Sunday, November 30, 2008

Hate and hurt in Mumbai

Whenever anything of international importance happens anywhere in the world, I turn to my bookshelves for comfort and comprehension. Usually not to non-fiction, as one might expect in the case of major political events, but to fiction. Stories.

I believe that one great novel can teach us more about the world we live in, on a deeper level, than dozens of mediocre books filled with facts and only facts.

Last week's terror attacks in Mumbai proved this to me once again. For many years I've been dreaming of visiting India, mainly because of stories written by authors of Indian origin like Vikram Chandra, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, Kiran and Anita Desai, to name just a few in an ever-increasing list of literary delights. Barely a month ago Aravind Adiga won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for his debut novel, The White Tiger - not the first Indian author to achieve this honour for a first novel. In 1997 Arundhati Roy won the Booker for another remarkable debut novel, The God of Small Things.

In fact, The White Tiger is the ninth Booker Prize winner about India or Indian identity. And Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies was also on the 2008 shortlist. I am clearly not the only admirer of novels about this fascinating sub-continent.

So when I saw the shocking television images of burning buildings and injured people in Mumbai, I immediately thought of all these admirable writers, most of whom still prefer to call the city Bombay. It was, above all, Vikram Chandra's Love and Longing in Bombay that sprang to mind.

From love and longing in Bombay to hate and hurt in Mumbai?

Love and Longing in Bombay
is a collection of five interconnected 'long short stories', published in 1997, that reads like a love letter to a larger-than-life city. Vikram Chandra continued this literary love letter in Sacred Games (2006), a massive and magnificent epic about the criminal underworld of Bombay which apparently took him seven years to write. A very long love letter, surely, but as a reviewer in the British Sunday Telegraph raved: 'One could read Sacred Games seven times over and still be finding new treasures.'

For instance, one of the 'treasures' I missed when I read Sacred Games earlier this year, was that the hero of the story, police detective Sartaj Singh, was already an old acquaintance. When the unfolding news events in Mumbai prompted me to start paging through Love and Longing in Bombay again, I realised - of course! how could I have missed it! - that Sartaj Singh had actually made his first appearance more than a decade ago in one of these short stories.

My only excuse is that Sacred Games is so crammed with memorable characters that even a hero could get lost in the crowd. Bollywood meets Dickens would be a suitable, if insufficient, description. The Financial Times praised this 'blockbuster in every sense' for having 'more subplots than Shakespeare, more themes than Tchaikovsky, more dead bodies than Highgate, more history than Gibbons'.

And if this sounds like journalistic hyperbole, well, read it and judge for yourself. You might even end up reading it more than once and find a few of the treasures you missed in the first breathless attempt to keep following the twisting plot.

Something you won't miss, though, after what happened last week in Mumbai - 'India's nine eleven', as it is already dubbed in some quarters - is the undercurrent of political tension between India and Pakistan. The plot involves intelligence agents of both countries, the smuggling of radioactive materials, and 'the tense ticking away of a nuclear threat', as it was described in the Times Literary Supplement.

Fact, they say, is always stranger than fiction. We don't yet have all the facts - and might never have - about what happened in Mumbai last week. But we'll always have fiction to help us cope with even the strangest facts.