Thursday, August 19, 2010

Once upon a time in Mumbai

(This is my tryst with fiction, so brickbats and criticism are welcome.)

“Taxi!” shouted Rohan at the black and yellow cab hurtling down the opposite side of the road. Luckily for him the taxi stopped and Rohan crossed the road, skillfully negotiating the heavy traffic on his side of the road. But by the time Rohan reached the taxi a girl was already talking to the taxi driver. She was wearing a blue shirt and black trousers and although Rohan could not see her face, he guessed that she must be around his age only. Rohan cursed his luck as he anticipated that the taxi driver would not take his side in this latest battle of the sexes; he was already late for office and it was drizzling as well. However, much to his surprise, the taxi driver told the girl that Rohan had asked him to stop from across the road before she had approached him.

“Where are you going?” the girl turned around and asked Rohan. What immediately struck Rohan was that the girl was quite good looking: fair, long hair, sharp features and good figure, in short a girl who Rohan would describe in one word as hot when he would later narrate the incident to his friends.

Rohan paused for a couple of seconds before replying “Nariman Point.”.

“Oh good, I am also going there. Let us share the cab then” she offered.

Rohan was slightly taken back by this unexpected offer and thought of saying no, but better sense prevailed and Rohan agreed to share the taxi. The fact that the girl was hot might have influenced his decision but as he would later tell his friends, he was primarily driven by the altruistic motive of not letting a girl wait in the rain for a taxi.

So they shared the rear seat of the taxi with the girl sitting behind the driver as the taxi made its way from Dadar to Nariman Point through the serpentine Mumbai traffic. It was a slightly awkward situation for Rohan who had not been in such close proximity of unknown good looking girls since his ISC examinations, when his neighbor in the examination hall was a humanities student from some girls school in South Delhi. Since then he had studied engineering and MBA in the testosterone charged environs of the premier educational institutes of the country where such experiences had eluded him.

Rohan was now trying to get a good look of the girl through the corner of his eye, lest he be accused of ogling at her. It was not sunny outside and so he did not have the excuse of wearing his sunglasses which would have enabled him to stare at her without getting caught. He could notice that she was drying her shiny and slightly wet hair with a small towel like handkerchief which only a girl could carry. She was wearing a pleasant perfume and the smell, especially with the windows of the taxi rolled up due to the rains, was slightly intoxicating. Rohan wanted to start a conversation with her but could not think of anything to break the ice. He tried to remember something from the book “The Game” that might be useful in the present context but his memory played truant this time.

It was almost when the taxi had reached Parel, that the girl broke the eerie silence by introducing herself. “Hi, I am Nisha.”

“I am Rohan” he replied. He was not going to let go of this opportunity to talk to her and hence carried on “So Nisha, where do you work in Nariman Point?”

“I work in a law firm called Amarchand Mangaldas; their office is behind the LIC building” she said.

“I know a few people in Amarchand Mangaldas. I have worked with them on lot of deals from my company’s side” Rohan replied.

“Deals? What king of deals?” she enquired.

“Well actually I work in the investment banking division of Kotak and so we need a lot of legal aid and opinion on different transactions and IPOs.”

“So you are an MBA-hot shot from the IIMs turned into an i-banker stud, huh?” she asked.

Rohan became slightly defensive at this riposte and quickly replied, “Well I was lucky enough to go to one of the IIMs but I am surely no hot shot or stud. So are you a lawyer?” he added, eager to change the subject away from his academic and professional exploits.

“Well I graduate only this year from Symbiosis College, Pune and joined Amarchand Mangaldas in June,” she replied.

“Symbiosis Law is best law college in India, isn’t it? By the way do you know a girl called Rohini from your college? I think she also graduated this year.”

“I know her but not really friendly with her. Why do you ask? Are you friends with her?” Nisha asked.

“Not really. But one of my school friends had a crush on her and so I had met her once while I was still in Delhi before moving out for college.”

“No way! You are from Delhi! Which area?”

“Karol Bagh” Why, are you from Delhi too? Which area?” asked Rohan, half expecting her to be from GK-II or South Ex.

She replied “I am from Ghaziabad actually but generally pass it off as Delhi, especially to people who do not know about the geography of Delhi in detail. By the way, this girl Rohini you mentioned about, well she had a quite a reputation in college with her multiple flings and was quite a hot property amongst the guys” informed Nisha.

“So the reason you were not friends with her was that she got all the male attention while maybe you did not, right?” asked Rohan, immediately regretting what he had just said. In response he got a stern look from her and then she turned around to face the window and hence resumed the sound of silence.

Rohan had already made plans to take her phone number but he blew it with a snide comment which he had hoped would show his sense of humor. He started sulking for a few minutes and then saw that they had reached Peddar Road. He realized that if he wanted her number by the time they reached Nariman Point he had to soon initiate conversation again with her. This time he decided to broach more universal topics like cricket, Hindi films or the high rents in Mumbai so as to prevent any further faux pas. He finally settled on the last of the three as she might not be interested in cricket beyond Sachin Tendulkar or the cheer girls of IPL and his own strong anti-Shahrukh Khan views might not exactly endear him to her. As a keen follower of popular culture right across the spectrum from Kanti Shah to Karan Johar, Rohan knew that girls had a thing for SRK, but even then he was not going to feign false allegiances for the sake of a 10 digit passcode, most probably beginning with the digit 9.

“So you live with room-mates here in Mumbai? And how much do you pay as rent?” asked Rohan tentatively as they reached Marine Drive.

She immediately replied (as if she was waiting for Rohan to initiate conversation) “Don’t ask me about rents in Mumbai; they are a scandal. I would have got twice as big a house in Delhi at half the rent compared to the pigeon hole I am staying in Dadar.”

Rohan felt that he had struck a right note and the Mumbai rents was at least a topic on which he could to talk to her for some time; and talk they did, on Delhi vs Mumbai, on TV shows like “Friends” which they both loved, how they hated Shahrukh Khan and why Saurav Ganguly rather than Sachin Tendulkar was their favorite cricketer. The conversation continued freely as the taxi went past the Bachelor’s ice cream shop (like Rohan, Nisha’s favourite was also the chili flavored ice cream), the Intercontinental Hotel and the Trident. Rohan was thoroughly enjoying the conversation and felt that he shared a really good vibe with Nisha, something that went beyond her being just extremely good looking. The Marine Drive which he passed twice everyday for two years now, suddenly appealed to him again with a new sense of beauty and charisma.

The normally boring one hour commute from Dadar to Nariman Point today seemed to be too short a journey to Rohan as they reached his office and he reluctantly got out the taxi, He was about the pay the fare and then ask her for her number when Nisha interrupted his thoughts as she rolled down the taxi window and asked him “Are you going to Delhi during Diwali. I am getting married at that time in Delhi. My fiancée also works in Amarchand Mangaldas.”

“Congratulations!” Rohan said absent-mindedly as he was trying to get his wallet out to pay the fare.

“Don’t bother about the fare, I will pay it” she said and handed Rohan her visiting card which had suddenly materialized out of nowhere. “It was really great talking to you; call me sometime on my cell number. I am really getting late for office, so bye for now.”

With those parting words she rolled up the taxi window and Rohan stood dumbfounded for a moment as he saw the taxi disappear round the corner. He dropped the visiting card in a trash can and then he entered his office building.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Book Review of “Flirting in Good Faith” by Gaurav Narang

(This is the first time I am reviewing a book and what better way to start than with my wingmate, Gaurav Narang's bestselling novel)

Lately there have been a surfeit of MBA turned authors writing about their college days and while best selling author Gaurav Narang has similar credentials and more, his debut novel “Flirting in Good Faith” is more a story about the basic and universal emotion of love rather than the much heard tale about life in the hallowed educational institutions of India.

The book is about a small town boy Satyam and his journey through engineering and MBA colleges and his complicated love life. Satyam falls in love with a girl called Anisha while in engineering college and although they become the best of friends, he is unable to properly express his love for her. When college ends, Satyam and Anisha go their separate ways in life, with Saytam eventually joining IIM Calcutta after 1 year of working in Bangalore and Noida. In this period he befriends another girl called Zora, primarily to create a distraction from Anisha. Zora falls for Satyam, but he is unable to reciprocate her feelings as he still loves Anisha.

In IIM Calcutta, Satyam struggles academically, failing a paper every term and is branded a failure. He gets back in touch in Anisha after more than a year and learns that she is marrying a guy called Martin. The rest of the story is full of melodrama with Zora attempting suicide because of unreciprocated love, Satyam getting chucked out of the college and Anisha realizing that she also loves Satyam and then breaking her marriage to be with Satyam even as she is pregnant with Martin’s child.

The story is essentially a love story but as a reader I could not feel any sort of empathy or emotional connect with any of the characters; nor was I drawn into the vortex of the situation or dilemma faced by the characters. College life stories generally thrive on their humor quotient but the book fails to deliver in this regard as well; if there was some humor, it was frankly lost on me.

The narration of the story is also slightly disconcerting with paragraphs repeatedly running into multiple pages; also the primary medium of conversation between the characters is Google Talk chats and at times it is difficult to decipher who is saying what.

Although the book is primarily not about Satyam’s experience in IIM Calcutta, Narang’s portrayal of IIM Calcutta leaves me complaining as it is only restricted to the natural beauty of the campus and the cut throat competition in academics and placements. I am aggrieved at the fact that he does not delve into the best things the college has to offer: the amalgamation of uniquely talented and brilliant people (and I am not talking academics here), the sense of camaraderie and friendship, especially within each wing and last but not the least footer volley (Satyam watches the game being played but never participates) and bakar on IP.

The book is also a litany of grammatical mistakes and also a smack (with a thud) on the face of conventional wisdom regarding sentence construction. While the former should be addressable with better editing, the second I think is more intentional wherein Narang plays to lowest common denominator with his expression of raw emotion. Let me quote in good faith some of the most remarkable passages from this book:

"I Love you." I told her again in a plain voice bereft of any emotions. Emotions dilute facts. When stating a fact one need not be emotional. I loved her and that was a fact which I repeated in a calm voice. Long silence ensued which was broken by a loud thud; the voice of someone’s hand against someone’s cheek, Anisha’s hand and my cheek.

and then again

It is hard to describe that expression but it was that sort of mixed emotion you feel when you pat your dog to demonstrate your affection for him and he in turns raises his leg to show his affection for you and then you shoo him away before he is done. Her reaction made me feel definitely like that dog.

(Contrary to what readers of this blog might think, the "in turns" is not a typo on my part but produced verbatim from the book.)

Narang is also guilty of using almost every cliché in the book such as one needing to do an MBA to open one’s own firm, to using hackneyed expressions like “Only constant is change” and “I love you, I love you not” as titles for different sections of the book and the characters of the opposite sex almost always addressing each other as “dear”.

My complaints nonetheless, the book is remarkable as a debut novel for the simple fact that it catapults Narang to the levels of Amitava Ghosh and Khaled Hosseini (Narang has actually left behind these also-rans in the bestseller list). In fact one need not read more than 2 pages to start appreciating the auteur and his brilliant work. The publisher effusively praises the “high quality fiction” and is surely referring to Narang when he says that what India needs is

“unconventional young adults who have moral courage, vision, perseverance, virtue and who are not bound by traditional ways and who are highly motivated to do their best.”

Touché, Mr. Publisher.