It’s easy to imagine Gyan Prakash’s “Mumbai Fables“as a neat nine-part documentary that covers the history and story of Bombay. Nine parts because there are nine chapters, all of which are extensively researched and engagingly written. Even though the book has its share of pictures, photos and drawings, much of Prakash’s writerly energies are spent conjuring up images of people, neighbourhoods and historical periods with words. From personal experience, I know it’s not easy to hold in your mind’s eye something that is intrinsically visual and then craft it into words so that the reader can imagine it accurately. In “Mumbai Fables”, Prakash has the challenge of showing the numerous stories that are imprinted upon this city. Like the noir Bombay of crime thrillers set in the city in the 1900s, or the scandalous Nanavati murder case, or the adventures of the comic-book hero Doga, who is a gym instructor by day and who prowls the streets with a pack of mongrels at night, ridding the city of the criminals that the law can’t ensnare. Or the continuing greed of bureaucrats, the hollowed dreams of textile mill workers and the shrieking fundamentalism that has drowned out other voices. Bollywood gets mentioned, of course, but for once, real life is more memorable. Hallelujah!
“Mumbai Fables” tries to create a lenticular print of Bombay and Prakash does a wonderful job of layering the various stories and histories, viewed through his determinedly Lefty, postcolonialist lens. Having spent some amount of time with people like Chetna, I’m well aware of how entirely ignorant I am about the city’s history and consequently, while reading Prakash’s book, I couldn’t help thinking of her and a few others (most of whom Prakash has tapped for “Mumbai Fables”). Chetna probably knows 90% of what Prakash has written and would be a much better person to comment about the book. All I can say is, if there was a course titled History of Bombay/Mumbai 101, then “Mumbai Fables” would be the cheatsheet. Prakash has gone through records, pored over books, conducted interviews, roamed the streets, trawled through media reports; basically, he’s done everything that you’d do if you wanted to know about the city’s past. Yet, despite the excellent writing, I couldn’t help wishing someone was imagining it as a documentary. The story of Bombay felt like an inherently visual one. No matter how carefully and beautifully Prakash wrote this city — or perhaps because of how carefully and beautifully he wrote the city — I wanted to see it. I wanted to see how its geography changed with reclaimed land, the faces that were inspired to fight the evil empire (colonial and corporate), the streets and shops that are the site of the fables Prakash is re-telling. One of my most cherished DVDs is Simon Schama’s The Power of Art. If Prakash gets to turn “Mumbai Fables” into a similar series, it will probably join Schama’s on my shelf of favourites.
Now on to some seriously disturbing, compelling and brilliant fiction. I began reading “Room” by Emma Donoghue a few days after I’d finished “Mumbai Fables”. At about 7am, I was on the first page of Donoghue’s incredibly-taut novel, which was inspired by the horrific Josef Frtizl case. By lunch, I’d finished it. There are many things that are impressive about “Room“. It’s nicely structured, the use of language is inventive, there’s great tension in the storytelling, both major and minor characters are drawn out very well, the fact that the single perspective never feels limiting, the easy, natural dialogues; I could go on. But here’s why “Room” is very, very special. This is one of those rare stories that is perfect for a novel. The story of Jack and his mother can’t really be told using anything other than words. If it was put into images, it would be disgusting and distasteful. Instead of warming up to Jack and appreciating the magic of the world that his mother and he have scavenged, you’d see only the abuse and the horrific misery of being prisoners in a room that is eleven feet by eleven feet. If this story were told in images, all we’d see is the the man who kidnapped Jack’s mother and who keeps mother and son locked up in a soundproof shed his backyard. The story would be all about him, his evil, his perversion. We’d notice only the abnormalities of the life the captives lived, like the pallor that comes from staying out of the sun for years or the fact that a five year-old boy still breastfeeds.
But “Room” is not about the monster or the life he’s fashioned for his victims. It’s about Jack, the amazing little boy whose world is full of captialised words and simple pleasures and what freedom from the Room means for him. The kid who was woefully unprepared for the outside world but still escaped and managed to get his mum out too. When Jack enters the world beyond the Room, words no longer mean precisely what he imagined they meant. He’s faced with the confusing reality that his beloved Rug, on which his mother gave birth to him, is simply a rug, and a discard-able one at that. Jack struggles to understand the limbo between a word, its meaning and its implication in this roomy world that is riddled with its own particular etiquette. Eventually, the words that connected his mother and him also threaten to disappear as she retreats into a suicide-tinted silence.
If “Room” was a film, few would empathise with Jack’s bemused reaction to freedom and perhaps no one would understand the confused little boy’s desire to return to the security of Room. The darkness of Room would be overwhelming. He doesn’t recognise the life he has known in Room as traumatic. The activities that Jack fills his days aren’t unusual to him. His vocabulary and routines anchor him and it’s the comfort of these rituals that Jack loses in his new life. That is what makes the world beyond Room disturbing and unsettling for him. It shifts too swiftly between familiar and unfamiliar.
Donoghue is not a favourite to win the Booker, although bookies will be delighted if she wins. I haven’t read all the books in the shortlist (two to go) but at the moment, Donoghue’s got my vote. It’s been a long time since I read a novel that isn’t meant to be anything other than a story told with words and one’s imagination. Words let us get past the horror of bastards like Fritzl and instead focus on the remarkable resilience of those who survive such experiences. Like Jack, who despite his monstrous father and Room, is still a smart, funny, cute kid. Words also make it impossible to forget Jack and Room, because there isn’t one fixed image that you can tell yourself to forget. Fragments and phrases linger in your memory for days after reading this novel. “Room” is a reminder of how powerfully words can tell stories, without relying upon any visual reference. Just for that, I hope Donoghue wins.