A rambunctious second novel from the award-winning Shanghvi (The Last Song of Dusk, 2004), in which the spectacle of Bombay serves as backdrop for a dizzying plot involving murder, adultery, AIDS, police corruption, bribery, celebrity and the lonely pursuit of high art.
The story takes place in 1990s Bombay, where flamingoes occupy a city wasteland. Karan Seth is new to the city, a newspaper photographer with a promising future. His life is forever altered when he is asked to photograph the reclusive pianist Samar Arora; during the shoot, Samar’s best friend Zaira, a Bollywood superstar, shows up. Karan is brought into their rarefied world of cocktails and art-chat, becomes a confidant of Zaira (though there is no attraction as she is in love with Samar, who is gay, and lives with American writer Leo) and is encouraged to pursue his grand project, a photographic portrait of Bombay. While at a bazaar, Karan meets Rhea Dalal, an enigmatic ceramicist who first leads him to the photo-worthy sights of Bombay, and then to her penthouse bedroom. Karan and Rhea’s relationship is complicated by the fact that she is passionately in love with her husband. In the midst of the melodrama, tragedy strikes—Zaira is killed by a man who has been stalking her for years. What follows is a portrait of corruption as it becomes likely that the murderer, the son of a high-ranking politician, will be set free. Meanwhile, Leo contracts AIDS and returns to San Francisco with Samar; Rhea becomes pregnant and breaks off the affair; and Karan gives up photography and moves to London. But the story’s not done until the living principals return to Bombay, ravaged by tragedy and prepared to accept their fate. All this would be quite a ride if it were not so often weighted with verbosity: “The timeless splendor surrounding them resounded with wisdom and betrayal, and they were compelled to speak in whispers, for the landscape discouraged sound, supplying a stillness that held them both like a flag in a fist.”
Happily the novel’s infectious exuberance compensates for the overwrought prose.