Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra book review

By Emma Brooks

So far I have only read one Indian novel, The White Tiger, which I quite enjoyed. I’ve obviously been aware of the world of Indian literature for a while, my mother and grandmother both being fans, but I had never really been tempted by the novels. Now, as an array of them sit on my bookshelf I’ve finally taken the plunge and am quite enjoying it. So, my latest read is Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra.

About the author:

Vikram Chandra is an Indian writer, currently living in the US where he also undertook most of his higher education. His first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best Book and the David Higham Prize for Fiction. Love and Longing in Bombay, published in 1997, also won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize.

About the book:

It has only just been brought to my attention, whilst researching Chandra’s biography, that the book Love and Longing in Bombay is actually a collection of short stories and not a novel in itself. You would think I might have noticed this sooner and in a sense I did, though I chose to interpret it instead as a series of interweaving characters, disconnected yet connected in certain ways. In a sense, I had imagined Chandra’s book to be a little like Jonathan Coe’s, in which each chapter tells the story of a different character and yet they are all interconnected. If you choose to interpret the book like this, it might even add something to your reading.

The book contains several short stories about various different characters, all based in India. It starts with the tale of an old solider, who comes home to his parent’s house to find that it is haunted. He is not sure exactly what is happening in his house, but it is already well known by the surrounding neighbours to be haunted and they steer clear of it out of fear. His companion and servant is afraid to follow him into the house, but eventually, though they are in a way “victims” of the haunting, it becomes apparent whose spirit is still in the house, and the soldier does what is necessary so that the ghost can rest in peace.

We then follow a woman who is part of the higher echelons of society, and her battle to stay at the very top at all times. She is determined not to let herself be got down by the games played by the other women surrounding her, and through her cunning manages to become the most important woman of the high society.

We later follow another character who is a policeman, as he goes through a sort of miniature detective novel or crime scene investigation type story. He has discovered a crime and is not satisfied by the original explanation given, and so he takes it upon himself to go hunting around for the answer. It puts him in danger as his actions are frowned upon by his superiors, and also takes him along some unknown paths and leads him to make some interesting discoveries, and not just about how the victim came to die.

Finally, we reach Subramaniam, a character who is at the beginning and the end of the book. At the end of the book he tells us two stories, and we are not quite sure whether he witnessed them or whether he is once again making them up and recounting them to us as readers. He tells us about a story of love, with a man who works at a train station and falls helplessly in love with a woman he sees passing by. She is a frequent passenger and her repeated visits to the train station serve only to intrigue him and increase his obsession with her.

All in all it’s a very interesting collection of short stories, that take us across India and allow us to travel through the country. Not only do we visit different locations, but through the very different characters we manage to get some insight into various different types of culture and society existing in India. We get to discover the rich woman at the very top of society, just as we see into the life of her servant, who is at quite the opposite scale of society. Through the policeman we see what it’s like to be a civil servant, in a job that is corrupt and how the authorities deal with crime…

It offers a very interesting perspective and an enthralling collection of short stories. If you are discovering Indian literature or are already experienced in it, I highly recommend it.

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