Author Murzban Shroff, quintessential Bombay boy, talks to Carol Andrade about giving it all up to write and sticking with his craft in spite of the pitfalls of modern-day chauvinism. And how it feels to have written what The Guardian calls the fourth best book on the city in a list of ten, headed by the great Rushdie.
Even in his darkest moments, some time in January 2010, exhausted and bewildered as he fought court cases that sought to paint him as a writer who incited disharmony through his work, or outraged the modesty of women, or for being obscene in his writing, he never regretted giving up a lucrative career in advertising to become one.
Murzban Shroff continued to keep faith with himself, and in March this year, Breathless in Bombay was rated by the Guardian as fourth among the Top Ten Mumbai books. Ahead of him -- Salman Rushdie (The Moor’s Last Sigh), Gregory David Roberts (Shantaram), Rohinton Mistry (Family Matters). Behind him, Suketu Mehta, Pinto and Fernandes, Kiran Nagarkar, more Rushdie….
“It gave me quite a high”, he says quietly, the tone belying the sentiment. Or maybe he was just being modest, because even when it was published in April 2009, Breathless in Bombay (BIB) was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the best debut category from Europe and South Asia.
Short stories are his strength and BIB is a collection of these set in the city of dreams, a city that he knows very well because here he was born, was educated and has lived largely all his life.
“I was what you would call a high-end advertising guy, doing well, and finally I opened my own consultancy. This was because I wanted more time to myself, to be able to write, and I found that, instead, more and more work was coming my way. You could say I was spooked by my own success and so I decided to go all out and become a writer. That was in 2001, when I knocked off a novel in six months.” Knocked off is right. It was called Vesuvius Rising and it never saw the light of day. “It was a bit self-indulgent,” he says, with the self-deprecating style that is his hallmark, using qualifiers to describe himself and his work – “a bit”, “not much”, “quite worrying”.
As it turned out, Vesuvius sinking was good for him. “It turned me inward, focused my thinking on the fact that that there was too much writing in the marketplace and just too little literature. There better be a strong-enough reason for another book. And that book better be really necessary. I revisited the old masters: Chekhov, Maugham, Fitzgerald, Dostoevsky, Camus, Joyce, and Steinbeck, who wrote and rewrote The Grapes of Wrath, honing it to a high degree of realism.
“At the same time, I started moving out of the city, visited villages, stayed with tribals, worked with NGOs, trying to sensitise myself to issues. Back in the city, I continued the process of learning about issues that affected other people, ordinary people, like taxi drivers, truck drivers, dhobis, masseurs, victoria wallahs, even drug addicts, sex workers, and pimps. I learned how welcoming the man on the street is when you are interested in knowing where he comes from.
“And I was beginning to view my writing as a manifestation of my roots, getting me back to the real stories that engaged with other groups. What amazed me was how much they are willing to trust you, share their stories, open themselves up completely to a writer. I began writing stories, moving from plot-based to thought-based narratives that were not just entertaining but engaging and revealing.”
The short story format is important to him. “This way I can address many more issues and cover a diverse mix of trades and people. The city needs many stories working at various levels, to capture its polyphony of class and cultures. A dhobi threatened with displacement, a homesick maalishwalla yearning for his roots, a public sector employee faced with a moral dilemma, each of these are recognizable people, separate, but together making up the identity of this city.”
But between the writing of stories and collecting them for a book lay a long and weary road. Each of the stories in BIB was published long before they were put together to form a composite of the city. Some just flowed from his pen. Others, like “Traffic”, a tale about the madness of the city’s roads and life at its crossroads, took him six months to polish through 30 re-writes!
“But when I sent it out (Put, is the word he uses), four universities in the U.S. were fighting to publish it and eventually it won a Pushcart nomination. The Pushcart is the highest award for an individual short story published in the U.S,” he said.
Two of the stories in the BIB collection were published by The Reading Room, which does “very stylish anthologies”. Getting published by the Southwest Review, too, was particularly gratifying. The story he submitted (Busy Sunday) earned him an email from the editor, a former lawyer who struggled for 17 years to become a successful writer, a man for whom Murzban has great admiration. “He found a rare authenticity in the work,” he says, his face positively aglow. “After BIB was published, in 2009 I went on a book tour to the U.S. and met up with him in Dallas.”
What’s with the short story format, we asked? Murzban shrugged. “That’s the way they have worked out. In 2007, a top-end agent in the U.S. wanted me to convert one of my stories into a novel, but the idea did not excite me so I pulled out. I wrote to 40 publishers abroad, asking them to look at just a couple of my published stories. All replied, two came forward, and I went with one of them, St Martin’s Press. A month after the book was published in the U.S., it was also published in India by Picador.”
We remembered the reviews which were decent, but not much about the book till the Guardian listing. Then, like a lot of other readers, we picked it up again, thrilled at the characterization, at the way Murzban creates a multiplicity of small worlds all revolving and rotating around each other, sometimes touching but most often leading completely separate existences. It is the story of Bombay, Mumbai, City of Gold, of Dreams, Maximum City, “a city of multiple journeys and spontaneous realizations,” as Murzban puts it.
Does he think the definitive book on the city has been written yet? A pause, then he shakes his head. “It’s too difficult. There are too many Bombays.”
But obviously not too many separate stories, for Murzban is currently working on another collection, this time an India collection that explores the urban-rural divide, as well as a post-modernist novel.
So, no regrets even during the terrible days of being threatened by the law? Murzban considers the question only briefly. “No regrets! It took the High Court to quash it and at least one investigating body declared that far from inciting harmony, the book was unifying in its reach of characters. And out of all this, running between Mumbai and Kodaikanal, dealing with lawyers and disappointment, I found my voice. It is tongue in cheek, strong, uncompromising, sentient, patriotic, spontaneous, purposeful. I have no doubts about what I am doing. I am driven to write. I know what I want to write for the next ten years!”
What does he think of this outpouring of Indians writing in English? “I think it’s great. And even better that there is a genuine effort on the part of overseas publishers to make the leap in trying to understand us. They are becoming sensitized to our reality”.
Meanwhile, his stories continue.