The sense of an ending
The story of a time and a people and way of life gone by, when Mumbai was still Bombay
At the beginning of Ivan Arthur’s A Village Dies we are gathered around the coffin of Hanging Gardens. And joined by Kitty, and Cliffy, and others from the twin villages of Kevni-Amboli, to mourn their deceased. Around him, swirl a pool of memories. Kitty remembers the day she first saw him, going home from school. When he’s being teased by two of her neighbours Cliffy and Dominic for the affliction (untreated hernia and hydrocele, “visible as a big swinging bulge through his pants”) that gives him his name. Kitty is our tomboy protagonist, though the book eschews strict novelistic composition in favour of a looser, gentler structure — a series of interconnecting stories, anecdotal in nature that flit from character to character as memory often does. Regardless, we are privy mostly to Kitty’s stories, of her growing up in the 1940s (“when Mumbai was still Bombay”), and leaving, her home and beloved village for the brighter prospects of Muscat and Dubai.
What Arthur brings to life most vividly is community. Kevni-Amboli are home to Catholics, predominantly East Indian, Anglo-Indian, Goan, and Mangalorean, each with their own particularities of custom, cuisine, and language. It is also the place and community within which the author grew up, and as he says in his author’s note, “while the main story is fictional, it is built around the jagged corners of a few real events… the main characters are figments of my imagination, but I have garnished the narrative with a few real people” (whose names, he says, remain unchanged). A Village Dies then is strongly ethnographic in nature, a deliberate documentation of a time and people and way of life gone by. An intent, though, that often hinders the storytelling, in that it feels patchy while trying to cover as much as possible, from history, both regional and personal, to a mystery connected to matters of Hanging Gardens’ family lineage.
Yet it’s easy to relate to Kitty, “now a visitor in her own parish”, when she seeks markers of change (the atrocious new church in place of the old St. Blaise’s), and things that have stayed the same (Hanging Gardens’ face, oddly unchanged by age). Geography transforms into cartographic memory — Caesar Road, that “asphalt artery” that ran through the village is “asterisked with reminiscences”. The police chowki that housed the only telephone in the neighbourhood for years, the spot at which the first public tap was gifted from the new municipality, the length used as annual sports ground by St. Blaise’s School, the mutton shop set ablaze allegedly by the newly formed Shiv Sena.
Kevni-Amboli are peppered with eccentric, memorable characters. Meet Mr. Misquitta with his obsession for punctuality — so much so that he demands to call off his son’s wedding because the bride is (a few minutes) late.
The teacher Miss Alice, loved by her students, some more than others with one slitting his wrist in despair of unrequited affection. Stanny Robello, senior journalist, and hence village oracle — “He’s a smart buggar, men. Got brains up there. Name comes in paper an’ all.” In between, we move through petty rivalries, rumours of serial killer Raman Raghavan (that prompt village hysterics), and the love stories, both shy and shocking, of Kitty and Austin and Cliffy and Hazel (who chooses, to her parent’s chagrin, to marry “some jungle Goan boy”). We watch the neighbourhood kids grow up, become aware of each other, and a word, “or rather a sound…beginning with ‘F’ sharply delivered”. There are parties and dancing and attempts to touch and press and caress, while the grownups stand aside, shocked by the “moral looseness” of the next generation. There are rumours and gossip exchanging hands and ears, whisperings that flutter around through doors and windows. Within the pages is the distinct feel of a village atmosphere, of a place where everyone knows everyone else, where lives are intricately intertwined.
Yet, as Kitty notes early on in the book, “there was change”. And this change, she gauges, through funerals, those “bookmarks of local mythology”. “Each of them,” she observes, “singly and in clusters, sketched out the character of individuals, families, and communities and, in time, served as the markers of a slowly changing age.” An age where the death of an individual didn’t pass as a mostly familial bereavement, but one that involved an entire community — hence the book’s title, even if the death is only of Hanging Gardens. Because of the recognition that each is an indelible part of the whole. Funerals also herald change because of the stories that die with the person, stories that without community to serve as “re-tellers” and reservoirs of memory, are buried and forgotten. At the end, the book, and the world of the characters expand to places beyond the shores of the country, of their villages. And in this, Arthur manages to capture perhaps what it is that now binds communities together — distance. And the realisation that distance brings to cherishing bonds, neighbourly and familial and more. That to be away, is to, in a way, always inhabit the place you leave behind.
Credit: The Hindu