Ties with a city

Ties with a city

More dreams are realised and extinguished in Bombay than any other place in India: Gregory David Roberts.

Half-Open Windows chronicles a few such dreams. Ganesh Matkari’s narration in Khidkya Ardhya Ughdya, aided by Jerry Pinto’s translation from the original Marathi to English, takes the reader through the humid, frenetic, ambitious city of gold that is Mumbai.

The high-rises juxtaposed with squalor present a tale of idealism, corruption, despair, bruised egos, ruthlessness, determination and single-mindedness, revealing the omnipotent politician-business nexus that causes aspirations to hurtle down. “On one side, the sea. On the other, the city. A city that seemed to believe that the Queen’s Necklace was enough past for it, a city sacrificing its beauty at the dirty altars of money.”

Matkari is the quintessential Renaissance man: an architect, award-winning film-maker, and film critic apart from being an author. His film-related background ensures Half-Open Windows has cinematic elements that may lead to an interesting film.

Half-Open Windows is a contemporary tale set in big bad Mumbai. Its upper middle-class characters live in their fancy apartments in harmony (well, mostly) with their gossipy but non-interfering neighbours. SNA Architects is the brainchild of three architecture school buddies. The trio of Sanika, Niranjan and Anant are the SNA in the company’s name.

That the company is doing well is apparent by the fact that it is not only in the process of constructing a premium high-rise in the tony area of Colaba, but is also on the verge of wrangling a deal with an American hotel chain to build three seven-star hotels in the US.

The idealistic Sanika, the creative side of the group, is expected to be in the US for six months to sort out the logistics of the hotel deal since Anant has a family emergency on hand and cannot go; Niranjan looks after the wheeling-dealing part of the business which includes liaising with the local authorities, and his presence in Mumbai is imperative.

The shady part of their work does not go down well with the principled Sanika who either makes her displeasure known, or conveniently sweeps it under the rug, metaphorically speaking. Sanika’s college-mate Sushrut has been her live-in partner on a sabbatical to explore his literary ambitions. He spends his days downloading American TV serials and audiobooks on Torrent sites and reading newpapers. Thus, their move to the US seems doable. However, Sushrut has misgivings; the hypocritical Indian male ego and a lifetime of conditioning rises, leading to anger and uneasiness at the expectation of them playing house-house in the US, with him doing the house-husbanding for Sanika. Yes, he may be ‘modern’ and emancipated enough for a live-in relationship, but not enough to move countries when his woman is required to! This causes a chill and rift in their four-year-old relationship.

In the big bad city of Bombay also live other characters like Swarupa, who has been Sanika’s friend since their internship days. The two have fallen out over a misunderstanding and Swarupa has now gone the NGO way, fighting for the rights of slum dwellers.

Ramakant is a stressed-out architecture student on the verge of despair and suicide. Rohan is Anant’s teenage son tight-roping between discipline and waywardness. Joshi Kaku is the typical parent left behind in India while the son and his family live in the US. The old lady has a senile cat for company, trotted out as an excuse every time her son wants her to move to the US.

Premendra has been a sort of mentor to both Sanika and Swarupa, and has now moved over to the devil’s side (read, politics!), and is trying to play one against the other. Partho Sengupta is an unwitting pawn in the power games being played between ethics and immorality.

What is unusual in the book is that there is no central hero. All these diverse characters are protagonists and have a bearing and connection with each other, however tenuous, with the all-pervasive character being the city of Mumbai. Each chapter is in the first person by a different protagonist, but takes the story forward smoothly.

The pressures of working in frenzied Mumbai is brought out very well. The women inhabiting this tale are tough yet sensitive. Whether it’s the principled Sanika, uncompromising Swarupa, or even the crabby Joshi Kaku, they are determined, spirited women. The men, on the other hand, are a tad unsure, tentative and weak. And corrupt. The images of Mumbai: the sleek airport, the balconies with drying clothes, the sweatiness of a local train, the anonymity — bring the city alive.

Mention must be made of the excellent translation by Jerry Pinto, himself a writer of repute. He manages to retain the ethos of the original vernacular; nowhere does one feel that it was not written in English. Unfortunately, many translated books end up sounding stilted or jerky. Not this one. Pinto conveys the subtleties and nuances of the Marathi conversations and descriptions competently and engagingly.

The book is compelling and you race through the book, wanting to know more. Yes, it’s a good read that will not let your mind wander but grip you, much like what Mumbai does to its residents.



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