The Death of Vishnu
In recent years, most of the bad news from India has been supplied by Bombay. Once set apart from India by its metropolitan glamour and affluence and efficiency, this overbuilt island city is now host to all the great Indian problems: apart from overpopulation and poverty, it has an aggressively selfish Hindu middle class, a resentful minority of Muslims, an omnipresent mafia, religious fanatics, corrupt politicians, businessmen, and bureaucrats, and a growing number of AIDS cases. Not surprisingly, the myth of Bombay’s decay has spread fast; the idea that Bombay was once a great cosmopolitan city and is now falling apart has become a commonplace.
Decay, however, has always been a much longer process in the Indian subcontinent; and it will take its time in Bombay, which remains the financial and cultural capital of India, the site of Bollywood as well as of India’s major stock exchange. In the meantime, life goes on, and people still have to work and love and dream.
This, at any rate, is the lesson offered by a remarkable recent collection of stories set in Bombay. The author, Vikram Chandra, spends much of his time in the city where his mother is a screenwriter of Hindi films; and his stylish stories about, among others, a computer programmer, an upstart socialite, and a policeman show a quick intimacy with the city and its diverse peoples, an intimacy which results in a refusal to judge, and a wish to find grace and skill and emotion in what others might see as the shabbiness and brutality of Bombay.
The longest of these stories follows a Sikh policeman called Sartaj who is investigating a murder while going through a painful divorce. His loneliness is drawn sympathetically—Chandra adapts quickly to the moods of his characters—but at one point we almost turn away from him when we see him provoked into assaulting a suspect in custody:
Sartaj felt in his arms a painful pulsing of blood. He took the patta, turned around, and with all the swing in his shoulder brought the strap up and around and onto Kshitij’s buttocks. And then again. The sound it made was like two flat pieces of wood dashing together.
It sounds like an appalling moment, but only because it has been extracted from the vigorous flow of the narrative. For, as witnesses of the scene, we stay close to Sartaj’s feelings of weariness and faint disgust. So deeply has Chandra taken the reader into Sartaj’s sense of alienation, his vision of a vast city full of the vaguely menacing mess of human lives, that the fact of torture remains for the reader what it is to Sartaj: an ordinary, almost banal, aspect of Indian life.
Chandra’s preoccupation with capturing the energy and emotion of the scene, his unwillingness to surmount it with explanation or judgment, makes him resemble the hard-boiled American novelists of the 1930s—the “poets of the tabloid murder,” as Edmund Wilson once …