Disillusioned men

There is something deliciously aam about Mangobagh — heck, some of us probably live there. (And in case you don’t speak Hindi, aam means both ‘mango’ and ‘common’.) Just as there is something comfortingly familiar about Imran Jabbari and his friends’ lounging about under the tree in the compound and their miasma of aimlessness.

This mundane landscape is the setting for Anees Salim’s Vanity Bagh. It is a story that lulls you into thinking it is about the gentle ebb-and-flow of everyday normality, but is really a darkly funny and insightful look at the complexities of our lives. In many ways, Vanity Bagh is a collection of contraries — of two intertwining timelines in an intriguing blend of ‘then’ and ‘now’, of humour juxtaposed with distinctly un-funny communal tension, of the utter inconsequence of our tiny little lives against the larger scheme of things.

The narrator of the story is the aforementioned Imran, and the curtain rises with him being carted off to prison. Unfortunately, the blurb is a bit of a spoiler here and you already know why and how he finds himself in this particular pickle. On paper, he’s one of the accused in a series of blasts in a case dubbed 11/11 in the fashion of our times.
In reality, he’s a convenient scapegoat. However, a little miracle happens when he’s put to work in the bookmaking department of the prison. As he stares at the blank pages of the notebooks he binds, they fill themselves with writing. And not just any scribbles, but stories from back home. And with Imran riding on his quirky turn of phrase, we find ourselves straddling two timelines — his present incarceration and what got him there.

Within Mangobagh are two intensely insular communities — Vanity Bagh, which is a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood that sometimes goes by the name Little Pakistan, and Mehendi, its Hindu counterpart. Rivalry and passions run high between the citizenry, traversing the full range from witty poster wars via the city buses that go to both colonies, to out-and-out bloodlust. Given this backdrop, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to realise how misguided an attempt to follow in the footsteps of Abu Hathim, the retired but still-feared local don, might turn out for Imran and his band of friends.

Anyhow, to get back to the beginning: Imran, Zia, Zulfikar, Navaz Sharif, Jinnah and Yahya. You’ve seen the connection, right? But no, it has nothing to do with Pakistani politicians — these are the names of the six youths who fancifully refer to themselves as the five and a half Men, the ‘half’ for the hearing-impaired Yahya, who doesn’t merit status as a ‘full’ person. But what they aspire to is neither comedy nor politics; all they want is to be noticed and respected, and the way they are going to do it is by becoming the next generation of Abu Hathims.

When the five and a half Men gleefully accept an assignment to deposit a trio of scooters at different locations in Mangobagh, they imagine they are a part of a gold smuggling scheme. But a little later a series of scooter bombs go off and eventually the long arm of consequence heaves them in by the collar.

The one thing that definitely stands out in Salim’s writing is the offbeat humour. It takes a few dozen pages before you can properly get your teeth into the story, but once you do, it takes a firm grip. Imran comes across as an able chronicler, even more astute than he probably realises. And his penchant for interspersing quotes within his narration makes for a whacky aside. The quotes in fact have been used to great effect — to outline the already rich cast of characters and even to tell little stories within the story. The one about the plagiarising poet Shoukath, the cantankerous Professor Suleiman Ilahi and the hapless Rustom sahib’s adventures at the Poetry Club is especially memorable.

Other characters of note include Imran’s parents — his father is the imam of the local mosque and his mother quite a redoubtable woman in her own right. Then there is the brother Wasim, a budding refrigerator engineer and possessor of a hole in his heart, and Mir sahib’s daughter Benazir, Imran’s old flame, among other random neighbours, friends and residents of Vanity Bagh — including the “mad woman outside the mosque”, also memorialised with her seemingly insane but surprisingly pithy observations about the world around her. Oh, and let’s not forget Javed Miandad, the local photographer:
“Yes, Javed Miandad,” Ammi asked sleepily. “You want to meet Imran or Wasim?”
It’s not so much of what’s going to happen in Vanity Bagh that keeps you turning the pages, because you know already that it won’t be a happily ever after. It is simply a story well told.

Vanity Bagh
Anees Salim
Picador India
2013, pp 248
499

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