Monday, August 22, 2005

Deccan Herald, Bangalore
September 2005.
Link here.

The journey of life, literally

Review by Prerana Trehan

The sharp contrasts between the glamour of advertising and the grime of local trains bring into focus the character of a city that doesn’t care.

An angst-ridden protagonist fighting a multitude of demons, both personal and professional, in an unforgiving metropolis can’t make a pretty picture. Well, he doesn’t. At least not in Jaideep Varma’s Local. And yet there is something oddly compelling about 28-year-old Akash Bhasin, an advertising executive in a top Mumbai agency who, in an attempt to put his past– which culminates in the break-up of his marriage– behind him, opts "to surrender completely to the rocking homelessness" of a life lived on a local train.

In less esoteric terms that means he dumps his luggage at a friend’s place, goes to office like your average executive-next-door in the mornings and spends his nights sitting in a Mumbai local, travelling back and forth between stations.

Not exactly anyone’s idea of a comfortable life but then Akash is not looking for comfort but to "still the movement within". Something that the constant movement without achieves.

What begins as the story of Akash’s attempt to as he says, "get out of familiar surroundings and start afresh, surrounded by strangers who carried no baggage about me", morphs gradually into the story of the city in which he lives, or, more accurately, struggles to survive. Nor is the struggle his alone, but is the story of each inhabitant of the city.

Travelling on locals gives Akash a first-hand insight into the most physical of these struggles– commuters striving to get into and out of trains every day with the near-desperation that also marks their efforts to survive in a city that simply doesn’t care.

A city where a suicide on a railway line is nothing more than an "inconvenience" for the passengers in a hurry to reach their destination. And the train that moves soon after the suicide, is an apt metaphor for a city that doesn’t stop, no matter what.

Juxtaposed against this callousness of the city is the unexpected and entirely unforced humanism that holds it together. In a telling moment, Akash observes: "Everyone standing on this train was propped up by his fellow travellers, involuntarily. In a sense, that seemed to be the story of this city."

The plot is as thin as Kate Moss, but then telling a good story was, perhaps, not on Varma’s agenda anyway. He has, instead, strung together vignettes of ordinary lives in Mumbai.

What emerges is less a story and more a portrait of a city grappling with alienation, loneliness, dysfunctional relationships, successes and failures. With its tireless and often maddening, attention to detail, Local is certainly not a rivetting page-turner. But what it lacks in seductive charms, it more than makes up for with its strikingly accurate insights into human behaviour and situations as it meanders slowly through the lives of a medley of characters.

Alternating between first and third person narratives, the novel moves in a non-linear time frame and devotes entire chapters on peripheral characters. The premise of the story– rich in possibilities– does seem to get bogged down in minutiae and repetition as the novel moves towards its denouement.

However, the witty and confident style scores over substance and holds interest. Ultimately, the book is easy to read, its neurosis easy to relate to.


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