Book: The Smoke is Rising
Author: Mahesh Rao
Publisher: Random House India
Price: Rs 499
It has been decades since the novel found the Indian city. Back in the 1970s, Anita Desai’s In Custody wound its way through the lanes of Old Delhi and into the fading havelis of Urdu poets. In the years to come, Amitav Ghosh and Amit Chaudhuri’s novels would find a Calcutta that is memory even in the present. Salman Rushdie’s and later Jeet Thayil’s Bombay is a city that trails away into dreamscapes. But these cities were metropolises, already much mythologised. Like old matinee idols, they were immediately recognisable to a wide range of readers, they lent themselves easily to a nostalgic wash. Mahesh Rao’s The Smoke is Rising abandons the metropolis for Mysore, a smaller city with a less storied modernity. In Rao’s novel, the city becomes the story.
Several parallel narratives are meshed together in this story. At the heart of it, a project that will bring Mysore global recognition — HeritageLand, Asia’s largest theme park and a bizarre urban fantasy featuring marvels such as the Yamaraja Monorail and a Kurukshetra war simulation. It will also displace hundreds of people living in the area staked out for the project. This tussle for land, which is also a conflict between the old and the new, will plunge Mysore into violence. But the various strands of the narrative offer different stories of the city. The urban planners’ story, which virtuously fashions Mysore as the “Geneva of the East”, neatly arranged with parks and museums, laid out in brick and asphalt. The prosperous residential board’s tale, which sees the city as a contest between tradition and modernity, a green, pristine space accosted by the “visual pollution” of lewd hoardings. The story told by its newspapers, of crime, scandal and entertainment. There are other, individual stories — the city as a harrowing place where daily life is a struggle, the city as a nightmare gallery of shops and malls and television sets, the city as escape and unexpected pleasure.
Human presence is inscribed in these various stories of the city and each of the characters inhabits different urban spaces. Susheela, a lonely widow who lives in the posh Mahalakshmi Gardens and, in the midst of a sudden riot, meets Jayadev, a lonely but good-humoured widower. The inscrutable Uma, who works in Susheela’s house and lives in a fragile tenement in a different part of town. Mala, for whom life is shrunk to a room where she listens in terror for the sound of her husband returning. Girish, Mala’s husband, the student politician-turned-babu who plans reckless holidays from an airless sarkari office. They are part of Rao’s ever expanding cast of characters in his montage of city life.
There are shades of R.K. Narayan in Rao’s account of dotty civic plans and high-minded citizens. Like Narayan, Rao brings a sense of the ridiculous to the everyday. He also brings to life certain very Indian quirks in conversation without turning them into caricature — the smugness of the phrase “out of station”, for instance, or the penchant for the present continuous. But the story threatens to crumble under a dead weight of detail, and a finely observed surface reality never gives way to a well-realised psychological core. The characters do not, in the end, yield their secrets. Why was Uma so secretive about her past? What prompted Girish’s sudden bursts of violence? The author often takes the story to a moment of tension, but then fritters it away in stray details — the colour of a diary or what’s showing on TV. Rao is in love with cataloguing the material presence of the city. And as the smoke of the city rises, it obscures the story of these individual lives.