The Song of
(Milkweed)In a recent New York Times restaurant review, Maureen D. Fant takes us on a tour of the five fanciest restaurants in Bombay. Her favorite was the Khyber Restaurant "intended to evoke a haveli, or mansion of northern India."
A friendly waiter instructed us on scooping up the lamb with our flat paisley-shaped naan bread, but generously suggested we revert to the fork when we'd had our fun.
The wine from the Sula Vineyards 2001 ($22) "was wan but drinkable. Dessert was kulfi, a pleasant, and ubiquitous, ice cream based on pistachio and condensed milk."
Ms. Fant probably did not have a chance to run into Chamdi or his brothers. Chamdi is a ten-year-old-orphan, lives not far from the Khyber Restaurant. He was forced out on the streets when his orphanage got shut down. He ends up with another ten-year-old, Sumdi, his slightly older sister Guddi, and their completely mad mother.
Their bedroom is a rock path near a small local watch shop (all the watches show different times) and a taxi stand. They have a small beat-up cardboard box where they store their meager goods, and make a living by begging rupees from cars stopped at a nearby traffic light. Sumdi shows Chamdi how to beg from a "taxiwala:"
"Bhaiya, please give something." says Sumdi to the taxiwala.
"Don't eat my brains early in the morning," says the taxiwala.
"But if I have no food then naturally I will eat your brains, no?"
"Your tongue is sharp. Be careful or you will cut yourself."
"That's the problem. My tongue is so sharp that food is afraid to enter my mouth. Look how skinny I am."
"You don't look skinny to me."
"Look at what polio did to my leg."
"What other sickness do you have?"
"I'm in love. Biggest illness."
Sumdi gets a rupee for his pain.
Later, he tell Chamdi how to approach different people, like foreigners. "With these people you have to use pity. Make sure your face is very dirty. Put spit all over your face and underneath your eyes so it looks like you've been crying."
Then go near the [car] window and look directly into their eyes. It will be hard because they are always wearing sunglasses, but do it anyway. If they do not give money immediately, then say something like, "My father beats me. My father is dying. My car is not working."
"My car is not working?"
"Say anything, it doesn't matter."
Sumdi is a joker, but survival is serious. There is no welfare, no children's support groups, no county agency for children with no family. The kids in the neighborhood have to give a major part of their earnings to Anand Bhai.
Anand Bhai uses his knife to cut or disfigure the boys so they will be better beggars. "This rip on my face was made by Anand Bhai," says Sumdi. "He calls it his signature. He cut me with a knife."
Fear made me forget that I have polio and I am unable to run so this man caught me easily and slashed my face with a knife. Then he said, "I am Anand Bhai, and your father owed me money, so you must work for me." I was scared but angry and so I swore at him. That was when he sliced off part of my ear."
It is impossible for most writers to penetrate the heart of a ten-year-old, get into their heads to be able to write in a way that we will find believable. Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, J. D. Salinger, Mark Twain and the anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes were able to do so. Irani succeeds with a special mix: the truth of orphan street-life in Bombay joined with a rich, sometimes merry dialogue.
There are the occasional successes (Chamdi gets six rupees from the taxiwalas on his first day) and the flights of fantasy that drift through the mind of a hungry, confused, wandering ten-year-old orphan. For Chamdi, it is "the Language of the Gardens."
"Where is the language spoken," asks Guddi.
"The city of no sadness. One day, all sadness will die, and Kahunsha will be born."
§ § §
Fawning sentiment is cheap and easy in a novel of poor street life. Irani is expert at keeping to the edge, rather than falling in the mush. His words ring so true that I do believe that if Ms. Fant took a few minutes, left the Khyber Restaurant, went to find the real city of Bombay ... opened her eyes and perhaps her heart, she would eventually find (and could report on) the world that Irani paints so vividly: the appalling grime, the babies dying of starvation in their mothers' arms, the gang leaders who mutilate the boys and girls to increase the take.
Fortunately, mixed in these harrowing tales in this novel, creating an odd poignancy, come the flowers, strange loves that spring up, forbidden nighttime carriage rides for those who know where to seek them out:
Guddi claps her hands, and Chamdi smiles so wide that every tooth is showing. He can see the moonlight fall on the tin roofs of the closed shops, hit the road and wipe out the night's tiredness. He begs the light to seep into his body until he is completely dripping ... And Chamdi strains to catch a glimpse of the horses because they too will soon be drenched in light. Their black skin will shine, and the streets will be illuminated by their mighty glow, and he wonders if that glow will wake people from their sleep, if it will make them tear open their windows, to see him and her, two children, mouths open, swallowing light.--- Deb Das