What happens when, in a country where making art is a political statement because it is bound to infuriate some group or other, an artist or musician wants to break from tradition to try something new? This is the over-arching theme of Shanta Gokhale’s ‘Crowfall‘. It is also, for those who follow Indian media/news, a very pertinent and immediate issue of the present times, when writers and artists continue to be attacked — verbally and/or physically — for their work.
This is not your typical Bombay fiction. It’s not about the rags-to-riches lives of “slumdog millionaires”, or influenced-by-Bollywood-and-underworld “Shantarams”, or family sagas hanging in “a fine balance”, or politics-and-religion narratives of “midnight’s children”, or… well, you get the point. This is the rare story about a group of upper-middle-class friends and set in the worlds of art, music, and journalism. [Aside: This is not to say that those other books are no good; in fact, they are on my “Best Bombay Books” list too.]
First published in Marathi as ‘Tya Varshi’ (That Year), and translated into English by Gokhale herself, the story follows the lives of seven Bombay friends/couples over the span of a year: artists Ashesh, Haridas and Feroze; Ashesh’s sister, Anima; corporate husband and classical singer wife, Shekhar and Sharada; and journalist, Janaki. Woven into their interconnected stories is a cast of supporting characters of family, friends, employers, and employees.
The book opens with a rather slow pace as, in the first twenty-thirty pages, we meet Anima, and learn about how she’s still dealing her husband’s violent and tragic death a decade earlier. Then we meet Ashesh, his artist’s block, and his painstaking (possibly, even, pain-inducing) attention to every bit of minutiae around him. Moving on, we meet each of the other main characters and things do start to pick up. That said, I have to say that I wished for a stronger opening. If I had not read the more glowing reviews of the book in various Indian publications, I would probably have given up around page twenty-five. Read on and you might see why I persevered.
Here are the things that I really liked: the technical and historical descriptions of classical Indian music and indigenous artwork; the ideation and composition processes of the works of art or music by the various characters; the recounting of ancient stories around gods and goddesses.
Most of all, I loved how the city of Bombay/Mumbai is almost a character too — the packed buses and trains; the unique landmarks and streets; the particular familiarity of strangers who ask the most intimate questions and offer unsolicited opinions about all possible topics; the art and music circles where everyone knows everyone.
As Gokhale is a well-respected and long-time art/culture critic in Bombay/Mumbai, she absolutely nails all of the above aspects. The prose, during such scenes, both paints vivid pictures and sings off the pages. Very nicely done. Given the bit of Marathi I know from my school days in India, I can imagine how these sections must have sounded beautiful in the original text.
That said, there was a fair bit I did not enjoy. Now, if you’re not into close reading or close dissection of story structures, you might want to stop at this point and skip to my final paragraph. For the rest of you, please read on.
First, the narrative is fairly linear as we get the backstories of certain family tragedies, loves lost, personal conflicts, attempts at innovation/change, and so on. This, in itself, is not a problem but, when the point of view jumps around so much from omniscient to one character to another — all in a single scene — the head-hopping can be very jarring (not to mention how it makes for sloppy writing).
Second, several random plot points don’t seem to go anywhere, which gets annoying very soon. For example:
— Anima destroys all her diaries at the beginning as a way to move on from wallowing in her grief for her dead husband. After that, through the rest of the story, we rarely get any more insight into how that is going for her and affecting her relationships with those around her, particularly her dying mother.
— Ashesh wakes up one morning to hand tremors, which, for a painter, can be pretty serious. There is a bit more exploration of this plot point, which I will not spoil for you. But, it does not seem to do anything much for Ashesh’s character arc, other than giving him something to do between a couple of other plot points.
There are a few more examples of such plot points that don’t lead to any payoff and I find them wasted storytelling opportunities. I am not suggesting that all loose ends should be neatly tied up — life is not like that. But, when things unravel for one character, the impacts can be multi-fold, both for him/her and others involved, giving plenty of rich material to go on. So, connecting certain dots, especially when the lives of these characters are so closely linked, would have given more coherence to the overall story and their individual character arcs. Without that, I cannot help thinking that Gokhale sat down and first made a list of all her observations about the worlds of art, music, and media that she wanted to write about, then constructed a frame of a story to contain all of them. This, in itself, is not a bad way to structure a story necessarily, but you have to try to hide or smooth out the seams in the narration, which is not the case here.
Here are a couple more examples of just such wasted opportunities:
— Shekhar works for a company that has been taken over by an American firm, and the new boss has little to no regard for Indian traditions and class hierarchies as they go through the acquisition integration process. At the same time as he is struggling with this, his wife, Sharada, is being shunned by her music guru for going against centuries-old traditions in her own musical compositions. This is an interesting juxtaposition and ought to have been explored further for its impact on their relationships with each other and others around them. Instead, the conflict point in their relationship is a rather predictable and commonplace one: Sharada’s pre-marriage love affair with Haridas, who is still a part of their lives, and whom Shekhar is still unable to accept.
— Prakash, one of the minor non-leading artist characters, has a surprisingly interesting arc as a sell-out to religion, commerce, and politics. Yet, beyond Janaki the journalist, this does not seem to have any impact on the rest of the characters or story. Again, there was much to mine here.
To be fair, there are some instances where plot points and character arcs are better-aligned and integrated. For example:
— When Girji, Haridas’ domestic help, creates an indigenous artwork for him, it includes some ominous symbolism. What happens next (no spoilers here) makes her work even more significant. The event impacts a few other characters, and though there is a lot more potential to mine here, Gokhale does not let us down entirely.
— When Feroze, a Parsi artist, creates a work of art based on the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic, there is a religious backlash. How he responds to it, how Anima reacts due to her own history, and what happens with freedom of expression in the press when Janaki writes an article about it — all of this comes together well enough. Though, again, I cannot help thinking that there was certainly a lot more to be had from this plot point for all the characters involved.
Third, the prose style leaves a lot to be desired for as lazy clichés abound — though not in the beautiful parts I mentioned earlier. Characters are often doing things “mechanically” or being “arty-farty”. At one point, Ashesh is in “extreme shock”, yet manages to observe, clearly, certain things around him (although, he does it “idiotically”) and have the presence of mind to consider their symbolism.
Dialogue is often used to “tell” rather than “show” us what is going on. Monologues are used for making extended polemical statements. It’s one thing when the scene concerns a bunch of speakers at a public event or a newspaper column provided verbatim. But. when the scene is between two people, who have known each other a long time, or even just an interior monologue, it gets a bit much.
The few intimate scenes are unconvincing as they read like they are from a Victorian novel, not happening in twenty-first century Mumbai among free-thinking intellectuals.
In conclusion, I would still recommend ‘Crowfall‘ to other readers because of the redeeming qualities I described earlier and that it provides a rare glimpse into a part of Bombay/Mumbai that most people, especially those in the West, do not know about. I just wish it had been a better-plotted and better-written novel.
[UPDATE: June 18, 2016: A lovely interview with the writer right here.]