'Breathless In Bombay' Author Murzban Shroff Reflects On The Real Mumbai: Exclusive Interview

is the real deal, giving us a taste of the genuine Mumbai, as Shroff explores ancient vocations and newfangled professions with equal ease.
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Mumbai is undergoing one of the most fascinating transitions to modernity among the leading cities of the world, and few have chronicled this transformation as well as Murzban F. Shroff in his story collection, Breathless in Bombay (St. Martin's Press). American publishers have been busy churning out overhyped, formulaic fiction about family secrets and multigenerational sagas by writers of the Indian diaspora. But Breathless in Bombay (shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize) is the real deal, giving us a taste of the genuine Mumbai, as Shroff explores ancient vocations and newfangled professions with equal ease. In Shroff's stories, Mumbai is a city of corruption and caste division, just as much as it is a city of emerging meritocracy and class breakdown. Shroff's writing has little in common with the standard American short story's constriction, narcissism, and exhibitionism; the influence of Chekhov and other Russians clearly comes through in an expansive, restful melancholy, a metaphysic that is simultaneously hot and cool. In his Introduction to Breathless in Bombay, Shroff writes: "Perhaps there is no other city in the world where the struggle spills so vividly and unabashedly out onto the streets.... How many trades? How many dreams? How many journeys can a single city take and deliver?" The answer, of course, is as many as the provocative flaneur-storyteller has the imagination to render, and Shroff is one of the wisest guides to the new Mumbai (and the new India) one can discover.

Shivani: In your Introduction to Breathless in Bombay, you write: "To walk along the streets of Colaba [in Mumbai] and to be wooed by peddlers of all trades, all motives, always imbues me with a measure of excitement. Could I possibly be a tourist in my own city? Could I shed my identity as easily as that?" How can a writer observing a great city shed his own identity?

Shroff: To do so, you need to understand that you are only a microcosm of that giant structure that moves, breathes, grows, sustains. You need to understand that you have spent (or should I say, frittered) a good part of your life living an ivory-tower existence that does not truly define the ethos of the city. Start from there and work downward, to understand the people who make the city viable: the hawkers, the vendors, the handcart pushers, the transporters, the tradesmen who have left their families and come here in the hope of (a) survival, (b) a bank balance, and (c) raising their self-esteem.

Shivani: In many of the stories in the book, you write of occupations that are in the throes of extinction, because of the onset of mechanization. The clothes washers in "Dhobi Ghats," the masseur in "The Maalishwalla," and the victoriawalla in "The Queen Guards Her Own" are examples. What draws you to these antiquated professions--which you call the "heritage professions" in another story, "Traffic"--and what are you trying to say about Mumbai in these stories?

Shroff: It's a funny thing, but even today I am very conscious of these professions. Unfailingly they creep into my vision of the city. Maybe it's because they defy modernization. Maybe it's their loyalty to their craft, stubborn, tight-lipped, enduring. There is a resigned sadness in these people that makes me wish the authorities would provide them some kind of protectionism. Take the dhobis, for example. Almost 45% of the younger generation is educated--they would like to get modern jobs, which would help them meet their aspirations, but because they can't find these jobs they turn to a trade they know, and they stay with that trade, because somewhere down the line they know it won't let them down. The victoriawallas have their own set of problems, the main one being the increasing peak hours, which have pushed their entry time even later into the evening. How much can they earn between 8.30 p.m. and 12.00 midnight? And yet they have to feed their horses and give them medical attention, and the conditions they live in--in the midst of the flesh trade--are inhumanly squalid. The neglect of these trades is hard to digest. First, we ignore a heritage trade, then the people who abide by it. At the same time, we seem to be in a great hurry to sell urban spaces, to take the city vertical. I have no problem with planned development. It is satisfying to see my city evolve. But let's respect our roots. Let's not leave these trades to fend for themselves, or fall by the way, like the maalishwallas.

Shivani: There is great sadness in the description of the lower rungs of Mumbai life, which evokes the peculiar melancholy of Chekhov. Yet the pragmatic side of Indian character, as in "This House of Mine," renders your work different from the Russian master's.

Shroff: It is interesting you say this. Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and Isaac Babel are, of course, great influences. While I do hope to have imbibed some of their sensitivity and their ability to peer under the skin, in the Indian character we just don't have that exuberant rawness that makes Russian literature what it is: transparent and soul-baring, and, at most times, sentient. As Indians, we are more seasoned to the realities we deal with. Unlike the Russians who were preoccupied with questions of liberty, of order, we have to cope with an increasingly transient culture, questions of economic survival and validity in the face of a changing social structure. This accounts for our pragmatic nature. Like my cops in the introduction, who themselves pleaded for the encroachers, perhaps not merely out of empathy but also out of apathy, the reluctance to enforce laws, which is such an Indian trait, really. The beauty of Russian literature is that even in the gloominess you will see a refinement of thought, of high order thinking that defines man's struggle and attempts to liberate him.

Shivani: Somehow, although you don't concentrate on specific chronological landmarks, I get the sense of a long span of time passing in the history of Mumbai, and modern India: say from the early seventies, right up to the current decade. But all the stories are set in contemporaneous times, right?

Shroff: True! While the trades are discussed in a current context, the age of some of the main characters imposes its own weight and responsibility on the narratives. Mataprasad (the dhobi) and Chacha (the victoriawalla) are both in their fifties, and they have both seen better days. Or take Nadir Ravankhot in "A Different Bhel." He couldn't have got away with the kinds of things he did had he not lived in politically less cautious times. There is a lifetime of observation packed in these stories and it helps bring out the changes in the environment and the people. Therefore, straightforward Madhulikar (a product of high-order Nehruvian thinking) has his value-system under threat at a late stage in his life. And he is called upon to make that sacrifice in the name of his beloved daughter. Even Aringdham, a much-younger man, has to confront the artifice of his carefully cultivated universe at his wedding party. This irony is what throws lives into chaos, brings them under question, under siege. It was my duty to reveal how each of these characters responds: their dreams, their conflicts, their realizations.

Shivani: India is a relatively open, secular, progressive society (unlike the Middle East). Yet in stories like "A Different Bhel" a certain cruelty comes through that a German or French writer of the interwar years might feel comfortable with. What is the social source of this cruelty? How are you able to write about it without becoming monotonous?

Shroff: The social source is having met such ribald characters and having experienced them without bias. In "A Different Bhel," I knew I wanted to write about this brawny, brazen, instinctive pervert without making him too offensive. But if I had written it from Nadir's point of view, it would have been too harsh and hard to digest. So I chose the three disparate Parsi women as a means to reveal his life. I thought they would lend their own sweetness to it. With Nadir as the subject, I could also unfold the characters of the three women, and their reactions became the audience's points of contact with the subject.

Shivani: My favorite story in the book is "Busy Sunday." Its melancholy lies in the utter futility of trying to beat the system. Is that India ceasing to exist, incrementally?

Shroff: This is clearly a story of willful encroachment, something that makes us, citizens, feel so violated. In a city where builders encroach on mangroves and salt pans, and public playgrounds and hills are dereserved for commercial purposes, you can see that the system is designed for exploitation. The opportunism is blatant, the hopelessness a reality. On one level, there is so much optimism in the youth; on another level, the absence of any kind of social and environmental justice.

Shivani: Corruption is one of your dominant concerns, as in "The Great Divide" and "Babu Barrah Takka." It taints a writer's whole impression of his own society, doesn't it? It's the pettiest of things, yet it drives writers crazy.

Shroff: Absolutely! Corruption and civic apathy exist in large impossible doses. And it is impossible to fight this malaise in a way you would like to, which is to say, fairly and conclusively. I have had a personal experience where the civic authorities themselves recommended measures that were illegal. This was to tide over a water shortage problem. When I asked them to propose these in writing, they laughed me out of the place. And yet they are the ones who create the problems, with their sheer lack of foresight, their short-sightedness. The corruption can get unreal at times. Likewise, I had an experience at the housing board where I had gone to complain about a shoddy repair job and the lack of transparency. I was told by a clerk that the main officer was on leave for a fortnight. Later I learnt that it was the main officer himself, who had posed as a clerk, to give me the slip.

Shivani: The title story is your closest stab at describing a wide panorama of India in the age of globalization, well past the Gandhian and Nehruvian socialist verities. Is this an India you like to write about, or does it create its own form of disgust, as in writing about the old-fashioned corruption of the license regime?

Shroff: I honestly hadn't seen it that way. What I wanted to do here was to give Aringdham, an obsessive achiever and a perfectionist, the room to find his own realization. I chose irony and woman power to bring him around, in an environment that he had assiduously built himself. The aspects of globalization you are talking about are addressed more spaciously in my second collection.

Shivani: Whenever a writer--and we are all bourgeois writers--attempts to tackle the working class, there is a feeling of being an impostor, of not really knowing what working people go through, even if we've had the closest interactions. Do you share that feeling of guilt/shame/uncertainty? If so, how do you still write about the working class?

Shroff: I started as a student, a disciple to my subjects, and to tune in to their situations better, I went and stayed in the villages. Once I was comfortable with the true sons of the soil, I aspired to learn about various communities here. I kept my research fairly non-intrusive, but I kept returning to the environments, to make sure that my findings were unanimous to all members of the community. At the end of it, they needed to feel that I was their friend. No, there is no guilt--only learning and amazement!

Shivani: Are you positing a certain porousness in class in Mumbai? At the same time, when class boundaries are breached, there are often terrible consequences in terms of what's left behind, what's irredeemably lost, what's sacrificed. Isn't migrating from one class to another in a cosmopolitan city like Bombay akin to migrating to another country?

Shroff: Mumbai is unique in that each class, each community, has its own share of problems and yet there is a homogeneity of struggle that makes empathy possible and the migration easy. One of the motivations behind Breathless in Bombay was to sensitize the haves to the have-nots and to erode the ignorance of the know-nots. There is some good emerging out of the evolution. Take the victoriawallas: their lot has improved after they changed the decor of the carriages; they have now extended its uses, to wedding processions and film shoots. Sometimes all it takes is an idea, and that idea is born out of struggle, out of exploitation, the rigors of daily survival.

Shivani: South Asian writers of the diaspora generally seem to avoid writing about the poor by including servants as characters--servants employed by rich people, so that the prism of interpretation remains wealth, rather than poverty. Such writers, if questioned about why they don't write about the poor, will say, Oh, but I wrote about such and such a servant. Servants do not equal the broad working class, with jobs independent of domestic subservience. Your book is refreshing because you deal with the multifariousness of ordinary, backbreaking work in all its gory reality, without the filtering prism of the upper or middle classes. Did you think long and hard about this problem? How did you come by your approach?

Shroff: I realized rather early in the day that one didn't need another Bombay book--or another book, as a matter of fact--unless it aspired to say something very specific and necessary about the city. The more I thought of it, the more I saw the need for a genuine work of realism, something in the vein of Steinbeck's approach to the American working class. As a result of this self-willed discipline, I had to often trade off drama for realism, like in "Maalishwalla," where I (initially) had a dramatic cinematographic ending and then changed it to one of actual pathos.

Shivani: Your stories are leisurely in their unfolding, with a very nineteenth-century aesthetic--you don't skimp over description of place, you don't resort to any of the fashionable postmodern shortcuts that reduce characterization and plot to the point of absurdity. It seems that one must put aside a degree of self-consciousness to write this way. Would you agree with that?

Shroff: It's kind of you to say this, and pleasing, of course, to my labor, but to readers who prefer a racy plot, I might seem excessively concerned with details. On my part, there was a responsibility to capture things the way they are.

Shivani: How long did you work on the stories in Breathless in Bombay? At what point did it become clear that you had a coherent collection in hand? Did you need to add any stories at the very end to make the book complete?

Shroff: It took six years on the whole. Along the way, I knew the collection was growing, and I didn't know when it would stop, but something told me I wasn't done yet. And then I wrote "This House of Mine," and I knew in that motley crowd I had captured the sense of all that I wished for my city: a unity of understanding.

Shivani: It is often said in American publishing circles that debut story collections are very hard, if not impossible, to publish. Yet the evidence all around us would contradict this assertion. Did you have a hard time finding a publisher for this book?

Shroff: Hmmm...know why writers go to heaven? They have been through hell on earth. Whoever said that obviously meant writers of literary fiction. Every publisher I sent it to said nice things about the work, and there was no agent here. In the end, two came though, and I went with St. Martin's.

Shivani: Are you working on a novel now, and do you find that spending so much time writing stories has hampered your ability to write a good novel?

Shroff: I am working on a novella right now, which is headed toward novel length. The thing with short stories is you get used to saying things with precision and pacing them out with respect to the reader's time. I am trying to induct these principles into my novella, and sometimes I find myself being hypercritical, which slows down my progress. But it's a good thing, really.

Shivani: Have you returned to India for good? If so, why did you go back, after attaining publishing success in the West? Do you think we'll see more American and British-educated South Asian writers return home in the future?

Shroff: I am a resident of Mumbai. I came to the U.S. last year for a reading tour. And I stayed there briefly, for six months, many years ago. I do feel if some of our non-resident writers would base themselves here, we would see more meaningful work. By this, I mean work that addresses social issues and helps the West understand the essence of India. I am unable to speak for other South Asian writers, but, yes, the motherland will have its own draw, albeit temporarily.

Shivani: There seem to be a growing number of Indian publishers putting out fiction in English. Is that so, and are you impressed with the quality of writing? We are familiar only with a handful of South Asian writers who have strong roots in America. But tell us about Indians writing in English and publishing in India that impress you.

Shroff: My reading ethic is a little different. I prefer non-fiction and stay with the works of Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Munshi Premchand, and some periods of Indian history that fascinate me.

Shivani: I would like to ask the same question with respect to Indians writing fiction in the vernacular languages.

Shroff: I enjoy Dalit fiction, which is to say the works of Daya Pawar, Laxman Gaikwad, Baburao Bagal, Bhimrao Shirvale, and Keshav Meshram. Having read these writers in English, I am grateful to Priya Adarkar and Shanta Gokhale for bringing us excellent translations.

Shivani: Is there a lot of translation in India from local languages to English? What publishing firms do the best of these translations?

Shroff: There is a growth of regional literature now made available in English. It is the Penguin Group and Zubaan who take the lead in this.

Shivani: The question of audience always weighs heavily for writers of the diaspora. Who are we writing for? Do we have a realistic audience to begin with, or are we doomed to degrees of misapprehension? There is the worry about the false exoticism to cater to the casual Western reader. Or we lean too far over in the direction of naturalism, to prove that we know our stuff. Who, in fact, are we addressing? Or is this even a useful question?

Shroff: You have outlined some of the concerns that could assail a more circumspect writer or an editor. And relevant as these concerns are, I think a writer needs to focus purely on putting out a piece of work that is intellectually satisfying to him/her. The book will have its own destiny. It will find its readers. If we are true to our environment and our craft, the readers will sense it. This is how I approach my work.

Shivani: What kind of work routine do you have in Mumbai? Do you have the luxury of devoting all your time to fiction writing? Is Mumbai a good city for a writer?

Shroff: I write three to four days a week. On a typical day, I start around post-lunch, write until six or seven, then go for a walk along the seafront, return at eight, then write for an hour or two. Post-dinner (which is almost always late), I read for a few hours. Sometimes, in the course of the day, when I am keen to lay out a chapter or a section, I might write continually for eight to ten hours. Other days of the week, I might do some commercial work (I make motivational films, jingles, educational programs for schools, communication material) or I might simply meet friends. Bombay is the place for a writer. It is friendly, approachable, ever-changing.

Shivani: Memoir is a luxury the developing world can't afford yet. Memoir seems to represent a deficiency of imagination, throwing up one's hands against intractable reality. Your writing pushes its nose deep into the hidden worlds of labor, corruption, exploitation, cruelty, anger, revenge, pettiness, superstition, class-boundedness, and even barbarism. It's a heady antidote to memoir, because it requires a higher form of courage than delving into one's own known troubles. Your book is the antithesis of exhibitionism.

Shroff: Thanks for saying this, but perhaps it is because of who I chose as my teachers: Steinbeck and Saul Bellow, and Chekhov and Dostoevsky, and Kafka and Camus. Come to think of it, some of the best exponents of fiction were, in truth, masters of disguised memoir.

Shivani: I presume you lived many years in America, plying the beginning writer's trade. From the vantage point of a certain level of success and distance, what seem to you to be the biggest weaknesses of American literary culture? And the biggest strengths?

Shroff: I have no formal experience in creative writing. And I have never lived in the U.S. But I am greatly interested in American literature, past and present, so I do have my take on it. The biggest weakness of American literary culture is the academia that has crept in--the golden rules of creative writing, which present a sort of ready reckoner for evaluation. There are too many people trying to be writers and trying to make a story out of their lives. As a result, there is a certain degree of sameness in the writing: in not just the choice of themes (parents' divorce, death, sexual abuse, etc), but in the narrative arc, in the way the whole thing drums out. This happens mostly at the university level, where filters can be imposed in the creative writing programs, making entry-level barriers more rigorous, more discerning. On the flip side, American literature pushes boundaries like no other form of literature. You have writers like Antonya Nelson, Janet Peery, Jayne Anne Phillips, Ron Rash, A.M. Holmes, Tobias Wolff, Ben Fountain, and J. Robert Lennon, who are doing things with the language, who are doing things with consciousness. Literary fiction being a hard nut to crack, it's inspiring to have their work as a yardstick. It's a shame, though, what's happening to the university presses and to the independent bookstores. Someone needs to get out there and say, "Hey, we can create history! All over again! And these guys are going to help us do it." Literature, after all, is a good enough indication where society is headed. Rather than play to market forces, publishers need to create a market. They need to make decisions on the basis of knowing what makes great writing great in the first place, and relevant and enduring. Right now, unlike other disciplines, there is no world leader in literature. America has the opportunity to be that one. For a country that respects good writing as much as it does, its position in literature has been insular.

Shivani: Book publishing in America is facing hard times--just like newspapers, or any other "content" industry. Are these wounds self-inflicted?

Shroff: Yes, but it's going to change. With the arrival of the e-book, the reader-writer relationship is going to be more democratic, more open source, and yet more discerning, because of the sheer choice and opportunities. The nature of writing itself will change. The writer will have to deliver and deliver fast. He/she will have to make sense a lot more quickly.

Shivani: Do you think readers in America understood Breathless in Bombay?

Shroff: You will have to ask my publisher that.

Shivani: China may be far ahead of India in economic terms, but India seems to be way ahead in terms of literary production. Do you agree, and if so, how do you explain this?

Shroff: The creativity comes from having more diversity and a greater comfort level with the English language. Story-telling as an art has long existed in India. Our spirituality is itself based on the epics, two of the greatest narratives ever told: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Historically, the changes have been sweeping--from feudalism to imperialism to democracy, and from post-Independence idealism to opportunism: all the right ingredients for an introspective culture.

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