Vikram Seth meets grunge rock
When was the last time you read an epic? More pertinently, when was the last time you read a contemporary book that you would label an epic? It's been a while for me for sure, a fact that tremendously highlighted the pleasure I derived from this book.
[The focus of this review is going to be only the quality of writing, and the wave of feelings precipitated by this book. There's enough been said about the story, and I really want to share how this book made me feel instead.]
So let's start at the very beginning - the opening sentence of the book: "It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured". And the last line of the first page: "So it begins, this story, like everything else - with a woman, a city, and a little bit of luck." How can one not get hooked to a book which promises to be so artless and almost adolescent in its outlook, combining naiveté with world-weary wisdom as only a few people can at any point in their entire life?
Don't jump to conclusions though - the book is far from being "soft". On the same page, Roberts writes about being "chained on three continents, beaten, stabbed, and starved." And this is where the power of the book lies - it can be simple, and startlingly explosive, all at the same time. In part that's attributable to the roller-coaster life the author lead, but it would be unfair to take credit away from Roberts' writing capabilities. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could easily have been over-the-top trash.
My favourite attribute of the book though, is its vivid delineation of Bombay. The book brought to light aspects of Bombay that most people don't hear about ever, and very few see, but which I had caught glimpses of constantly from the corner of my eyes, and was sure were there. Many a time when I had sat at Leopold's, I had noticed the incongruity of the place and suspected that there was more to it than met the eye. It was impossible to escape the subtle undercurrent of misdemeanors, and this book throws the curtains back and shows explicitly how deep the rabbit hole really went. From Colaba to Dharavi, from high-rises to rat-infested gullies, Roberts' portrait of the city's attitude, its mood, its character, is impeccable. And the smell, the smell - I used to think it I was imagining it, but I'm glad to learn that I'm not the only one.
The greatest achievement of this book, for me, was actually not its vivid description of Bombay, but the fact that it actually made me nostalgic for a city I can't bear to be in. When was the last time a book made you feel like that?
Get this book.