Saturday, 10 May 2008

SHADES OF A CITY


A name is one of the many ways to identify a person or a place or any other thing. ‘Can it define the character of a city? Changing from Bombay to Mumbai – did that transform the mentality of the residents in that metropolis?’ I ask Murzban Shroff on a hot dull afternoon. Shroff sounds surprised: “You have stunned me with this question”. Then he elaborates about the “affinity of the grassroot-level people with the name Mumbai”. And, “Yes”, he admits there have been “some changes” in the mentality of Mumbai residents.

Being late for the interview due to pathetic traffic on Pune’s streets, I was miserably breathless when I reached to meet the author of Breathless in Bombay. He directs me to a chair at the Open Space office and asks to relax before getting down to business. “You look upset”, he says. ‘Well… I am generally never late…that’s one thing I am proud of…it’s all shattered now…’ Shroff laughs.

I ask him about his choice of ‘Bombay’ over ‘Mumbai’. The author offers the backgrounder: “The cut off year for this book is 1997. All the 14 short stories in Breathless in Bombay deal with residents, sights and sound of the city when it was known as Bombay”. It took Shroff “six long years” to complete the book since he went back to those places and people over and again to make his writing more authentic. ‘That’s nice, I’d say. Amitava Ghosh wrote Hungry Tide and one of the papers I wrote for my journalism course was how authentic has been Hungry Tide for a writer who resides in New York’, I tell Shroff. He listens but says nothing.
We divert to his experiences. “I was into too much of plot-based writing. But, with Breathless in Bombay, I had the opportunity to tell stories which are based on thoughts and real life experiences”, he elaborates. From the marginalised section of society to the rich elements – they all feature in Breathless in Bombay. But, Shroff clarifies: “You can’t describe them as documentaries. They are all fictions; couple of them are like novellas”.

One of Shroff’s “favourite” stories (The Queen Guards Her Own) in the book is about a victoriawallah (cabman of horse-driven carriage) who loves his horse and wants to ensure comfort and protection for the animal. But he is also unsure about the moral course to take – his inclinations for a public woman being the cause for uneasiness. Another story that Shroff mentions is This House of Mine, in which people living in a same building get united to tackle the demolition notice issued by the Housing Board. Their varied backgrounds do not come in their way to join hands. “Each of the stories deal with life’s progression; each has an issue whether of corruption, encroachment or depletion of green zone”.

For Shroff, writing is a natural thing. The ideas keep coming – they evolve with time. “I sift through the ideas and then write,” he says. The ultimate purpose of his writing seems to be to help people know about each other – “have, have-nots and no-nots” – and also to “change perception they have about each other”. Elaborating on his choice of themes, Shroff informs that he is fond of ‘Dalit literature’ and also those from Russia. “They are like a big process of realisation”.

But can English language help in that ‘realisation’, particularly in rural areas where discriminations are often rampant, I ask. “Frankly, literature may not be enough to evoke the kind of reaction that is needed to such social causes,” Shrofff admits. Still, he looks content with his effort to portray India as he understands, with his leanings for ideals of Gandhi and Nehru. “ That way, I am old-fashioned,” he says.

He refers to the tirade against non-Maharashtrians in Mumbai. “I had anticipated this about three years ago as you will find in my work The Great Divide,” he says. Then without elaborating further, he says, “What we don’t know, we tend to condemn”. One hopes this ignorance fades away with Shroff’s future works, one of which is going to be a novel. “But, I can’t discuss it now”.


(Photo courtesy: Murzban Shroff.
The interview was published in Sakaal Times of Pune, India)