Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s first novel, ‘The Last Song of Dusk’, was an engrossing tale which managed to toe the fine line between graceful prose and compelling story and come out a winner. What a pity that his second one, despite some beautiful ruminations on love and life, fails to live up to the very high standards he set with his debut novel.
This one also has a beautiful and meaningful title though. The flamingoes which migrate in their thousands every year to the mudflats of Sewri is the metaphor used for a city which has an alluring and irresistible pull for those who have spent time there. This can be construed as the usual clichéd posturing on Mumbai (or Bombay, as he prefers to call it here) but there is no denying that there is some truth to this. Even with all the chaos and filth it can throw in your path, Bombay pulls you in just as it attracts the flamingoes every year from another part of the world.
The story mainly revolves around Karan Seth, a bright young photographer with unusual talent who while in the line of work for his magazine gets acquainted with Samar, a one-time prodigy piano virtuoso who now lives in guided seclusion with his boyfriend. Samar’s best friend is Zaira, a reigning queen of the silver screen and Karan becomes fast friends with her and they open their hearts to each other in an intense but platonic friendship. It is Zaira, enthralled by Karan’s talents, who sends Karan off to the famed Chor Bazaar in search of the almost mythical Bombay Fornicator. While searching for this artefact, Karan comes in touch with and is helped by the fourth main character in this ensemble, Rhea. Rhea is an older married woman who gave up her dreams of glory in pottery to marry her long time sweetheart, Aditya. Aditya and Rhea were and still are deeply in love, but long festering disillusionment and her own regret at giving up her art pushes Rhea into an awkward affair with Karan. Karan, for his part, falls deeply in love with her.
It is into this slightly uncomfortable mix that tragedy strikes, both for the characters and probably for the reader too. The book loses its way in describing a murder and its aftermath by modeling it on a very famous real life murder and subsequent case of the time. Except everything gets magnified, almost caricaturized to an extent that it becomes a little tough to ascertain credibility to the events on page. The villain who shows up, Minister Prasad, reminds one of those supervillains from the numerous forgettable potboiler Hindi movie productions with his excesses and lack of discernible conscience. A bit of bestiality is even thrown into his mix. The socialites too are shown unrealistically shallow and almost idiotic. In its aftermath, Karan’s and Rhea’s equation goes for the proverbial toss and a battered and bruised Karan conveniently finds an outlet to escape to in no time to London.
However, just like the flamingoes of Sewri, Karan feels the pull back to Bombay and eventually decides to go back to pick up the broken pieces of the past. The culmination of the novel plays out back in Bombay, as Karan reconnects with his former friends and lover as they grapple with the loss of life and love.
It cannot be denied that there are some beautiful ruminations on the state of love, loneliness and the relation of these emotions to a city of teeming multitudes like Bombay, some very quote-worthy. However, problems beset the narrative. At certain points it reads as the perfect poster child of the kind of liberal propaganda which the right wing and conservatives love to mock nowadays as hugely partisan to one set of folks and grossly against another, here embodied as the Hindu Peoples Party and Minister Prasad. The case which closely resembles s famous murder of the time is much better represented in a real life movie of the incident and there doesn’t seem to be really a point of including such a narrative here despite it splitting the book’s character dilemmas. Another issue is some of the characters, especially Karan, who is supposed to be the main protagonist. The character never really imposes on our psyche, and while great things are mentioned about his talent and his appearance by the other characters in the book, it never really hits us. Zaira and Samar probably would have made a much better beating heart for the book, but their stories are cut short in a way. And Rhea is plain unlikeable most of the time, a person who makes choices without much empathy for those who made her an important part of her life, though towards the end her story does take a sympathetic arc.
It appears that Shanghvi hasn’t written another novel after this one, which is a pity. His first book, as I’ve mentioned earlier, was a revelation and even this one had its moments of beauty which made it seem that it was just a misfire from someone who probably can still write great stories.