How Anuradha Kumar makes Mumbai come alive in her novel Coming Back to the City
Book Review by Namrata
Title: Coming back to the city, Mumbai Stories
Author: Anuradha Kumar
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2019
‘She’s from Amrika, your new tenant, Pooja. A gori.’
Thus, begins the interwoven tale of lost souls living in the city of dreams, Mumbai by Anuradha Kumar.
The city of Mumbai is as mysterious as it can be. On one hand it is called the eternal city of dreams, meaning a place where people come with their dreams and work hard to get them fulfilled. While on the other hand, it is also known as the city which never sleeps. So, either the dreams you have are the ones you see wide awake or it is a contrast, signalling at the sleek chances of your dreams coming true. Whatever be the deeper meaning, it has never stopped people from aspiring and dreaming to live in this city.
Bringing together her experiences of living in Mumbai for 14 years, Kumar creates a moving tale from the great metropolis with stories both heard and unheard.
As she mentions in her interview to Kitaab,
‘I lived in Bombay for 14 years; and for eight of these years, I worked at the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), a fifty plus year old academic journal; rated highly in the world of the social sciences. I think I always wanted to write about Bombay — especially, when it became possible that I could write, and I realised that I was a writer, I could try and write about this city like so many others and in much better ways.
It began, and it’s easy to look back, with one story. Pooja’s crying by herself. It’s not so odd, in a crowded city, there are millions of unhappy people. And they have all their stories, and I first wrote that story out. ‘
Anuradha Kumar has been writing for two decades now and this is her eighth novel. She has won many awards from various institutions including the Commonwealth foundation (which she won twice), The Little Magazine and Hindu-Goodbooks.in.
When I think of Mumbai, the first image that comes to my mind is of the crowded locals – irrespective of the time of the day. The constant flow of people walking in long groups, no one knows where they are going or coming from. With their heads bowed down, they all seem to be in a rush and are scurrying around to match the ticking of the clock. After reading the mesmerising depiction of this city by Kumar, now whenever I think of Mumbai, it seems like the melting pot of cultures. A city that inspires people in their struggle to carve a niche to survive in the mad rush, to be alive.
With a cover depicting the beautiful pink flamingos which visit the city in the first few months of the year set against the hazy landscape of suburban Mumbai, Kumar’s novel is intriguing. The story takes us to Jupiter Mills Chawl in Parel, one of the last few that remain in the city. This is where we are introduced to the host of characters whose stories inhabit this collection of ‘Mumbai stories’. The characters are interconnected, sometimes merely by the fact of co-existing under the same roof or sky. The story depicts both the sections of the society – the middle-class ones whose daily struggle for existence is perhaps what makes this a city that never sleeps and the rich and the powerful, who add the stars in the never-grey skies of Mumbai skyline. To see them thrive, survive and struggle each day in this city of dreams, is prodigious.
Interestingly, Coming Back to the City, works like a linked collection where each chapter stands out on its own as an independent story and yet binds the whole novel with a common thread. The character of Pooja has her own plot and keeps appearing in other stories as well in the narrative binding the whole thing together beautifully while it moves forward.
Capturing the real vibe of the whole city, Kumar has wonderfully juxtaposed the high rises of the city with the working class chawls existing in the city depicting the two extreme ends of the prevalent life style. The space constraint and the mishmash of cultures has ensured Mumbai looks like a congested city where survival is the only goal for every inhabitant, irrespective of where they come from. As Kumar beautifully puts it in her words,
“It was a city given over to a hunger, a race between everyone to get ahead, and a desperation because they knew it was all over already. If you were always travelling by train, always keeping an imaginary account in your head, you didn’t have the time or space to even think over your next step… Space for yourself. This city didn’t give you that. And those who had even a modicum of space were the ones eager to stay ahead, greedy to always take more than their rightful necessary share.’
With her evocative prose, Kumar makes this potpourri of a city come alive in every page. Her characters are complex and strangely relatable. They manage to trigger some long-lost memory or experience in your mind. You are bound to find them in every metropolis of the world with their unique traits and survival instincts. What makes this connection unique is Kumar’s ability to strike a chord with the reader through her profound observations of life at large and of course, of living in a metropolis with people from different corners of the world.
Reviewer’s Bio: Namrata is a lost wanderer who loves travelling the length and breadth of the world. She lives amidst sepia toned walls, fuchsia curtains, fairy lights and shelves full of books. When not buried between the pages of a book, she loves blowing soap bubbles. A published author she enjoys capturing the magic of life in her words and is always in pursuit of a new country and a new story. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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