zaterdag 9 november 2013

Mumbai books: Bollywood, gurus and gangsters

I missed a day :( Let's pretend it's still Friday! So, since we all have two empty days facing us (no work! what on earth will we do with ourselves?) I very kindly decided to help you out and recommend three really thick books that only get better if you read all three of them in one gigantic go. (No pressure, as we like to say in the Netherlands.)

All three of the books are set in Mumbai, deal with gangsters and are utterly absorbing tall tales in that gray area where fantasy and truth mingle.

There is a set order in which you should read them:

First:
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts - the fictionalised life story of an idealistic outcast Australian who ended living in a Bombay slum and working for crime lords (actually, you only need to read the first half, the second is slightly boring and outdated, set among heroic Taliban mujaheddeen, back when they were supported by the US).

Second:
Maximum City by Suketu Mehta - the non-fiction narrative of two years among movie stars and gangsters by an self-exiled Mumbaiker journalist from New York.

Third:
Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra - a novel told backwards about the stand off between a Mumbai police man and the city's no 1 gangster. I know this doesn't sound thrilling. It is however the best book I have ever read (yes, dear friends, this means The Wasp Factory has finally been trumped.)

All three of these books are brilliant in their own way: Shantaram is the tallest of tall tales, and if you want to meet its author, you can by hanging out at Leopold's in Mumbai (S. did). The former activist-addict-criminal is now married to a princess.

Maximum City is a brilliant journalistic effort, taking you into places you'd never dare to go and coming back unscathed, but with an unbelievable wealth of information. This is what made me want to become a journalist. If you read the books in this sequence, you'll also catch yourself recognizing certain gangsters: the world Suketu Mehta describes is the one that Shantaram lived in. It throws new light on the tall tales - they turn out to be quite life size.

Sacred Games then is a proper novel (of the brilliant variety). But here comes the twist: Suketu Mehta and Vikram Chandra wrote a movie together which Chandra's brother-in-law directed, which Suketu Mehta describes in detail in his book (leading to a bit of a kerfuffle). All the while both of them were researching the Mumbai gangster scene - where Maximum City gets down to the nitty-gritty, Sacred Games shows the truth behind the reality.

If, however, you don't have two empty days in which to devour several thousand pages of text, however enhancing to your inner life those may be, I would recommend getting Vikram Chandra's short story collection Love and longing in Bombay. There are five stories, one of which features policeman Sartaj Singh, who later becomes the main character in Sacred Games.

S. however disagrees: "If you go to Mumbai, you should read Shantaram."

"I've already said that, can you pick another book?"

"No. There are no other books."

NaBloPoMo November 2013

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