Monday 13 June 2016

The coolness of Jhumri Talaiya

Places are made cool because of the literature and movies around them.

What goes through your mind when you heard about New York? A busy, bustling place, where amazing things happen, where Times Square is, where a million crime stories, a zillion human interest stories, and all sorts of news are to be found. Where Godzilla attacked.

What about Paris? A city of love, romance and chance encounters. Abhishek Bachchan and Preity Zinta dancing in front of the Eiffel tower. Where Writers go to write in peace.

San Francisco? Where Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage protected the world from a crazed madman on Alcatraz. Where Hitchcock movies come to life.

The English countryside? The madwoman in the attic. Bucolic triads of men in boats. The famous five chasing smugglers. Amitabh Bachchan landing in a helicopter to the tune of “Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham”.

Let’s not even start about Switzerland and Yash Chopra.

All right, all of you who actually live in these places or have visited, stop reading and move on. Nothing for you here. Or maybe there is.

How much of the romance of a place, or of a country, comes from the literature around it? There’s no way you have experienced everything that a city can offer. Your social stratum and your profession severely limits you in any case. And you are unlikely to know about the workings of crime syndicates in any of these places.

But, somehow New York is exciting. It has an edge of mystery. Paris is romantic. The more you’ve heard or read about a place, the stronger your emotions around it.

If you’re addicted to thriller or crime novels, you’ll know that many writers use the city as a background and a “supporting artist” in the plots of their novels. And because the English speaking world is dominated by writers based in the USA and Europe, the majority of thrillers we read are set in New York, Rome, London, Switzerland, Paris,... Over the years, the sense of thrill and excitement that these books impart has rubbed off on the cities themselves. A not-so-prosperous area in New York, say, Harlem (I don’t know if that is still the case, I’m going by the books), still feels glamorous. The spray-painted logos on the walls, the mental images of tin cans kicked by gangs, their metallic clang echoing through streets emptied in the midnight hours,... wow, you can just see that something thrilling is about to happen.

But our mental images of Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata? They’re made up from Bollywood movies and “serious” literary fiction. So we’re either imagining Shah Rukh Khan dancing, or else dysfunctional families in isolated bungalows. Yes, there are a few thrillers that evoke the place. Satya, maybe. Or Sacred Games. But these are drowned out by the social-milieu stuff.

It sometimes doesn’t take much to impart that aura to a place. Chetan Bhagat probably did more for the “studious intellectual hangout” image for IITs than generations of actual passouts, through his books. And Ruskin Bond’s work will always make Mussoorie and Landour the place where nostalgic Anglo-Indians remember summer holidays in colonial bungalows.

But that’s not enough. Not if we want to feel “good” about our cities and locales, as readers of Indian fiction. For that matter, someone like Surender Mohan Pathak has done more to make desi locations glamourous than any IWE writer.

More thrillers set in India! More characters from the desi dregs of society! More subversive plots in the alleys of small-town India!

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