LOVE AND LONGING IN BOMBAY.<i> By Vikram Chandra</i> .<i> Little, Brown: 288 pp., $22.95</i>
Early on in “Red Earth and Pouring Rain” (1995), Vikram Chandra’s first novel, an experienced narrator offers some advice to a beginner: “Straightforwardness is the curse of your age, Sanjay. Be wily, be twisty, be elaborate. Forsake grim shortness and hustle. Let us luxuriate in your curlicues. Besides, you need a frame story for its peace and quiet. . . . Thus the story is perfect in itself, complete and whole.”
In “Love and Longing in Bombay,” Chandra’s new collection of short fiction, he seems to have followed his own earlier narrator’s mandate, though with certain key elements more nuanced and matured. The stories in “Bombay,” as in “Red Earth,” are presented within a connective framework; grim shortness and hustle are, without a doubt, eschewed; but although Chandra’s narratives retain a paisley-like swirl, they are less wily or twisty than richly inventive and confident. And he recognizes that a story need not be perfect in itself to compel--and move--the reader. Indeed it is Chandra’s sensitivity to both the power and the imperfection of storytelling that helps give “Love and Longing in Bombay” such reverberative sheen.
The fictions that Chandra has assembled here aren’t conventional short stories, with their single perceptive or emotive moment sought, grasped and made to echo, nor do they aspire to the bulk or scope of the novella. “Tale” is perhaps the most fitting word, with its evocation of the “Arabian Nights,” or “The Canterbury Tales” and its suggestion of many strands brought together in a vivid and various weave. Chandra’s narrator, admittedly, doesn’t have as urgent a task as Scheherazade or as vast a journey as Chaucer’s travelers, but his themes are ambitious: love and longing, of course; the pain and pleasure of memory; the scarring persistence of class distinctions in Indian society; the power of beauty; and the ineradicability of ghosts.
These five delightful tales are linked, first, by their framing device, in which a common narrator, Shiv Subramaniam, a retired civil servant, holds forth in a dilapidated bar; by their setting, which, with one exception, is contemporary Bombay; and, finally, by Chandra’s fondness for doubles: Within each tale, there are mirror tales and mirror selves.
In “Dharma,” the opening tale, cold, disciplined Maj. Gen. Jago Antia turns 50 and begins to feel a pain in his phantom leg, which he had had to amputate himself, in battle, 20 years earlier. The pain makes it impossible for the general to concentrate on his work. He asks to be relieved of his duties and decides to visit his childhood home in Bombay. The house was once elegant but is now bedraggled, monsoon-stained and haunted.
Chandra leads us into familiar literary territory here, deeply mined by Henry James in his late story, “The Jolly Corner;” but where James’ protagonist, Spencer Brydon, returns to his childhood home to encounter his alter ego and face the chilling specter of the life unlived, Jago Antia is made to look at the life he did lead. In pain both psychological and physical, Antia reviews the harrowing experience of amputating his own limb; then, as the “poisonous seep of memory” takes him further back, he confronts his mother, his father, and the ghost of his beloved brother, Soli.
The doubling Chandra sets in motion here--one brother alive, the other a wraith; Antia as a boy, Antia as an anguished grown man--puts his troubled psyche on display. Upon Soli’s accidental death, we learn, Antia asked his parents for a uniform, thereby beginning the emotional cloistering that launched his “whole misshapen and magnificent life.” It is a mark of the author’s understanding that stories need not be schematic to resonate that he leaves his protagonist with a mixture of impressions: Antia knows that the meeting with the ghost has changed nothing, and yet he feels freed by it nonetheless.
Chandra’s doublings are more elaborately laid out in “Kama,” a detective story, in which the solving of a murder is less important than the mysterious and contradictory impulses that motivate human behavior. Sartaj Singh is the inspector, “a dandy who came from a long line of dandies”; his messy, lonely life--he is separated from his wife--contrasts with that of the murdered man, Chetanbhai Patel, who seems to have had no business enemies, a solid marriage and a devoted, if curiously angry, son.
As the investigation advances, Chandra interleaves contrapuntal revelations about these two marriages. When Inspector Singh’s wife, Megha, comes to tell him that she is remarrying, Singh first reacts by wondering ruefully, “How did we get so old?”; but when he goes into the kitchen to make tea, he feels his heart “wrench, kick to the side like a living thing hurt.” Megha comforts him, and the encounter leads to a prolonged, nostalgic and beautifully rendered piece of farewell sex.
The Singh marriage, though broken, contains a powerful connection; the polished veneer of the Patel marriage, by contrast, buckles when Singh learns that the sedate middle-aged couple had advertised for outsiders to join them in “a colourful span of sweet surprises, tender thrills.” The ad leads Singh to their secret flat, where he finds a suggestive photograph that motivates him to interrogate the Patels’ angry son. At this point, in a more conventional atmosphere, a confession would be extracted and the case tightly wrapped up, but Chandra’s attention is elsewhere: His detective understands that there is “no solution so simple as a bad man” and that what the Patels had done together was “as complete and as inexplicable as what had happened between him and Megha.” Things happen, Singh realizes, “and what we want from it is a kind of shape, a case report.”
It’s hard not to feel that the author’s hidden concern here is storytelling where plot lines, unlike case reports, do not always end in shaped solutions. How could they when, in “Artha,” for example, Chandra doubles his doubles? Beauty and Art, the announced themes, are personified by a variety of characters: a painter and a computer programmer; two boys in love; and a man and a woman engaged in a complicated romantic dance. The plot’s ticking clock is also doubled: A computer program needs to be debugged, and one of the boys vanishes. These various elements allow Chandra to wander through Bombay’s social hierarchy, which he does with a satirist’s acuity, capturing people at work, at parties and in moments of intimacy, passion and rage.
“Shanti,” the book’s concluding tale, serves as a coda to the entire volume. Again there are doubles: A young man, who turns out to be Shiv Subramaniam, the narrator of the frame, is anguished and suicidal over the death of his twin brother. In a rural train station, he meets Mrs. Shanti Chauhan, who is searching for her husband, a soldier missing in combat. By telling Shiv a series of stories, Shanti lures him away from his powerful grief and slowly brings him back to life; he in turn eases her loss by telling her a story of his own. Their courtship is at once deft and touching; Shiv and Shanti woo each other by playing Scheherazade, just as Chandra has wooed us with his tales within tales within tales.
“Love and Longing in Bombay” is an intricately built book, but it never feels murky or obtuse. Once the reader is enticed onto Chandra’s carpet, the ride is smooth and sweeping, and the vistas that open up are filled with passages of surprising magic.