Book Reviews

Review Published in BIBLIO

A Long Short Story

Navtej Sarna

Reaching Bombay Central. By Shama Futehally, Viking, 2002; Pp 154; Rs. 225.

Shama Futehally’s Reaching Bombay Central is all about small favours, the innocent sounding inevitable little requests that are inserted into so many phone conversations, slipped in between solicitous enquiries about the welfare of the children and exhortations to do lunch sometime, the requests that usually begin with “By the way, could you do me one…..”. It’s a nice peg to pitch a story upon, cutting as it does straight into a major Delhi preoccupation, the give and take of the everyday life of a civil servant. And per se, there is nothing wrong with the asking and doing of small favours, as long as they are, as the civil servants would put it, “within rules and regulations.” In fact, sometimes one may be forgiven for thinking that these small favours form a network of IOUs that is sometimes stronger than the steel framework itself. But when a the bond of a common religion becomes, for all apparent purposes, the reason for the granting of one such small favour, as in this neat little novel, the game loses its innocence. A senior Government servant, Aarif Jamal is called upon to do a small favour to a man called Hamid and after much tossing and turning, grants him a license. Its not as if Hamid himself has asked for a favour; in that case it probably would not have been granted. It is asked by a man named Shiv Prasad Nath and in so doing, he is underlining in Aarif’s sensitive perception that is all too aware of belonging to a minority, the unity of the whole, the essential integration of society. Hamid proceeds to misuse the license and a bureaucrat’s nightmare opens up in the life of the honest and correct Aarif. In a political incensed atmosphere, the officer is soon facing the precipice of a departmental enquiry that can lead to his suspension. Somewhat naively, his hopes turn to his wife’s uncle, a senior police officer. Perhaps he could make sure that the enquiry is fair and above board. So the wife, Ayesha, begins the train journey to Bombay Central.

The purpose of the journey is never convincing. Surely it would have been easier to use the telephone. It would have saved Ayesha the rather weak surprise that she gets during the journey when she discovers from a snippet in the newspaper that her uncle has indeed retired from service. Be that as it may, the journey provides Futehally a framework in which to unfold her tale. And that she does deftly and competently, enmeshing the events of the past few days with the conversations in the train compartment, lacing her pain and anguish with the colours and smells that rush past her train window.

The story seems to follow the pace of the train, trickling out slowly as the train clears the filth and slum that surrounds the station and coming out in more meaningful bursts as the train rushes through the wide open spaces. The stage in the compartment is set out very deliberately, perhaps a trite too deliberately. The fellow passengers are meant to provide a cross- section of our society today, or at least a part of it. There is a ponderous politician who believes he should have been given an air-conditioned berth, a retired high court judge wearing a bundi, a young journalist going to Mumbai to investigate the riots, several months after they happened and a young tenacious woman going to join a bank. Ayesha finds herself among this set, listening to their conversations, eating the predictable train lunches, “rapidly, secretively and without comment,” with them while nursing her private pain.

Futehally evokes well the camaraderie of the compartment. As this feeling develops, Ayesha feels she can let go. “And now she could cry at the memory as she was never able to cry at home. The tears winked and splashed, a moving wall of Cellophane around her……There was no need to hide. There was even a strange kind of peace in being able to sob away in this strange little home, among the green leather seats that had become so familiar. Because those around her were not clinging children or disapproving in-laws or over-anxious relatives. They were only friends, and they would leave her along to cry in peace.”

Shama Futehally demonstrates a keen observation and catches neatly the flicker of an eyelash, the pause in a sentence, the slightest glance that can add immense meaning to an otherwise innocent situation. She catches how the young journalist hides a cigarette behind his back when he sees Ayesha, “with the half nervous, half courteous gesture which she associated with drivers and peons, and not with confident yuppies.” In some ways, this is the observation of the short story writer who tries to load the maximum meaning into a very brief space. Fatehally also has the restraint of a short story writer and one misses the sweep of the novelist. The characters are drawn with thin lines, smudged into their own shadows. One can imagine them, rather than see them. Even the main characters, Ayesha and her husband are developed just enough so as to serve the purpose of the immediate storyline. There are few other details, details that may sound extraneous to the short story writer but those which give a novel its depth and context, just as a few wild roses can embellish beyond recognition a well-maintained hedge. The writing too is straightforward and plain and the book would certainly have gained with more invigorating and vibrant language. Only once in a while does Shama Futehally let herself go: “Snails meant dark afternoons spent by the window while the rain hurtled down, while trees roared and crashed, and the sky was cleaved by whips of fire. You watched from the window and felt a delicious fear which was not fear at all. Later on she had loved to share these moments with her children, these moments of fear which really meant that you were safe. From now on all fear would be real fear.” One wishes she would have done this more often and turned this book which reads like a rather long short story into a more fleshed out novel.