Popular fiction carries the spirit of a society in ways that are often beyond the reach of more artistically ambitious literature. It’s no wonder, then, that the opening decade of the 21st century saw an explosion of home-grown English-language popular fiction in India. The first formidable spark of this explosion, the novels of the engineer-turned-investment banker Chetan Bhagat, echoed the upbeat pulse of an aggressively aspirational nation — be it in the obvious choice of their venues in engineering colleges and call-centers, or in the more personal trajectories of ambition of provincial youths arriving in big cities to chase their dreams.
The closing decades of the 20th century, weighed down by a poorly bureaucratized welfare state, was a bleak time for such aspirations. This is partly what makes Ashok Banker’s Vertigo (1993) such a unique work. But barring the appearance of an excerpt in Amit Chaudhuri’s Picador/Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature, this fascinating, fast-paced novel has more or less escaped the attention of readers of literary and popular fiction alike.
Vertigo is set in 1983-84, in Bombay, the city that reached for the stars in corporate and consumerist heaven even during the last decade before economic globalization. The Indian economy would be liberalized in 1991, opening the floodgates to KFC outlets and Ray-Ban showrooms in the cities. Set in pre-Mumbai Bombay, the novel features a couple of years in the life of Jay Mehta, who emerges from a painful family background to pursue two universal aspirations: a satisfying love life and professional success — in his case, the overlapping world of sales, marketing, and, by the whim of fate, a flicker of lucky stock-market investment. But unlike most of the 21st-century protagonists of Indian-English popular novels who storm the metros from provincial small towns, Jay is very much Bombay-grown, the child of a short-lived marriage between two uniquely Bombay figures — the son of a wealthy Gujarati family and a Goan Catholic woman, who is abandoned by her dashing but deceptive and selfish husband soon after the birth of their only child.
True to its title, Vertigo is a novel of existential angst and dread. The arch of ambition and the quest for happiness are smothered by nausea, depression, and disaster. It is in these circumstances that we first meet Jay, as the son of a perpetually drunken mother, unable to enjoy a beer at lunch with his colleague as he is haunted by the alcoholic specter back home. “Sperm-giver” — that’s the only way he can imagine Mehta senior, a father who only meets his son over the periodic lunch to which he treats him in upscale restaurants, mostly to make Jay feel miserable about his sorry life. Returning home to watch his mother wallow in drunken misery, Jay feels that he “could take a stainless-steel blade from the washbasin and slice off his own testicles rather than endure another day as a man.”
Jay’s care for his mother is one of the piercingly beautiful, inevitable tragic elements of the novel. In the meantime, Bombay becomes a Kafkaesque metropolis where Jay fights daily nightmares: “He lands with a foot on a rail, the other between the rails. Something splatters on the ground beside him, a rat scurries into the dark; he realizes it’s tobacco juice — one of his excellent co-travellers has spat him a farewell.”
Much of the novel feels like a noir film shot across the city. Its great redeeming force is that of eros. Straddling Jay’s sorry life are two young women. On one end is his largely unsympathetic girlfriend, Tuli, whom he wants to marry, unfazed by his own confusion: “Why this spoilt, temperamental, irresponsible, unintellectual, snobbish, sexy-but-not-sexually willing nineteen-year-old undergraduate?” On the other end is the stunning Meera, successful, sophisticated, and deeply affectionate towards him, “a woman so breathtakingly attractive and intelligent, he doesn’t know what he wants to do with her: fuck, or discuss D.H. Lawrence.” But true to Tuli, he restrains himself before Meera: “Their eyes perform the coitus their bodies were denied.”
The novel culminates in the madness and destruction of Jay’s mother: “The bundle of bones and sagging liquor-rotted flesh, smelling of urine, vomit, bad breath, bananas and coconut hair oil, this thing that lies so limp and cold in his arms, this mute creature with a livid scratch on her forehead … this is his mother?” Her jagged descent — punctuated by his own professional rise — coincides with one of the most tumultuous political assassinations in modern India, the fatal shooting of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The gallows humor of the novel resurfaces in the misfired retort of a colleague just as someone reports that Indira Gandhi has been shot: “That’s all we need, another model!” The sharp return to the public sphere throws into relief Jay’s wounded personal life. That fractious, uneven mirroring of the private and the public is idiosyncratic, shocking, and in the end, unforgettable.
Saikat Majumdar is the author of three novels: The Scent of God (2019), The Firebird (2015), published in the US as Play House (2017), and Silverfish (2007). He has also published a book of literary criticism, Prose of the World (2013), a general nonfiction book on higher education, College: Pathways of Possibility (2018), and a co-edited collection of essays, The Critic as Amateur (2019). He has taught at Stanford University, was a Fellow at the Humanities Centre at Wellesley College, and is currently professor of English & Creative Writing at Ashoka University.