An episodic, magical-realist parable set in Bombay.
Form is at least a partial substitute for content in Irani’s debut. The storyline traces the unnamed narrator’s quest to understand how he came to lose his arm, but it’s a modern dreamscape, with strands of narrative coherence strewn across stretches of semi-opaque hallucination. Before becoming “a novice cripple,” the central figure lived a privileged life in an apartment by the sea. He drank whiskey, slept with prostitutes—in particular Malaika, whom he claimed to love—never prayed or worked. But since waking up two months ago minus one arm, he has become a lost soul, relocated to a sinking apartment block and driven to seeking direction from misfits and underdogs on the streets. A floating beggar, a woman selling rainbows, and a leper who gives him a finger are among the many characters who offer advice; several mention one Baba Rakhu. The actual and metaphorical journey moves through time as well as space, always with heavy nudges toward atonement. “You need to earn your arm back,” says Baba Rakhu when finally unearthed in his “pet dungeon,” a repository of severed limbs taken from the unworthy (wife-beaters, for example). Persistent flashbacks to schooldays feature rivalry with a clever boy named Viren, whom the narrator first nearly blinded, then maimed by feeding his hand into a machine. He seeks out Viren, now a successful novelist, and finds he has not been forgiven. Looking next for Malaika, the narrator reveals he beat her up a year ago; soon he learns that she died the next day. Connections among the central figure’s justified self-loathing, random viciousness and recent amputation finally fall into place, and he returns to Baba Rakhu to accept the sacrifice of his arm as a means of rejecting his old self.
Poetic flights and jests meld uneasily with didacticism in this ambitious, uneven fantasy.