Persian poet Hafez once wrote, "Like a great starving beast my body is quivering, fixed on the scent of light." No one expresses spiritual hunger more fervently and eloquently than this 14th-century mystic. However, most of us, unlike Hafez, go on a spiritual quest only when there is pain, when we are plunged into darkness. And at no point in Mumbai's history is this hunger more apparent than after the terrorist attacks that began on Nov. 26.
In the same way that 9/11 was not just New York's problem, these attacks should not be the sole concern of Indians. The world is now a glass bottle and countries are the marbles in that bottle - shoulder to shoulder, jostling for space, some vying for attention, some simply trying to fit. If one marble moves, the vibrations are felt by all. And right now, India is shaken.
So what can citizens of other countries do? A good start would be a greater understanding of a land and its people. For everyone, from the Mumbaiite to the Martian, the following three books shed light on the Indian heart and mind.
In a recent article in The New York Times, Suketu Mehta wrote, "My bleeding city. My poor great bleeding heart of a city. Why do they go after Mumbai? Perhaps because Mumbai stands for lucre, profane dreams and an indiscriminate openness."
His magnificent book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (Knopf, 2004) provides a look into that netherworld where dreams are born, a netherworld that is very much on the surface. He shows that just as the city of Bombay/Mumbai is a collection of seven islands, it is also a fusion of the nation's dreams. Everyone comes to the city ready to sweat, to go hungry, to get shot, to get trapped in labyrinthine bureaucratic webs, to pay bribes. It is all tolerable only because at the end of it a shining dream awaits.
Mehta's book illustrates how this shining dream can quickly turn into a nightmare. Part travelogue, part social inquiry, Maximum City is a deconstruction of that mass dream. What is also moving is the passion he feels for the city. This book is his love letter to Bombay: soulful, humorous and leprous all at once.
If Mehta chronicles what it means to be a Bombaywallah in the present day, Pavan K. Varma, in Being Indian: Inside the Real India (Penguin Books India, 2004), spans the length and breadth of the entire country. The narrator is like a crazy lizard walking along the wall that is India, feeling the cracks of the past, pondering, then zipping across to a remote corner, pondering again, darting his tongue out in absolute relish at the future, viewing this nation of a billion people in a billion ways.
The opening of this book sets the tone. In a gentle manner, Varma takes us to Hardwar, a holy city for the Hindus, a place of countless pilgrims. He writes of how, even in winter, one can spot people in the Ganges, braving its ice-cold waters: "They have a transparent glass pane in their hands and spend the day looking through it at the fast-flowing waters. Their unblinking eyes speak of a concentration perhaps greater than that of the throng of devotees nearby. But their purpose is different: not prayer, not salvation for a departed soul. Their attention is focused on the coins on the river bed, which they trace and scoop out expertly with their feet."
It is this dual nature that he captures beautifully: the traditional or the projected image versus the truth, a truth that unmasks the tradition and leaves one gaping at the sheer hypocrisy of it all. He writes of the Indian's obsession with power and his ability to let morality take a back seat in the pursuit of it. Then, when the end is achieved, morals re-emerge, like a rabbit out of a hat. But at all times, it is clear that the Indian magician is in control, and he is not ashamed of this duality. To him, it is not a clash at all. He celebrates it as though it were a marriage of convenience. Born out of this marriage are some beautiful googlies - to use a cricketing term - anomalies that shatter every common perception about what it is to be Indian.
A bookseller in Victoria once told me, with respect to a 600-page novel she was holding in her hand, "With every page I read, this book kept getting heavier and heavier." It was perhaps the most succinct review I had ever heard of Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance (McClelland & Stewart, 1995). What the bookseller was referring to was the gravitas, the weight of tragedy she felt as a reader that made the load almost unbearable. That is what only a great novelist can do. Before you know it, the characters are closer to you than your own kith and kin, and their journey becomes yours, their travails make your intestines churn.
If Mehta and Varma give us myriad voices and journeys, Mistry captures the injustice of a nation with only four characters: a young Parsi man, an older Parsi woman and two tailors. This book helps one understand conflict in India through the eyes of those who cope with it. Reading A Fine Balance is like being out at sea. The storms of injustice keep coming in, the crew keeps surviving, until a final tragedy obliterates the reader's every hope.
And yet this novel captures the endurance that lies in all human beings. It is almost spiritual in nature, and I daresay that if Hafez were alive, he would appreciate the light in it. No matter how dim, no matter how frugal, a simple strand of hope is taken by the characters in this book and converted into dreams, a quality that is human but also very Indian. I truly hope that this is one characteristic that India's schizophrenic nature cannot destroy, that this one rule, this one giant cliché, has no opposite, no exception.
Anosh Irani was born and raised in Mumbai. He is author of The Song of Kahunsha, a 2007 selection for Canada Reads.