We do not choose the world we write about. Most often than not, we write about what is the temple of our familiar. We locate our stories in the world that we believe we have a rare understanding of. A world that we internalize to an extent that it seeps into our every breath and thought. For only then can we recreate on paper that world with almost the life force it pulses with.At first the urban landscape failed to stir me. Even the books I read were based in quiet villages and small towns. To me, they offered a harmony between man and land strewn with a wealth of sub-plots. And so this became the landscape that I wished to set my novels in. In the books I wrote I sought to narrate the stories of people who would inhabit such a world.
And then a little over eighteen months ago, I decided to write my first true urban novel. It would be a novel dictated by the city as much as the characters. I had a choice of two cities. Chennai where I had grown up, Bengaluru where I lived. The danger of locating it in Chennai was to be swamped by nostalgia. And I wanted this to be an edgy piece of writing with no room for sentiment or memory.
In Bengaluru that has been my home for the last two decades, I sought a world that was far away from what is commonly perceived to be Bengaluru ─ The glittering cityscape of the IT companies, the orderly lives of the middle class, the joggers, the parks, the hi-rises and the international brands─. For I was certain that somewhere within Bangalore was another city that would be mine, as London had been for Dickens. In fact, as the narrator of Dickens Master Humphrey’s Clock suggests, I too would have to ‘draw but a little circle above the clustering housetops, …have within its space everything, with its opposite extreme and contradiction close by.’
One evening as I drove through Shivaji Nagar, I had a moment of epiphany. For twenty years, I have driven through its narrow roads strewn with shops that dealt in everything from nuts and bolts to automobile spare parts to old newspapers to meat, vegetables, fruit and flowers to clothes and shoes… My eyes had paused at the doorways here and there on the streets. No one would realize what lay behind the doors. That the narrow corridor flared into a small square courtyard and around it was a warren of two room tenements. Clotheslines would be strung in the courtyard and on a corner would be a couple of brick stoves, so each household could make its own hot water to take to the two bathrooms that was all there was for everyone who lived there. When it rained, the road turned into a stream of fast flowing dirty brown water in which garbage floated. To open the main door of the house was dangerous then. There was no knowing what would float in. An old tyre or a single chappal or a dead bandicoot.
I had trawled the streets of Sivaji Nagar with more the curious eye of a tourist rather than the calculated gaze of a writer. But that particular evening, I knew a sense of preordination. Was it the whiff of meat cooking or the sight of a raggedy group of children nibbling at cotton candy or was it the dying sun reflected in a window pane? I thought then of Dickens writing of his London. ‘The amount of crime, starvation and nakedness or misery of every sort in the metropolis surpasses all understanding.’
Over the next few months as I made countless forays into this Dickensian world within modern metropolitan Bangalore, I glimpsed it again and again: How late in the night the Shivaji Nagar bus stand area was still simmering with activity. Of a certain excitement that resonated through the alleys and lanes. Even the vendors had their carts edged along the roads. The smell of meat cooking on charcoal mingled with the aroma of samosas being fried in giant vats of hissing oil. Chopped onions and coriander leaves, pakodas and jalebis, strings of marigold and jasmine buds, rotting garbage and cow dung. The high notes of attar. The animal scent of sweat and unwashed bodies.
Men of all sizes and shapes trawled the alleys. Some seeking a hot kebab to sink their teeth into; some seeking a laugh, a suleimani in a glass and a smoke. There were men looking for a fuck and men looking to be fucked. Men returning home from work. Policemen on the beat. Autorickshaw drivers and labourers. Whores. Eunuchs. Urchins. Beggars. Tourists. Regulars.
A composite cloud of a thousand fragrances and needs in that shadowed underbelly of the city.
So when I chose to locate my novel in this world, I was only seeking to replicate what Dickens may have sought to write if he were alive and writing of Bangalore. An inner city that to most people didn’t even exist. ‘A black shrill city… a gritty city…a hopeless city, with no vent in the leaden canopy of its sky.’
The inner lives of characters needn’t always be located in their monologues. When everyday is a struggle to survive, when to claim a shred of humanity from bestial surroundings demand more than you can give, what place then for angst or soul-searching? Sometimes the very world they inhabit has the unique ability to postulate their inner self.
Humanity, shorn of high art and culture, stripped of its veneer of education and polish, is redefined here ‘amidst this compound of sickening smells, these heaps of filth, these tumbling houses, with all their vile contents, animate and inanimate, slimly overflowing into the black road,’ Of what it is to be human – complex, vulnerable, resonating with goodness and evil – is most evident where human life has little or no value.
Dickens recognizedthis perhaps more than any other writer ever did.
Anita Nair is the author of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe and Mistress. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages around the world. Her new novel is Lessons in Forgetting.