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Mumbai in 49 stories

Rickshaw drivers. Train bomb blast survivors. Idyllic singers. Flat seekers from the wrong community. Each story in Devashish Makhija's compilation speaks of a Mumbai or Bombay that we have encountered, experienced, smelt or tasted, for better or worse, at some point in our lives

Q. Why 49 stories? Was there another story behind the number as well?
A. As much as I would like to say 'yes', the answer is 'no' (laughs). I just kept writing all these years and when I collated my stories there were 49 of them that seemed like they belonged in a collection. I tried very hard to come up with some sort of reason for this number because it is an odd and large number of stories for one book. But try as I might, I couldn't. Since nothing about this book is forced I decided to let this be. It is 49 because it is 49. Quite like the answer to life, the universe and everything is 42. There is no deeper reason. Sometimes, that's the most profound of reasons, no?

Gateway of India
A young child does a somersault into the waters of the Arabian Sea at the iconic Gateway of India. Pic/AFP

Q. Who or what triggered off this writing adventure that began six years ago?
A. A spate of shelved films. I came to Bombay to make films (like every other chap who comes here). I had a rough spell exactly six years ago when my YashRaj animation film (which I was writing and directing), then many films that I wrote, including Anurag's Doga, Abhik Mukherjee's Bhoomi, MF Hussain's biopic and about ten other films just kept getting shelved one after the other. But my spring well of stories wasn't drying up. It was a rough call to make, what to do with all these stories that keep coming to me. Because converting each one into a film that doesn't get made is a recipe for suicide! So I started writing a lot of them as short stories, of varying lengths, just so I could give birth to them and get them out of my system. Because to allow them to stay inside, unborn, is a certified cause for incurable insomnia. Every time I wrote out one story I slept like a baby that night. So, to cut a long story short (figuratively!) this writing adventure was triggered off by a desperate desire to sleep!

Juhu beach
A balloon seller at Juhu beach. Forgetting looks at Mumbai's many hues and shades, and the people who create those. Pic/AFP

Q. Your characters, be it Nandu, Rahim or Manda are earthy, believable. You can almost imagine having met them at some point in the city. Tell us about that journey of sifting out the most engaging ones for this book.
A. As a film writer, I believe that 'characters' matter more than 'stories'. I've tested this on people. Ask anyone who has seen The Godfather (and liked it) - to tell you the 'story' of the film. I guarantee they'll take a few minutes to be able to recount the story, and even then they won't get it absolutely right. But ask them to tell you about the character(s) they liked in the film and they can go on and on about what they liked about him/her and about that particular scene where the character did/said something memorable. You can try this with Sholay or with 100 Years of Solitude and the results will be the same. We return to stories not for the stories, but for the characters, and how they resonate with us. The story ceases to surprise after the first watch/reading. There's no fun in familiarity in a story. But with a character the fun IS in the familiarity. It is in knowing Marlon Brando's character will do this in this scene and you're waiting for it to come because you want to see him do it again. You want to see Amitabh Bachchan as Jai toss that double-headed coin. And so, I spend a lot of my writing time (perhaps 75% of it) creating characters and then allow them to change/shape/lead the story. Perhaps why Nandu, Manda, Rahim and co. seems real and relatable - because I haven't created their trajectories. They have. I've merely created them

Devashish Makhija
Devashish Makhija

Q. Most of your stories have a tinge of sadness, and yet the human spirit wins the day, somehow. Did you realise this at any point of working on this book?
A. It's probably my film writing creeping in again, subconsciously. In cinema (especially the mainstream) no matter how sad/dark the story there needs to be some spark of 'life affirmation' for people to want to spend money and come watch the film. Ok, this isn't something I believe, no. This is something producers tend to believe and then make you work that into the resolution/culmination of your stories. Somewhere then perhaps although most of my stories are about the real tribulations of normal people (and those are always sad and hard and heartbreaking) I tend to seek a small glimmer of hope through the hopelessness to make the story worthwhile of a revisit someday for the reader/audience.
Although, to be fair to me, all stories aren't that way. I wrote short stories so I wouldn't have to pander to a producer's prerogative in the matter. By/Two, Butterflies on strings, Solving crosswords; in fact, half the stories in the book are true to the sadness of their characters. None of our lives are bereft of sadness, so why should our realistic stories be? They are real because they are sad. And I believe in moving ahead in life along with my sadness, not despite it. My sadness - as much as my happiness - shapes me. As it does all of us.

Q. And finally, what is more difficult to forget: the living or the dead?
A. The dead are gone. And I believe (very strongly) that human beings are capable machines. We can move on from anything / adapt to anything very fast. When we lose someone (to death) we want to hold on to the memory of the person etc but despite that life has a way of making us move on very quickly and very surely.
We can't miss the dead for too long, especially in this modern world, which is splitting at the seams with distractions of all kinds. So, I'd say, it's much harder to forget the living. You know you can reach out to them, more so today than ever before. You can stalk them on Facebook, for god's sake! How hard it must be then to forget the living? The world we've made for ourselves just won't allow us to do that. But the dead, the world we're made for ourselves just won't allow us to remember them for long enough.
Although, this is a pattern I'm trying hard to rebel against, personally. So far, I've not been too successful.

Book extracts

By/Two (Pages 16-18)
Rahim followed Ramdulari down the street, braking to a halt every few seconds to clean his slate and scribble a new request on it with chalk, before revving up again, gliding alongside her and holding the slate up in front of her face, begging her to get inside, saying he’d drive her around for free tonight. She ignored him completely, a knot forming in her chest, her face flushed. But Rahim kept at it. He kept at it till he ran out of chalk. And then he hit the brakes, wiped his slate clean, and sat still, watching her disappear down the street, his hands starting to ache as the flat rectangular piece of night they held grew heavy with the weight of its own wordlessness.

Forgetting, Devashish Makhija, HarperCollins India. Rs 399. Available at leading bookstores and e-stores
Forgetting, Devashish Makhija, HarperCollins India. Rs 399. Available at leading bookstores and e-stores

After that night, every night, for nearly a month, Ramdulari kept her distance. Rahim would catch glimpses of her in other rickshaws, as he ferried drunk young boys, watchful dupatta-covered women and zombie-like call centre employees back and forth. When his shift ended, tired and irritable, he’d make do with the fast fading memory of that meagre morning. The one in which Ramdulari had stepped out of the circular margin of the rear view mirror and invited him into the back seat.

It had been the night after his first reappearance, and customers — scared by the terror unleashed on Mumbai’s streets — were nowhere to be found. Strapped for cash and feeling unwanted, Ramdulari had suggested she pay Rahim in kind. Rahim had never dared to insinuate that to her. He was both thrilled and terrified at the invitation. He hadn’t touched a woman before, and he shyly indicated that to her. She had simply nodded. He had parked Langdi right in the centre of an abandoned field amidst a far off cluster of cottages in Aaraamnagar. The risqué move had made Ramdulari hot.

As the moon slipped out of the sky, he had slipped into her. But he had finished even before the cock had crowed. She had sighed ‘premachoor’, and patted him on the head. He didn’t know what it meant, but knew it didn’t bode well for his future with her. And he was right.

He often hoped she’d make that offer again, give him another chance to prove he could gratify her. But she never did, pretending instead as if that morning had never existed. She had however started talking more, telling Rahim about her life, and why she thought ‘tension-releasers’ like herself were so important in Mumbai’s scheme of things. He didn’t care much to listen, but listened well, in the hope that one night she might feel some love and send it his way.

‘If it wasn’t for us,’ she used to say, 'there'd be many more old women with knives in their bellies and young girls lying raped in alleys. We Ramdularis help release the beasts you men keep locked up inside you.’ With that she’d light her only cigarette of the night, lean out of the auto, and leave a trail of smoke like a sad, small cirrus cloud. Extracted with permission from HarperCollins India and the author of Forgetting.

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