reviewer or a critic? Wouldn't it be interesting/constructive to interview the writer first?
perhaps i am being too kind, and perhaps the market is not supposed to be kind, and it only wants quality? Still, I'd be very interested to know what went on Shangvi's mind.

still lurking said...


also interested in your thoughts. have you read the book?

Chandrahas said...

Lurker - You've made a big effort to mediate between the positions taken here by several people, including your own, for which I thank you.

Let me try and address what remains for you, after all this give and take, the pith of the matter: the question of authorial intention and whether that should affect a reader's judgment of a work. You are asking, how do we know if the author is not being brave, or unorthodox, instead of sloppy or overblown?

In my mind, this is a judgement that the reader should, and often can, make on his own, taking his cues from the book itself, which if it were properly put together would eventually make its point. It would not do to consult the author on this, because books and their authors are different entities, even if extricably linked. If I had doubts over this question that you raise, then I would have put in a qualification myself, and said that I was not sure of what is going on at this or that point in the book.

But as you can see, the point I am making, based on my reading, is that the narratorial perspective struck me as being uncomfortably close to precisely those qualities of individuals, or groups, that it appears to criticise (and this is only one of many problems with this novel). To insist that something bad in itself is actually a deliberate reflection of the world's corruption is to mix up a lot of issues, and to my mind it would require a more detailed defence than that presented here by Raoul. I have tried to think about the book from the point of view that you proffer, but I can't say I'm at all convinced. But you may have more to say after you've read the book, and I look forward to hearing those thoughts.

Raoul said...

Apologies for the delayed response lurker, chandrahas.

I have read the book, yes - and to be completely honest - I didnt think it was a great book, In fact i'm not sure i thought it was a good book even. But I did think it was interesting - and i think as a reader, that is what one can, at the very least, hope for.

A book must provoke reactions in it's readers, i think - it must make a reader think - Do I like this book? Do I agree with the author? Am i impressed with the quality of the prose? I think the lost flamingoes does that - it raises questions, it makes it's readers think. ( perhaps im just playing the devil's advocate here - but bear with me) All this talk a bout the bad metaphors - perhaps in a way only skirts around what i think the essence of writing is. Agreed, some of the metaphors are downright distasteful - but some are brutally honest, and genuinely funny.

Chandrahas - you bring about the question re: whether the idealogically despicable must necessarily also be physically gross? Well - Laloo Prasad Yadav, Narendra Modi, Uma Bharti - are any of them even remotely sexy? ( End of debate btw, i win hands down here)

So I do think some of the metaphors are used purposefully. But the lost flamigoes apart Chandrahas, I do think that as readers, we go through several phases - the adolescent - jeffrey archer/ wilbur smith phase, the classics and then the "finding your own secret/quirky authors" that you identify with, the kind of writers you think you'd love to meet for a drink. Perhaps i'm being too idealistic, but I always find that avid readers are also invariably socially conscious and politically aware - so when we read, we want to be engaged on several levels. I seek both emotional and intellectual stimulation when I read, but I also want to appreciate language as an art form. The God of Small Things, is one such novel that comes to mind. Likewise, most of Milan Kundera' work - I dont think SDS's writing comes anywhere close, but I think the guy is certainly making an effort, and you cant denounce him for that.

Anyway, thats my two pence worth - glad too see there's such an active Indian literary community online, didnt realise there were otehrs around like me! Just about to embark on Aatish Taseer;s " a stranger to history"? Have any of you read it already?

Also just finished Ben Okri's The Famished Road - would be quite interested in hearing your thoughts if you guys have read it.


lurk-work said...

Thanks a lot, chandrahaas and raoul.

Yeah, absolutely. It's such a delight to discover this blog and see people really getting engaged.

In fact, i shot off an email to chandrahaas. It would be absolutely wonderful to even hear about his journey and how he went on to train himself.

Raoul, I completely understand where you're coming from in terms of liking language as an art form. It's just funny: i agree with both of you :)

anyway- in fact, speaking of craziness in art, discovered yesterday a video by robert frank on allen ginsberg. I mean it is so uplifting in its strangeness.

And even I didn't know there was such a strong literary scene here. In fact, I never do this: leave long comments on blogs, but just wanted to say: it's such a great service to the society also - not to sound over-complimentary.
Really, so much of life, living life, is about living with inspiration, and not submitting to the sense of futility that a life of routine brings with it. Art always offers us those moments when we become larger than ourselves. And in this country, fraught with hierarchies, social regimentation and a mind-numbing education system, blogs like these serve to educate us, act as our mentors and teachers and offer an experience of community learning really.

I just wish internet was accessible to all, and in fact people even had the time and luxury to delve in the beauty of language, images...


Ha! sorry about the rambling.

SB said...

Unlike most commenters here, I actually made an attempt to read the book. I picked it up because of the hype and I was intrigued that this book had been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Needless to say, I couldn’t get past the first few chapters. I stumbled on this review as I was trying to see what people thought of this book – I couldn’t understand why there is any hype for this book! The review is spot on! If only more people were as honest!

Domski said...

I got till the murder itself and gave up right when the minister and his son discuss the occurrence. Crap book. Crap author. Crap characters. Crap Crap Crap Crap ...Crap.

ladyashlee said...

Phew, okay. Lots of people have said lots of things and I'm just going to proffer my opinion as someone who thoroughly enjoyed Shanghvi's first novel (yes, really!). My expectations for his second were, therefore, quite high; and at points, when I was reading The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay, I honestly could not believe that the two books were written by the same author.

This review exemplifies most of my own thoughts on the novel; and I honestly think it was just a vehicle for the author's own personal views on homosexuality, politics, the Jessica Lall case, whatever.

The saddest thing though, is that parts of it --a turn of phrase here, a thought there-- were truly beautiful, but in the middle of so much self-indulgent rubbish, I suppose it is easy enough to miss them.

Shiva said...

Reading this review and the comments, I should say, I like this blog so much!

"Perhaps i'm being too idealistic, but I always find that avid readers are also invariably socially conscious and politically aware - so when we read, we want to be engaged on several levels. I seek both emotional and intellectual stimulation when I read, but I also want to appreciate language as an art form."

-- this is absolutely spot on.

The Pittsburgh Kid said...

Thanks. That was a detailed, specific, and helpful review for both readers and writers. You analyzed and recognized both the good and the bad of Shanghvi's writing in "Lost Flamingoes". He would do well to heed your advice.