The back cover sets the trend telling you that you can expect something of RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days. That is about right – Jagannathan sets his action in the fictional Mumbai suburb of Bandargaon and the name tells you that it will be a romp with all kinds of ‘bandars’ involved. This is heightened by the Mario Miranda style cover illustration.
The suburb, like all Mumbai suburbs is centred around certain vital elements, Sunrise Apartments, the housing complex, the slum from where the domestic help for the complex comes from, vice in the shape of a gambling den and the tea stall where all the local gossip is available. Like Narayan, Jagannathan weaves together a series of short stories, thirteen of them, linked by common characters and setting. The main story is a love triangle with the no-good somewhat Bollywood style hero Chagan who runs the tea stall and frequents the gambling den wooing Shalini, while his rival VInayak is desperately trying to foil Chagan’s attempts to win the girl by winning over Shalini’s daughter, the formidable Lakshmibai. Then there’s the story of Sajjanpur, the strict father in law and MLA determined to be reelected at all cost, who has a lucky two rupee note which his son in law keeps losing.
Ultimately the issues are the ones which concern life in most big cities, though yes, the Mumbai character with its housing complex politics, normal politics, love and shady doings in gambling dens is stronger. Subjects which can and have been made ugly by writers like Adiga – Last Man in the Tower comes to mind. Jagannathan deals with them with his tongue firmly in his cheek and does not lose control of his plot through the different stories, which occasionally overlap.
His characters are deftly drawn. Shalini’s mother Lakshmibai is determined not to let anyone walk around the fire with her daughter unless she approves of the boy – and she would prefer it to be someone she knows. Seema, Sajjanpur’s daughter, leads a Lady’s Association protest against her father, while being a dutiful daughter at home. Everyone has a personal life, a social life and occasionally, an official political life as well and the art is keeping up with what all these different lives are doing.
Jagganathan is not RK Narayan – his pace is faster, some of the characters are not given the time they need to develop because of the demands of the story and, in the beginning the book seems to cover a series of well worn situations. However as it continues, Jagganathan finds his own unique take on situations and hilarity gives it a life of its own – as in the coffin incident, for example, the unique fall out of an attempt to kidnap the local mongrel, Khopdi. The other thing to remember is that this is a debut novel. Presumably the author will settle down, continue to tell the story of life in Bandargaon – the promise in the name though wasn’t really utilized unless there is some seed in Jagannathan’s head waiting to bear fruit in the future.
Tamasha in Bandargaon by Navneet Jagannathan
Published by Tranquebar in India, 2011
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