Friday, October 08, 2010

anosh irani, dahanu road

A version of this review first appeared on ibnlive.com, here

#83 Dahanu Road, Anosh Irani

To many residents of Mumbai, Dahanu is an area slightly more of a cypher than parts of Delhi or Chennai. It is a fruit-growing, amenity-inhibited outpost that will someday be swallowed up by the city, an exurb connected to the metropolis at the very last stop on the suburban Western line. Nothing could seem further flung from the diverse, super-urbane neighbourhoods in South and Southwest Mumbai built and occupied by the city's venerated Zoroastrian community. Yet, Dahanu is also a Zoroastrian enclave. As Indo-Canadian author Anosh Irani explains to his readers, it is the settler colony of a more recent diaspora of Persian exiles: the Iranis who fled Arab persecution in the 20th rather than the 10th century, and followed their ancestors to India's west coast. The history of their diaspora is distinct from that of the Parsis of urban Mumbai, and the conflict of those identities flickers in and out of the book in a string of bright, unsteady backstories for the Iranis who populate its pages.

But the Dahanu of Dahanu Road, with its sun-warmed orchards and open sea can also be stifling, a soil that can only sustain one kind of growth. Like the chickoo trees they farm, the Iranis have flourished here. In doing so, they have disenfranchised the Warli tribals who are the land's original inhabitants. The result is a proto-feudal society in which the Warlis provide labour to their prosperous Irani landlords, and receive little pay, less security and no social justice for their troubles. This is the background against which Anosh Irani sets his story, a history in which his clan of fictional Iranis assume the position of chief actors, as well as observers. The protagonist Zairos is a charming young man whose days are spent biking around the farmlands he stands to inherit, shuttling from family home to family home, and spending the day in the company of other charming men who have presumably never worked a collective day in their lives. The Iranis may have their differences with the Parsis, but the author's character sketches evoke the familiar figures of other fictional Zoroastrians - a community that occupies no small part in the canon of cinema and writing about Mumbai - in their dissolute, self-avowedly eccentric personae. Zairos' friends and relations are aware of their detachment from the currents of community life in the big city, and the glowing Parsi record of social and economic achievement. To characters like Zairos' father Aspi, this becomes the cornerstone of a perverse joy in the rough edges of Irani life out in the mofussil. To those like his grandfather Shapur, a first-generation immigrant from Iran, it is a shadow over his primal connection with Dahanu, the first land he is able to possess and call his own. Shapur marries a Parsi woman, Banu, and brings her to live out in the wilds where his chickoo orchards are taking root. Banu dies a young woman, under mysterious circumstances, leaving Shapur with a lifelong grief, and the beginnings of a dynasty.

Zairos, the youngest of that line, is the keeper of the stories an aged Shapur recounts to him on the family verandah. The Iranis' history of oppressing the Warlis may not stretch beyond a few decades, but it carries with it all the heft and consequence of colonial atrocity, sanctioned by law where law exists, and assuming the grim outlines of cowboys-and-Indians narratives where it doesn't. Few of these stories stir Zairos, though, until he sets eyes on Kusum, the daughter of an old labourer and the wife of an abusive husband. Their growing relationship involves a negotiation of boundaries Zairos has never sought to breach before. Through its fulfillment, the novel suggests, change may come to Dahanu.

Irani operates in a register that should be familiar to regular readers of the South Asian saga. Dahanu Road tells a big, messy story about a small place, covering some fresh ground in the process. The novel strikes the reader as a rare experiment in mapping the space between India's urban and rural communities; so also the overlap between communities that are popularly considered to be made up of fundamentally urban or rural people. There is a wide gap between the Irani and Warli stories, and the novel attempts to address this. But in attempting to write a Warli story, the author is on far shakier ground than when he sticks with his Irani protagonists. For an earnest shot at fictionalising a history of Warli oppression, there are few moments in which the writing presents the Warli characters with any sort of directness. For most of them – and especially all the Warli men – there is little existence outside a vicious cycle of poverty, bondage, alcoholism and unemployment. In looking at Irani-Warli relations through, among other things, the lens of gender, the narrative is gendered, too. It falls into several familiar traps. In attempting to portray a society destroyed by outside greed and prejudice, we revisit a scenario excused all too readily in fiction because it is easy to presume that it conforms to reality: the only characters with voices are the ones who serve to further the protagonists' narratives. Even Kusum, the female protagonist, appears to us so largely through Zairos' point of view, that her own inner life - revealed when the authorial voice occasionally switches points of view away from Shapur or Zairos - appears tangential.

No doubt this narrative, and others like it, are important, but they are also incomplete. By staying so close to the perspectives of its oppressors -- the Dahanu equivalent of nice guys though they may be -- Dahanu Road constructs itself explicitly as a narrative of guilt, for familial crimes as well as social ones. A narrative of guilt is also a narrative of redemption, and that is ultimately what Dahanu Road seeks to bestow on its central characters. Unfortunately, redemption is not a literary commodity that is easy to control. We live in days when we are continually reminded that the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends towards justice. Perhaps the gendering in Dahanu Road is meant to remind us that as in life, justice and redemption are neither available equally to all, nor able to erase the gap between the unequal. Shapur and Zairos are the focal points of the story, but the women, Banu and Kusum, are its axes. They are divided by a deep and poisoned gulf of class and history, but it is remarkable how alike their fates are. At the end of the novel, Zairos climbs the hill of Bahrot, sacred to the history of Indian Zoroastrianism, to make peace with his legacies. His forbidden bond with Kusum - the link to his future - is legitimised as he revisits the past. For Kusum herself, as for the wistful shade of his Parsi grandmother, no such redemption is readily available. There are some lights in which the distance between eras seem very short indeed.

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