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Without a rearview mirror

Percy Bharucha | Updated on November 14, 2019 Published on November 13, 2019

The dangers of amnesia: In the book, each citizen is fed a fictional, customised version of history   -  ISTOCK.COM

Varun Thomas Mathew’s bold fiction debut ‘The Black Dwarves Of The Good Little Bay’ interrogates politics and memory in a dystopic and uninhabitable Mumbai

In the movie Inception (2010), there is a dialogue sequence where the protagonist Dominick Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) tells another character, “You never really remember the beginning of a dream, do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what’s going on.” He then poses a question; a question that would have birthed Varun Thomas Mathew’s singular debut and which is the primary obsession of his novel’s protagonist, Convent Godse. “So how did we end up here?”

In this peculiar aspect, our connection with history is like a dream. We remember the middle, where we are, but we’ve forgotten how it all began. In the book, Convent Godse’s sole life purpose is to remind the history-amnesiac dwellers of a tower called the Bombadrome, exactly how they ended up there. He is the last chronicler, the last witness to the roots of the Bombadrome, and the desolation of Mumbai.

The Black Dwarves of the Good Little Bay; Varun Thomas Mathew; Hachette; Fiction; ₹450

 

The Black Dwarves Of The Good Little Bay is a remarkable yet puzzling book. Set in a futuristic dystopian world, it almost entirely talks about its past and thereby our present. Mathew, a Delhi-based lawyer who runs a technology law, public policy and human rights practice, inserts just enough cues from our reality to blur the line that separates fiction from facts. There is a Reliant Tech Corp that produces VR headsets, Bhaashafish Software used for translation and an Aadhaar Bot that confirms identity by using a single drop of blood. Kashmir, militancy, the Bombay Terror attacks — everything is woven into this chimera of a tale.

A series of environmental disasters make the city of Mumbai uninhabitable. In its aftermath, from the ashes of a riotous, incendiary, chaotic, sparsely populated city arises the enigmatic phoenix of Ankur Lal Shinde, the leader of the DSP party and architect of the Bombadrome.

The Bombadrome is a self-sustaining, self-powering, levitating tower that hovers over the erstwhile land of Mumbai. Within this rotating metropolis, the air is artificially engineered to weaken the mind’s hold over history. An absence of allegiance to any other way of life makes the citizens more willing, more pliant to being governed. Its water recycling plant eliminates the problem of caste, for now the Brahmin and the Dalit must each consume the recycled fluids of the other.

In a plot worthy of Westworld or Black Mirror, each citizen of the Bombadrome is fed a fictional, customised version of history, one that exaggerates and glorifies their lineage. A Bengali in the Bombadrome would be told of their forefather’s contribution to the writing of the national anthem, others would be told of their grandaunts nursing the fallen at Jallianwala Bagh and so on. In these versions, the conflicts between race and caste are never told, and the citizens attain a profound unity aided by an artificially intelligent, manufactured peace.

The rise of the DSP party can be traced to the Black Dwarves or Kala Bauna movement — the moniker used for manual scavengers by an irate police commissioner. In an apt analogy, Mathew likens them to the stars that do not shine but give out heat and exert gravity. Like the stars, these scavengers are the invisible forces that run our cities. This movement is soon co-opted by menial workers, daily wage labourers, minorities and outcasts.

Into this Mumbai, Mathew infuses liberal doses of magical realism, creating an extraordinary, heady draught that is such a pleasure to read. Sample this: Outside the offices of the ruling party, whose members had voted against the Marital Rape Bill, was a painting of women hanging by their mangal sutras; passers-by swore that the painted figures could be seen swinging in the wind. A boy with a flute who played at the Gateway of India is capable of making passers-by of different religions fall in love through his tunes. Through the rise of the DSP party, Mathew presents a scathing critique of Indian politics and a city on the verge of collapse. He provides a detailed behind-the-scenes look at the means used to attain power and how public sentiment can be manipulated by merely pushing the right buttons.

Good fiction is insidious; it moves us in ways reality never will. Mathew manages this and more. This novel is a collection of strange times and curious characters. But every character feels like a cameo cut prematurely. One hopes to read more of characters such as Frontier Khakhi and the genealogy of curses that surround him; of Radheyan, the Musahar lawyer by day and rat catcher by night; and of Saad and the love he never found. But at its heart, The Black Dwarves Of The Good Little Bay is a paean to Mumbai, captured in its glorious complexity; the loves that are born within a city and cannot survive outside it. This book is a documentary on Indian politics, and its engaging, witty fiction and futuristic appeal is a bold call for course correction. Mathew is set to become a force to reckon with.

Percy Bharucha is a Delhi-based freelance writer and illustrator

Published on November 13, 2019
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