Bombay authors talk about ‘the city’, survival and free will

 Anosh Irani, Engin Isin and Suketu Mehta

Above: From left, author Suketa Mehta; Engin Isin, York Canada Research Chair in Citizenship Studies; and author Anosh Irani

Two award-winning authors who feature one of the world’s most crowded and polluted urban centres in their books were a natural choice for a breakfast focussing on the city, moderated by York Professor Engin Isin, Canada Research Chair in Citizenship Studies.

Suketu Mehta and Anosh Irani joined Isin on stage at the 75th Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences for a discussion about Bombay – or Mumbai as it is now called – and the role this city of dreams plays in their fiction, as both setting and subject.

Anosh IraniFor Irani, who came to Vancouver in 1998, his native city’s darker side inspires his works, which include the acclaimed novel The Cripple and His Talismans and the 2003 play, The Matka King. His latest play, Bombay Black, premiered in Toronto in January 2006 at Cahoots Theatre. The Song of Kahunsha, Irani’s second novel, was released in March.

Left: Anosh Irani speaking at Breakfast on Campus, Thursday

As he recounted memories of passing through Bombay’s red light district, Irani reflected on how the “different sense of morality” exhibited by the denizens of that district compelled him to write about their struggle for survival and the effect it has on personal freedom. “We have the gift of free will and can understand right and wrong,” Irani said. “These people know the difference but sometimes you just don’t have a choice.”

Irani said his latest novel, which tells the story of a 10-year-old boy caught up in the daily struggle of life in a city torn by religious strife and riot, is based on the characters he knows from his life growing up in Bombay, a city, he said, ” where conditions are terrible but people are alway smiling.”

Isin noted that the loss of free will explored in Irani’s work, represents a different view of the city from its place in Western literary tradition as a symbol of freedom.

Suketa MehtaFor his part, Mehta saw Bombay – where there are more people on the island city than the continent of Australia – as a place where people use their dreams to escape in their minds. The author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, which won the Kiriyama Prize and was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, said the dreams “sustain people and give them a reason to put up with really terrible conditions.”

Right: Suketa Mehta (right) talks as moderator Engin Isin listens

Both authors said the fact that they had left Bombay informed their sense of the place and enabled them to write about it differently than if they had remained. Irani, who said he experienced an acute sense of longing for his former home when he moved to Canada, “stopped missing the people and starting missing the place” with all its sounds and smells. Mehta told the audience that he needed the distance from Bombay to be able write about it and he plans to return there to write his latest book about New York City.

Isin also asked both writers to talk about their concept of “the city”, which prompted Mehta to read a delightful series of short passages from his book, in which he describes Bombay in journalistic terms but with a fiction writer’s eye for evocative detail. One passage in particular described a commuter’s trip by train into the city that, he said, explains Bombayites’ eternal optimism and ability to survive.

Mehta has won the Whiting Writers Award, the O. Henry Prize, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. Born in Calcutta and raised in Bombay and New York, Mehta co-wrote Mission Kashmir, a Bollywood movie, and is currently working on an original screenplay for The Goddess, a Merchant-Ivory film starring Tina Turner.