What I’m Reading: Vikram Chandra – Love and Longing in Bombay

A while back, I read Vikram Chandra’s debut novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain, and loved it – it was everything Magical Realism always promises to be but so rarely really is – it combines a rich, sensual writing that lets the reader soak in the sights, sound and smells of a vivdly evoked reality with a fertile, proliferating imagination that transforms that reality into something even richer and stranger but which still gives us a perspective on our world as it is – distorts it into clarity, to appropriate a famous phrase from Bertolt Brecht.

Love and Longing in Bombay is a collection of five stories, and it is quite different in tone from the novel, in so far as for the most part it sticks with traditional realism… or at least appears to. To me at least, there seemed to be a certain amount of litary pastiche involved, in so far as each of the stories is framed, placed in a setting where it is told verbally by a narrator to an audience, in a manner that I found very reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Marlow (or  possibly the short fiction of Rudyard Kipling, who was also rather fond of that narrative device).

Each of the stories is named after a concept taken from Hinduistic philosophy – of which I have to confess that I do not have the first clue. I had to look the terms up in Wikipedia, but even at such a superficial level, having some idea what the concepts mean  does shed some additional light on the individual stories. Both the narrative frame and the titles offer a perspective on the stories from the outside looking in, some rudimentary explanation or interpretetation, and both seem to presuppose that the stories are an illustration of some larger concept, or an example for a truth about life. Rather interestingly though, they never are the same, whilte the narrator Mr. Subramaniam always offers the stories to illustrate some point, that point never seems to stand in any correlation to the title the author gave the stories – the perspectives intersect, but are not identical.

The final story in the collection, though, is markedly different from the others: its title refers not just to a concept, but also to a name, and it is only one in which the narrator himself, Mr. Subramaniam, plays an active part. As if that was not enough to raise it to a meta-lavel,  its plot also mainly consists of its two protagonists telling each other stories (which are given inside the story, but never as told by their original narrator, always passed on through an intermediary). This story strays quite far from the realism of the others, and I very much doubt it is coincidence that it is also the only one that  (for the most part) does not take place in Bombay – making it appear as if Bombay was the gravitational centre of realism – or even reality – in India, with things becoming increasingly more fantastic the farther one moves away from it.

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