Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay is being touted as the fiction of the year. Kishore Singh meets the inexplicably shy-but-glib author.
For what is being touted by Penguin as its heavyweight fiction of the year, the burden of responsibility couldn’t have fallen on frailer shoulders. Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi would be a size zero, if such a thing existed for men, and appears delicate rather than just lean. And either he has issues of self-esteem, or is playing to the gallery in his outing as the author of The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay — where even the mandatory author photograph on the jacket has him hiding his face behind his fingers.
It’s a coy tease, like the dance of the seven veils. Only, as he removes each layer, you’re confronted with several contradictory things you suspect he’s made up on the spur of the moment, words and phrases and things that sound good, even intense, but the sum of which reveals little, if anything.
“I’m not an interesting person,” he says, once again hiding his face behind his hands for the photographer’s lens, “I fail miserably to be entertaining.”
But he engages in enough small talk, and seems to be able to drop the kind of lines you expect from spiritual spinmeisters rather than exciting new writers from the subcontinent. “To live more, I try to practice less,” he says, somewhat irrelevantly, ten minutes into our meeting. We’ve chosen to sit out in the garden of the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi, nursing ginger-lime teas, having got past the I-hate-Bombay (me), I-don’t-know-Delhi (him) phase of our conversation. But he does seem pleased that I’ve actually already read all of the book. It’s what reviewers do, I tell him, but if he looks a little dubious, it’s because his earlier book, The Last Song of Dusk, was trashed by reviewers, and in spite of being heavily overwritten, bagged UK’s Betty Trask Award. For some time, a colleague would provide us our lunchtime entertainment in the office reading particularly lurid passages from the book; for some time after, everyone at work wrote minimally. Adjectives and purple prose promiscuity became the enemy of language.
I don’t tell Shanghvi any of this, who clearly has issues of his own to resolve. “I don’t feel at home in my own skin,” he says, even though the photographer has now left us to bask in the spring sunshine. “I don’t like the way I look,” he reiterates.
But he’s made his protagonists good looking enough. In essence, Lost Flamingoes is about a young pianist, Samar, who finds success too early, then runs away from it; a just-arrived-from-Shimla photographer called Karan who sets out to capture the soul of Bombay, but renounces it when his adulterous affair with Rhea comes apart — Rhea herself is a potter of promise who gives up the profession for marriage to Adi, and then cuckolds him to give him a child; and Bollywood diva Zaira who, before she is murdered, is bored with her life and her work. Her best friend Samar is not her lover because he is gay, and his lover, in turn, ends up with the HIV virus…
Everyone in the book is a loser, I tell Shanghvi, hardly the stuff of an epic tale.
“They’re not losers,” he corrects me, “they all end up losing, which is different from what the Americans call a loser.”
Even so, I ask, why does everyone have to lose? Everyone.
“Because I’m not an optimist,” Shanghvi says, “it rubs off on my characters.”
Even though Zaira is posted here as an actress, and the setting for the story is Mumbai, her murder in a bar is based on the real-life Jessica Lal, including the mother-daughter owners of the bar without a licence, the character actor who withdraws his statement saying he doesn’t follow Hindi despite working in Hindi films, and so on. “It was important for Zaira to die, for the wound of her death to cut deep,” Shanghvi tells me. I tell him I agree that her murder is critical to the events in the book, but it would hardly have mattered how she was murdered, so why echo a popular case in the book. Privately, I know he’s milking it for what it’s worth, especially for audiences abroad who love lapping up gossip about neo-rich India.
“For me, it’s irrelevant whether there’s any fact in fiction,” Shanghvi ties himself up in his own glib comebacks. But there is fact (Jessica Lal) in his fiction (Zaira), I tell him. “You can take something about real life and put it in a book of fiction,” he now says. And then adds, for good measure, “Michael Ondaatje said a novel is a mirror walking down the road. It’s important for me to be a mirror.” And then: “Fiction in India is written through Western isms, but I’m keen to write about people like you and me, about their moral ambiguities.”
But for all that, Lost Flamingoes, he says, is about Mumbai. Not for me, I argue. Change the setting and it could be anywhere. Personally, I think the book is like a soap opera where all that the people seem to do is talk, talk, talk —an indulgence available only to characters that inhabit the small screens of Star World or Sony or their numerous clones across countries and cultures. “Bombay,” he insists though, “is the lead character.”
Shanghvi went to school in Mumbai, before going to university first in London, then in California, and would have done a third masters, he says, “because academia seemed the place to escape to”, when his first book was published. He was 26 and back in Mumbai. “Suddenly, I didn’t have to study any more.”
Is this book that he insists is about Mumbai his homage to the city, I ask him. He nods in denial. “I do not think of myself as a Mumbai-wallah,” he says — though he also admits that he does not at least yet feel at home in any city in the world — “because the name of the city was changed by force, without consensus.” His act of rebellion, he points out, is to use Bombay in the title instead of Mumbai. “I’ve done it for myself,” he rationalises his protest, “it’s my alternative reality.”
Shanghvi says he’s an incredibly focused writer. “I manage five-six hours of writing daily, and do as much reading, and for me there’s no difference between the two.” His favourite writers, he says later, are, besides Ondaatje, Truman Capote and Tony Morrisson, but here’s his nub: “I’ve never read for pleasure, always for curiosity. How do other people write? How does the plot thicken? So, I look at a book like a child looks at a clock to take apart and then put together again.” The result is hardly a pleasant one for him. “I can’t be passionate about literature,” he says, “and the magic of writing has paled for me.”
At another point he will say, “Writing is a form of escape, it’s your own emotional utopia.”
Right in the end, of course, which is when the likes of us are wont to ask what next, Shanghvi u-turns on everything he’s said in support of his writing so far.
“I’m done with writing,” he says.
Done with writing?
“It’s all about meaning and purpose,” he says.
“The purpose of the last ten years of my life has been writing,” he grins openly, now that there’s no photographer around, “but now I have to find the meaning in my life.”
It’s the kind of innocuous statement you’d expect to hear at a Delhi cocktail party, the kind in which Jessica Lal/Zaira got killed. And no, he doesn’t know what he’ll be doing instead, even if the resonances are too close to Samir/Karan/Rhea in the book, all of whom gave up doing what they too were best at.
But that’s later, and even though Shanghvi says he would have done his third masters in sex and sexuality, in fact says he will “always want to write about sex and sexuality”, I tell him his book is less about those kinds of relationships, more about friendships.
“That’s true,” he agrees. “Love affairs come and go” — really, his must be a more interesting life than mine — “families tend to be very complicated, so for most people friendship is the most important relationship of their lives.”
He speaks the way he writes his dialogues, I point out to him. He looks pleased. “I’ve lived with this book since November 2002,” he says. “I’ve polished multiple drafts after drafts after drafts after drafts” — yes, that’s four times: I counted — “till it was smooth like a pebble. That was the most satisfying thing for me.”
That and, surprisingly, his attempt, he says, to write a book with a moral at the end. “Adi,” he tells me, “leaves Rhea because he finds her conduct immoral. I’ve tried,” he says, “to write a very moral book.”
Yet, the adulterous Rhea is his most favourite character. “Because she’s simple, morally ambiguous, charming and lucky to have the love of someone like Adi…”
I have a last question for Shanghvi. Did he take the trip to Sewri to see the flamingoes of Mumbai? “I didn’t want to go,” he says, of the place, “because though I’d already written it into the book, I was apprehensive about being disappointed by it.”
And was he?
“Well yes, it stank, it was ugly, and there were these flamingoes…”
The flamingoes keep returning to Mumbai, while some actually even choose to stay on in the stinking mess of Sewri. He uses this metaphor for the lives of his characters that revolve around dirty, stinky Mumbai. Like them too, Shanghvi might have turned his back on writing for the moment, but will the words leave him?