Jun 10, 2021
12 mins read
A character in the form of the novel produced today cannot behave in the way in which they did in the period of the bildungsroman. Or, put differently the singular focus on select characters to sketch a depiction of the totality of their lives and efforts is possible today primarily in the genre of memoirs and autobiographies. When a novel cannot resort to such a sustained first person account of oneself, when it slips out of its closeted confessional register which since the Victorians evaluated romances and finances, the use that it makes of character has to change. This is where it is of my interest to examine Altaf Tyrewala’s ‘No God In Sight’ (2005) – a novel that draws on several colliding narratives which appear as snapshots or perhaps postcards of people in their abject entrenching into the professions and personal plights that animate them, to present a representation of metropolitan Mumbai and its periphery. Here the subject is the space of the city itself, with the characters serving as episodic points who illustrate the situation of their lives, perhaps weaving together, in a new way a social imaginary or totality if you prefer which barely resembles historical or mythological epics which traditionally fulfilled this role.
To begin with, what is welcome, at least from a modernist perspective is the slipping away of the familial scene – which no doubt would be read into in terms of psychoanalytic separation – yet what reveals itself in its stead – are characters, the same characters no longer entreating each other within the privacy which the oedipal family has eulogized. Shame for example, allure, seduction, disappointment and disgust are not experiences shared discreetly as though in the presence of a young child. They are narrated with the very terse tiredness that characterized their repeated labours.
The selection of characters too reveals this; a young woman visiting a clinic for an abortion, the doctor who performs the operations, his father. In depicting them in their encounters, or travelling, or thinking about those dear to them – a narrative emerges. The style is that of vignettes. Like the prosepoem of earlier years, its effectiveness rests in its resemblance to the brevity of lived exchanges, and in its meditative imitation of the pragmatics of thought. The family does not disappear however and the fear of the middle class anxieties regarding education and employment come up. As do questions regarding proprieties of occupation.
There are also traces, though not in focus, of a changing social milieu. A gulf that seems to expand between generations, as a father struggles to comprehend how a son can leave home after the exchange of just a few heated words. Tragedy (the death of a wife and mother in their case) lurks in the background but misunderstanding is always closer.
An advantage of this form is its ability to highlight the anxieties of encounters, between doctor and patient, between a family applying for a visa to the US and the interviewer. These encounters are what futures depend on and their palpability is sketched out with an economy of words entirely immanent to the lives we witness.
Amin bhai, a character we encounter working at a shoe shop foresees the moment he will leave India, and recounts the violence he has undergone to drown out any remnant nostalgia. This book was published in the year 2005, and the present state of affairs, with the ascendancy of the Right Wing Hindutva, along with the acquittals of all principle accused in the demolition of the Babri Masjid this year resonates with such a depiction.
The encounter between sex and religion emerges as well – in the glimpse we get of Babua, questioning his virility when he is unable to get an erection when the opportunity to copulate with Lajwanti, a pretty girl from his village presents itself. He is relieved that he is initiated into the ‘deflowering tradition’ by the workers daughter in spite of him being the landlord’s son. The Mahant, his double, is the picture of sublimated potency. He arrives into the village asking the eunuchs to protect their land and women, and to throw out the outsiders. Hindustan for Hindus. Babua believes that this call addresses him. And rising to the occasion to prove his belonging he catches Zail Singh, to whom the cinematic comedy of the situation does dawn, by the beard – a scapegoat. When the scapegoat is identified as a Sikh, and Babua is publicly denounced in the gathering, a folk play emerges and Babua’s hatred for an outsider he doesn’t even recognize congeals. Those men who did not follow the procession gradually wound up their families and left town with damnable belongings, returning by themselves. A quiet exodus mobilized by fear.
The impersonality of youth which characterizes encounters in the city cannot permeate the elderly however. Following the Mahant’s visit, Suleiman a troubled youth, further disturbed by Muslims moving out of Barauli – confronts his ancient great grandfather with a question – ‘Why did you convert?’. Recalling such an answer pales in significance to its futility and the patriarch hopes his kin can find a path which does not entail a reason as ancient as him. He dies with this wish, and Suleiman not knowing the answer.
The limitations of poverty introduce us to the means taken by a family when living together in a room. Suleiman moves with his grandmother to Mumbai where his bellowed Nilofer awaits him. She scoffs at their sex behind the curtains until Nilofer is pregnant – at which point she leaves.
Nilofer, against her lover’s wishes – chooses to look for work, and we see this theme unfolding elsewhere in the building with an insurance agent meeting disappointment. A godman and a saleswoman meet each other and a sale follows a blessing while a gangster waits behind the closed door for Nilofer to leave, ignoring her knocks at his flat door. The apartment building with the proximity it enforces emerges as a site which forces divergent ways of life, young, old, professions, etc. to confront each other. The smashing of characters and narratives – this is the life that Altaf Tyrewala presents; their inner voices alternating between the paragraphs re-situating how each sees the other – in a shared situation.
Other characters are also explicated, through encounters as well, often painfully embarrassing ones – such as between a polio afflicted neighbor who was also in the same building and a woman to be married who saves him having to stand up to show his legs to her parents.
The absurdities that modernity or rather its caricature that accompanies life in cities, is acutely represented. Abhay for example debugs programs, from which I gather he is a software developer. He has been having a passionate and erotic affair with Swati whom he wants to marry. Her objection here is that while they are happy with the sex – he isn’t cultured enough, and she would want someone with whom she can also appreciate the finer things in life with.
The opacity that the identities of these characters bear is a mark of the site of their encounter, a literary representation of Mumbai, the city which houses India’s biggest film industry. Yet, what is remarkably underdeveloped is the depth of these characters themselves and this may be a limitation of the form of vignettes within which they are presented. However, and this is my contention – this opacity cannot be simply formalistic. Can we not posit, that the episodic postcard in which we apprehend these characters reflects the quality of encounters people share in the space of the city? If we were to juxtapose this with pastoral romances or historical epics in which narratives inhabit a very different register, it is not difficult to see the veracity in this claim. It also permits for us to flip through pages in intermittent sittings without losing the plot since it is not built on the soliloquy of a central protagonist or a sustained narrative chronicling a life.
Returning to our lovers, Abhay barely asks, let alone presents an appraisal of Swati’s own take on art – and his engagement does appear principally carnal. To rectify this inadequacy, he takes classes from Nawaz sahab on Urdu poetry – ghazals in particular.
The character sketch that centers the perspective of the narrative that unfolds before us is that of Abhay’s father – Mr Joshi. Having sired and raised children with his wife, now past middle age he believes that this constituted the murals and ghazals of his life and does not identify with Abhay’s wish to become cultured, whatever that may be, so as to cement his relationship with Swati his girlfriend. He wishes them a child which may ground them in life, yet dreams of the moment when they no longer look after him – and then, perhaps, sees a place for art to solace that void.
It is worth mentioning that the portraits of characters deployed here go beyond merely representing generational antagonism. The cobbler from earlier in the narrative for example would struggle to express the intricacies of making footwear to Abhay, who would, in his instrumental relation with art – seeking to woo Swati, not appreciate it anyway. Illustrative of the conditions of alienation diverse professions and the city engenders.
I suppose there is a degree of self-consciousness too in the act of an author contemplating the attitudes and uses people may put art to. This remains minimal throughout however, and never becomes an overarching feature of the narrative. It must be mentioned however particularly for those interested in linguistic relativity, that this also provides an avenue to the author to comment descriptively from the margins – in representations of shame and impropriety in familial life for example.
There is hence a veneer of cynical critique which emerges. When Avantika has to go to the police to track down her missing husband – she wears an orange sari, borrows a bindi from her maid, and her mangalsutra as well in exchange for two days of paid leave. Having to ‘festoon’ herself is the price she pays for presenting her case to the state, apprehensive of appearing too secular. To a reader not familiar with society in India, it does mark the importance, the political importance even, which fashion and markers of cultural belonging play.
Avantika’s encounter with the havaldar Hegde is a painful reminder of the debaucherous nature of the bureaucracy in India. Hegde’s character itself seems like an emblem sealed in time depicting the unprincipled engagement, the illegal money collected, and laws unimplemented that this country continues to live with. The prejudice and extreme discrimination that he exercises against Muslims is palpable in the questions he asks her, about whether she goes to a temple and which god she prays to etc. Her requests for promptness are dismissed by a proposal to go to Pakistan.
Altaf touches on the subject of the fear instigated in Muslim minorities, or at least those who share names from its nomenclature. When a police officer and a news channel cover an encounter with the names of the diseased stickered – the reactions of other Sohail Tambawalas (the name of the missing husband Avantika was searching for) are recorded – and they are left questioning the veracity of the charges, fake encounters sadly still being commonplace, as well as the malice and intent with which the bureaucracy acts with. The fear they experience as they read the reports or watch the broadcast on TV is real and it requires skill to be able to represent it with such brevity. A talent that is sadly not indigenous merely to fiction.
There is however a degree of disgust in representing the lives of lower-class Muslims, butchers who may have murdered in a moment of exigency, an accuser who falls into a gutter while coming to confront the culprit, seeking the reason of the crime. Also, as with all congregations, an endogamy of belief – cynicism, perhaps justified of the police authorities and, hence a decision to keep matters between themselves. This endogamy, of course leads to inbreeding.
The youth always act against this influence, as seen in Jamal’s night with colleagues or friends to Samudra Mahal. This is one of the more aesthetically astute sections of the book. Echoing similar scenes from the movie Dev D by Anurag Kashyap in 2009, the ennui and entropy of strangers commingling amidst alcohol to witness women gyrating, plates of meat being carried around by waiters, whistles, c’mons nonpulse the senses. The effect is like a hangover. At the end it justifies the contempt a performer may have for men – punctuated by the mute dismissal of the beggar at the window of a taxi asking for change.
The beggar’s experience is too depicted; along with if I might add a certain aestheticization of suffering. Hunger, horniness, dirt, and beggary are narrated into a consistent form of experience – and this is disturbing. It nevertheless, does complement and offset the debacle at Samudra Mahal. There is something to be said about appreciation and taste here. The tastelessness of these scenes, along with their description of all kinds of narcotic consumption reminds us, rather out of the force of self care – about that which is easy, intimate and comfortable. The underlying backdrop of the novel, the tone, and the imagined subject to which it sings to is the middle class and their fear of poverty.
The Bombays depicted here through the minds of characters do not fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, though the narrative keeps the trail of contacts. A well paid business executive and two lovers visiting an abortionist are the last scenes, taking us back to where we started. Holiness, friendship, intimacy disappear from this landscape and are replaced by staccato shots of agonized emotions, or the blank nothingness of loss. What grates against any sense of hope is the shrinking into oblivion of any sense of future, any place in history. In this sense it is a novel about the city in true modernist tradition. The first that I would place on that shelf by an author from India, writing about a city – Altaf Tyrewala.