An epic journey

An epic journey

“We want a story that starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax,”: this apocryphal diktat from Sam Goldwyn seems to have inspired Kiran Nagarkar’s The Extras, a gargantuan narrative of feverish action and outlandish plot twists.

It all starts with Parvatibai from the fourth floor of CWD Chawl No 17 in
Mumbai losing hold of her baby son Ram, who falls down, only to be held safely by neighbour Victor Coutinho. This miraculous escape from death results in Parvatibai rechristening Ram as Ravan.

But Victor dies in the act of saving the baby and in a signature twist of events, the funeral van carrying Victor is forced to carry his wife, the pregnant Violet, to the hospital, where she delivers a baby boy, Eddie. And our two protagonists are all set to start on their journey. And what a journey it is!

Music is the passion of both Ravan and Eddie. Adept at playing the Xylophone (He could draw out a note long after it had disappeared into the ether, and yet you continued to hear it like the aching memory of lost love.), Ravan forms the Cum September Jai Bharat Band to play at weddings, while Eddie forms the Bandra Bombshells, with his Anglo-Indian girlfriend Belle.

While Ravan nurses a quiet crush on Eddie’s classy sister Pieta, Eddie has to be satisfied with making ‘Goan Catholic love’ to Belle as she won’t go all the way, for fear of burning in hell. Of course, they have day jobs — Eddie works at an aunty’s joint, serving moonshine to customers while Ravan drives a taxi. And living in Mumbai, they cannot but have a brush with Bollywood — starting with the Extras’ Union (giving the novel its title), and after many ups and downs of fortune, they hit the proverbial big time.

But we are really jumping the gun, for, this is a book where there is more action happening in a single chapter than what usually transpires in an entire novel; most of it is unabashedly risqué and outrageously funny.

Take the episode of Ravan being invited to Karjat to play at the wedding of the village chieftain’s daughter Sita, who invites him to come to her room on the second floor at night and commands him to make love to her, while her just-married husband lies drunk in the same room. Or the misadventure of Eddie, covered in a burkha, trying to smuggle illicit liquor in car tyres strung around his waist, as he boards the upper deck of a bus, which to his bad luck had nine burkha-clad women already.

A good number among them look pregnant, and attract the suspicion of a policeman on beat, leading to all hell breaking loose. These and many such set pieces underscore the fact that Nagarkar’s robust imagination is firing here on four cylinders .

Along the way, Eddie and Ravan encounter a whole menagerie of characters: from Nikhat Begum, the quack abortionist, to Serena Fernandes, the aunty of the aunty joint, Asmaan, the extra who writes lyrics parodying Raj Kapoor’s maudlin sentimentality, ClickClick Kapil, the director who gives Eddie and Ravan the big break, Sapna, the starlet who gives Eddie a bad case of venereal disease; and the gang lord Bashir Akhtar, who gives Ravan these nuggets of wisdom, “Life is like a taxi. It also functions smoothly if you know when to change gears. The only difference is that a car has only four or five gears. Life has a hundred, maybe more.”

Nagarkar takes breathers from his frantic storytelling to present racy information capsules on topics ranging from ‘The Brass Bandwallas’ to ‘A Philosophical Rumination on Bombay Taxis’ to ‘One Extra Who Became Superstar and Two Bus Conductors’ — the last, of course, mapping the dramatic career graphs of Mumtaz, Johny Walker and Rajnikant.

One of the many pleasures of the book is the way Nagarkar captures the artistic passion that drives Ravan and Eddie, and the creative high they get out of leading a ragtag brass band to produce a distinctive sound or compose a fight sequence for a Bollywood movie. And while the narrative moves at the pace of a Hollywood action-comedy or a Mumbai potboiler, you cannot miss the underlying master’s touch that grasps every nuance of human character, every little irony of life’s little tragedies and turns them into a farce.

The Extras is a major achievement from Nagarkar, who has created a singular narrative texture, combining the boisterousness of tamasha, the unfettered zest for life of Rabelais and the narrative inventiveness of John Irving. My only grouse: maybe if it did not have a Bollywood-style happy ending, the story of Ravan and Eddie would have lingered on in the mind a little longer, like the melancholic notes that Ravan coaxes out of his xylophone.

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