Nominated for the prestigious Hindu Literary Prize 2013, Vanity Bagh is taking Anees Salim up that ladder, which his writing highly deserves. This review of Vanity Bagh was included in the October 2013 issue of the Hindu Literary Review.
“Inside every big Indian city, there is a tiny Pakistan”.
‘Vanity Bagh’, is the story of Little Pakistan, a mohalla, that one can place anywhere on the map of India. As also Mehendi, a Hindu majority neighbourhood which offers foil and balance to Vanity Bagh.
The title, Vanity Bagh, has exquisite connotations. It opens the ‘vanity bag’ of such lives that the urban ‘us’ never thinks about; it speaks of the ‘mango’ people we hear about but never know, it explores the vanities of some big, small people in a dimension of literary exploration.
Imran Jabbari is the son of the local Imam, and like everyone else in the mohalla, named after the successful, rich and famous of Pakistan. Imran is therefore the namesake of Imran Khan the cricketer, not the politician. There’s also Wasim, Javed, Benazir, Zia, Zulfikkar, Navas Sharif and Yahya, among a colourful array of characters. We see the mohulla through Imran’s solitary musings from jail.
And what do people in mohullas do? They live an eventful life certainly; with bomb blasts, dons and riots weaving in and out of their day. They also go to school, marry and make kids. They sometimes form gangs like the ‘five and a half men’, as Imran and his pals did, aspire to be a Don, get into serious trouble doing ostensible small gang-stuff, and get sixteen year jail sentences, like Imran Jabbari.
Imran’s world is a microcosm of the reality that’s small town India. The religious skirmishes, the joys, the sorrows, the politics, the underworld, the Indo-Pak cricket matches and their outcomes; yet, an agreeable life, or so we feel. Imran misses his mohulla so much that when he meets someone from his place, the first thing he does is ‘sniff like he had a cold’; but in reality ‘I am just trying to be like a dog, to take in the smell of the mohulla’.
Imran Jabbari’s soliloquies grow on you, and you start loving Vanity Bagh the way he does. The author uses the right tenor of resignation and optimism to make this possible, even about life in jail. The other characters in the book come to us at times in the form of quotes interspersed within text, in innovative craft.
Vanity Bagh’s intricate sketches and tongue-in-cheek references to people and places are a reader’s delight. Here are my favourites.
‘And the mohalla-wallahs are so obsessed with spinning yarns and naming things that they haven’t spared even a tree that stands bang opposite the mosque. They call it Franklin, as if it were born to Christian parents and even goes to St. Thomas Basilica on Sundays along with the Pintos who run a garage a few blocks from the tree.’
‘There were four candles in front of the picture. Two were very tall, the third one only half the size of the other two, and the fourth a mere stub, dissolving into a pool of wax. When the wind from an oscillating fan passed the candles, the flame leaned forward like a family bending its heads in prayer. A family of four, just like ours.’
Vanity Bagh offers satire and black humour and although not a laugh riot, the book talks in a deceptively light manner about mohulla life, so lightly that one is lulled into thinking this a ‘slice of life’ tale, which it is not. The author goes on to weave a tale of friendship, family, neighbours, hope, and much more. The voice of the book, which is the best thing about it, preserves the timbre of detached narration.
The pace lags initially, the first quarter of the book makes for near-heavy, literary, reading; the reader actually starts making confident assumptions of where this tale would go; but then, the surprises come in, and the book becomes hard to put down.
Vanity Bagh is good reading.
Here is my interview of Anees Salim which I did for the Metro Plus page for the Hindu Kerala edition of 15 November 2012.