Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Vanity Bagh

Vanity Bagh           Author:Anees Salim
Picador India             Rs. 499/-

Imran Jabbari, an ordinary, harmless lad of a down-at-heel mohalla, gets sucked in by his dreams of making it big in the underworld. As his story unfolds, we see a chaotic world teeming with folks who seem human and eccentric, rather than truly threatening. Even Abu Hathim, the ageing don of Vanity Bagh, is a spent force. In fact, he perhaps never was a great force to reckon with.
Abu's son, Rasool, and beloved little grandson Sinbad, have been killed by his enemies, and he now lives a reclusive life. Tales of his past exploits are occasionally shared in hushed whispers, inspiring awe among young Imran Jabbari and his five friends. They decide to make a mark in their simple and directionless lives by forming a dreaded gang of their very own.

The boys, who call themselves 'five and half men', are hired to dispense a batch of stolen scooters to different corners of the city. When the city rocks with scooter bombs, Imran and his friends realize that they have been involved in a terrorist act.

One of the prime accused in the 11/11 serial blasts, Imran is destined to live in captivity for the next fourteen years. He kills time plotting jailbreak until he is assigned to the bookmaking section of the prison.

Imran is a remarkably imaginative person. Each time he opens a book and stares at its blank pages, he sees stories from Vanity Bagh: the unending rivalries between Vanity Bagh, nicknamed Little Pakistan, and Mehendi, a Hindu neighbourhood. He remembers the people of his neighbourhood; his sweetheart Benazir, his family, and all the others who live out their lives around Franklin, the tree at the heart of the mohalla.

Imran's wasted life evokes sympathy for a misguided soul, a spirit that had some potential and could, given the right circumstances, have made a more positive impact on society. Despite the simmering undercurrents of communal tensions; of the spectres of poverty and ignominy threatening to engulf the main players, this tale does not project overwhelming bleakness. While waiting for that big-time assignment to fall into their laps, the gang of five and half men tackle a rough gang of fishermen for a rugby match. Imran's father, the Imam, keeps a machete for self-defence. His wife smartly uses it as a vegetable chopper to fool snooping cops. An old tree forming the focal point of the mohalla, is whimsically named Franklin for reasons of local history. Many of the people in Imran's mohalla are named after well-known people from Pakistan. These light touches can make us smile, given the nondescript ordinariness of these people.

Hands are chopped off and innocent lads are tricked into planting bombs by mysterious enemies. But even Abu Hathim, the most dreaded resident of Vanity Bagh is human rather than overtly menacing.

"And when Hindus wanted to burn all of us alive it was this criminal who saved the mohalla," Ammi said passionately. "Where were the mullahs then? Where was your masjid committee hiding?"...

"He was not guarding the mohalla," the Imam said. 'He was just trying to save his family."

It is this quality of ordinary humanness, of simple people caught up in complex circumstances, that redeems this story of Imran and his neighbours of Vanity Bagh.