No one spoke of justice because there was no need
A printed card fell out of the book when I opened it. It was from the author, and it told the reader to look at the book in a certain way. The message seemed pretentious, perhaps incompetent, for one of the things it says is that there’s a “fine line between spirituality and hypocrisy…” That’s something I didn’t understand, because, in my mind, the two are as far apart as can be. In any case, why would an author have to use a card like this when he has the entire book — at least a preface — in which to present his case?
The book itself, thankfully, is a different matter altogether. The first few pages establish that it’s neither pretentious nor incompetent. Mr Pereira’s first book wasn’t half bad, and he’s learnt much since. Like the first, it’s set in a chawl in Mumbai, an environment that he seems familiar with, which is good, because the integrity of his writing shows through. The book offers a much more down-to-earth and nuanced depiction of life in Mumbai chawls than, say, movies or TV serials.
The narrator is one Valmiki Rao, a retired postmaster — promoted from postman after a lifetime of grudging service — living in a chawl called Ganga Niwas.
Friendless, crabby, and constipated, Valmiki is tormented by his neighbour Narahari, whose bowels move regularly and without effort. Nevertheless, Valmiki has kept a diary: being a bachelor, he has nothing much else to do but think about the past. This diary includes his notes, kept carefully to himself, on the events of 1992-3, when rioters tore the fabric of Bombay irreparably apart. But his diary includes some observations on what led up to it as well.
It’s a version of well-chosen bits of the Ramayana transplanted into two neighbouring chawls of Bombay (it became Mumbai only in 1996), Sai Niwas and Valmiki’s Ganga Niwas. The first stirrings of trouble come with a growing number of saffron flags and calls that Mumbai is for Mumbaikars. This movement is led by the Shiv Sena, most members of which are louts and layabouts, and aimed against Muslims. Shiv Sena workers go house to house drumming up membership, with much success.
There are substantial insights here. For instance, “… [the Shiv Sena’s] leader was making smart speeches because he said everything we were thinking at the time. The only difference was that he said everything out loud… It was always about us versus them.” Valmiki, wise without being aware of his wisdom, “ignored them because I knew there were no insiders or outsiders in Mumbai. There were only people who had power and everyone else.”
In Ganga Niwas, though, there’s hope in the form of a family: Vishnu Shinde, who works in a printing press, his wife Kashi, and their two boys, Ramu and Lakhya. Holding them together is an underlying decency that never leaves them: the boys, despite joining a shakha of the Shiv Sena, don’t turn loutish. The death of Kashi, though, destroys the family. Vishnu’s grief leads him to drink and neglect and eventually a second wife, Kavita, with whom he has a son, Bantya, who happens to like his elder brothers. But Kavita gets the notion that getting rid of the two elder boys would solve her problems, and she accuses Ramu of stealing Vishnu’s salary…
Vishnu’s death not long after in no way lessens Kavita’s antipathy to Kashi’s sons, but they tend to help her out regardless. Ramu holds on to his decency at least in part because of his love for Janaki, daughter of a bania who has a room in the same chawl. But the eminently desirable Janaki has other suitors, including Ravi Anna, the Ravana of the epic, the don who runs the neighbouring Sai Niwas. And, like Ravana, Ravi Anna has a sister: Surbha. The don himself isn’t religious but has no qualms about using religion — and the believers around him — as a means of control.
From this point on, there’s no way the story can have a happy ending. Ganga Niwas has been a community where no one worries too much about religion except perhaps when it comes to marriage. But that quality has changed, and, over time, the divisions become clear.
In the midst of the erupting riots, perhaps Janaki’s state is more revealing. She waits to be rescued, alone in a room lit by a naked bulb. Ramu and Ravi Anna fight it out, an equal and needless battle until Ravi falls to his death from one of the higher floors of the chawl. What remains of Sai Niwas is a burnt out husk.
At the end of the book, though, the character that sticks in my mind is Valmiki Rao himself. Crabby he might be, and asocial, but his diaries reveal a depth of insight, and, strangely enough, empathy in him that none of the other characters has.
Excerpt: Husbands and wives bickered over the safety of their children, and neighbours turned against each other overnight. The Sena oversaw it all, from a safe distance, tracking how the demographics of shakhas shifted, rewriting rules that would propel them into power and and allow them to take control of this rich, vulnerable city.
No one spoke of justice because there was no need. It would never come, and, even if it did, it would be so late that it would be meaningless. What could any court offer a family that had lost a son?
The Memoirs of Valmiki Rao
By Lindsay Pereira
Published by Penguin
pp. 269; Rs 599/-