“ Genre: Fiction „
The blurb ‘Sharp, funny and fast’ by Salman Rushdie, the remark ‘Shortlisted for the 1997 Whitbread Prize for First Novel and Winner of the Betty Trask award’ and a photo on the cover showing several dark-skinned boys in swimming-trunks jumping from a bank into the water, slightly out of focus thus conveying the impression of speed, and the sticker ‘4 for 3 at Waterstone’s’ made me buy the book. It’s clear that no novel by an Anglo-Indian author can appear without Salman Rushdie being asked to utter a blurb-able comment; it’s tempting to compare a novel by an Anglo-Indian author, especially when it’s set in Bombay, to the ones by the grand signeur of that field as does Leo Colston (Time Out) ‘...it is a pleasure to return to the Bombay of Midnight Children’, but it’s unfair and nonsensical and we won’t do it but consider this first novel by Ardashir Vakil in its own right. Penguin informs us that the author was born in Bombay in 1962 (he now lives in London with his family and teaches English at Pimlico Comprehensive School) so that we might assume the author has described his own childhood, but as we dooyoo litcrits know the quality of the book isn’t affected if he does or if he doesn’t, so we won’t go into that. The protagonist is Cyrus Readymoney (what a strange name for an Indian boy!), son of a well-to-do, well-educated family of Iranian descent living in Juhu, a suburb of Bombay by the sea (hence the title). Cyrus enjoys a carefree childhood, carefree meaning here ‘free of care’, i.e., nobody really cares for him. His father is a globetrotting, unpredictable businessman who’s seldom at home, his mother follows her own career in Bombay. They are liberal and unconventional parents and should be the dream of every child, but Cyrus yearns for a bit of guidance and discipline. He’s rarely at home with h
is brothers and sisters, he lives more in his friends’ families; he finds his ersatz father in Mr Krishnan, a sales executive. ‘His life is resolutely simple. I always know what is happening at the Krishnan household’. On weekends, he gets up before dawn to run with Mr Krishnan and his three sons on the beach and follows his strict orders willingly. When it comes to eating, Cyrus is very inventive, he visits his friends’ houses in a certain order so that he can eat several meals, one after the other. They belong to different Indian peoples (or does one say ‘nations’?) and he enjoys their respective cuisines. At a rough guess I’d say that more than a quarter of the novel is dedicated to food. One critic asks ‘Is he (Cyrus) satisfying a hunger beyond food?’, but doesn’t answer the question, maybe he’s got the feeling that a positive answer would stretch the interpretation too far. As there are hardly any Indian restaurants in Germany, it’s mainly food name dropping for me, but don’t think you’re better prepared if you know the menu of your local curry takeaway by heart! You’ll learn about mouth-watering delights you’ve never even heard of, you’ll feel that you’ve got to try them at once, i.e., devour them gluttonously like Cyrus! Have you ever had philosophical thoughts when eating? Cyrus, “I often wondered whether a certain sadness might not accompany the eating. To be appreciated, unlike a book, a film or a painting, food has to be destroyed, consumed, transformed into waste.’ Another theme is the awakening sexuality of a prepubescent boy. Cyrus discovers his own body (learning by doing) and some secrets of the female one (observation and deduction). Then there’s the theme of how to cope with grief. The boy’s parents have marital problems and a close relative dies. The novel hasn
8217;t got a real plot so there’s no danger of giving too much away. When an author decides on not having a real plot they are faced with the problem of how to end a book, well, Mr Vakil just ends it, why so when he does, isn’t quite conclusive. The novel is told from Cyrus’ point of view. Of course we know that the author slips into that role, he does it well, the story is told convincingly, things and events are just described, not interpreted, the child observes, but often does not understand. The author makes one mistake, though, I can’t understand that the people at the publishing house haven’t pointed it out to him. Cyrus writes a diary some longer excerpts of which are quoted. A 10-year-old boy who can write like that can do his A-levels at once! It’s not only the style, it’s also the contents which baffles me. Listen to this, ‘I want to be older than I am. I have read Kafka’s Diaries, edited by Max Brod, the first fifteen pages at least. I have read Keat’s poems...My cousin has told me about Freud and Spinoza.’ and so on and so forth. Our beginners of English are 10 years old, so I know that age group quite well. Either Indian boys are intellectually precocious or German boys are intellectually challenged. I’d accept Micky Mouse and Donald Duck or Asterix and Obelix, but Freud and Spinoza?!? There’s something else I have to grumble about. Back to Salman Rushdie who intersperses his novels with lots of Indian words, from which language I can’t say. Some are explained in the appendix, some are not. If you feel that he exaggerates wait for Ardashir Vakil! He has three different methods: firstly he uses Indian expressions (here, too, I can’t say from which language) followed by English translations. ‘...the airy puffed rice, mamra, the crispy yellow vermicelli, sev, and the tiny brown biscuits, puris.’ Nothing to b
e said against that. Secondly, he uses Indian words in an English sentence as if they were English words. ‘Hey, Cyrus, chul yaar, the bhaiya will have come. Let’s run and get some bhel.’ Strange! Thirdly, he just uses Indian sentences. ‘‘Arre, butha, wo makhan kahan rakha hai tune.’ The old man grimaces.’ So do I! It’s obvious that the author wants to create local colour, but what he does turns into an on-my-nerves-getting mannerism. So, what is my overall verdict of ‘Beach Boy’? If your name is Emilio and you’re a dooyoo member living in Bombay or if your name is beoram and you’ve studied Hindi and love Bollywood films like Cyrus or if you’re just into Indian cuisine than this novel is a MUST (maybe someone could review it for Food & Drink as well?), if you’re not, it’s a CAN. The novel is an easy and enjoyable read, but certainly not what Eileen Battersby wrote in the Irish Times ‘...one of the finest literary débuts of this, or any year.’ Thomas Mann and Günter Grass, to name two German authors, won the Nobel Prize for Literature for their first novels (Die Buddenbrooks and Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum)). This first novel is as far away from the works of those biggies as is my home town from Bombay or the dishes I concoct in my kitchen (Rouladen!) from the curries street vendors sell on the pavements of Bombay.
Cyrus Readymoney has a voyeur's eye and a roving hand. On the brink of adolescence, he greedily consumes every taste and experience that life has to offer in Bombay; from the seductive pleasures of food and the spectacle of Hindi cinema to the inevitable first discoveries of sex, lies and death...