Altaf Tyrewala: On Mumbai and the decay of India’s literary culture

Altaf Tyrewala, stylistic chameleon and satirist extraordinaire, charts the tragedies of unread books and bowdlerised language in his first collection of short fiction, writes Aditya Mani Jha: The Sunday Guardian

altafIn these very pages, circa December 2012, Sanjay Sipahimalani wrote a stirring piece called In Memory of Mumbai’s Bookshops. He said, “I miss reading a glowing review of a new novel in the morning and finding it on the shelves that very evening. I miss the manager running up to me and saying breathlessly: ‘You should check out these short stories by this writer called David Foster Wallace, he’s really very good.’ I miss scanning the new arrivals section to discover that the title I couldn’t afford in hardback was now available in paperback. I miss feeling deliciously guilty — and broke — when I went ahead and bought the unaffordable hardback.”

The truth of these lines hits you like a sucker punch, and it is moments like these that makeEngglishhh©, Altaf Tyrewala’s latest book, the painful pleasure that it is. The first story of the collection is called New and Second-hand, and it is written in the first person, from the point of view of the owner of an independent bookshop facing impending closure. (Tyrewala dedicates the book to the memory of the New and Secondhand Bookshop at Dhobi Talao in Mumbai — a store that shut down in 2011 after more than a century of operations.)

Tyrewala’s standard narrative voice is in full bloom here: male, weary, essentially rational, somewhat savagely pragmatic and fond of gallows humour. One might say that the author is playing to his strengths here, but then this really is a brutal, wholesome, red-blooded story that takes no prisoners, and rips apart the hypocrisies of several different kinds of readers and writers. Take for instance, a section where the bookseller gets involved with a commercially successful writer, which affects his professional life as well.

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