Passengers on a bus witnessing a tragic moment embody aspects of Indian culture.
Hobbled by its structure, Khair’s first novel struggles to gain momentum. Via very short chapters, a range of characters darts in and out of the reader’s vision, creating kaleidoscopic impressions of India. Slowly, the focus is sharpened to a particular day and a particular bus journey. In the Arthur Hailey tradition, Khair assembles a seemingly random cast although each member carries an emblematic burden: bus driver, Mangal Singh, a writer manqué and watcher of faces; Mrs. Mirchandani, voluble survivor of Partition; Parvati, the eunuch hoping to find a better life; Chottu, a thief and possible murderer; Rasmus, a Dane with an Indian father and an attaché case full of cash. Glimpses of the Indian landscape and characters’ back stories are included, adding color and fleshing out what is at best a slender narrative. This hinterland works to the tale’s strength, contributing more texture than the brief, often heavily delineated characterization. Tension is ratcheted up by an argument between Mangal Singh and the bus conductor (the two are complicit in a scam to augment their paltry wages) about a tribal woman, carrying a child, who has boarded the vehicle. But the crisis, when it comes, is not so much the predictable disaster, more a symbolic tableau. Mangal Singh realizes that the tribal woman’s baby is in fact dead. The mother is not easily persuaded of this, but once she is, the passengers bury the body and absorb the events, as they move on to their individual destinations. Parvati, haunted by the tribal woman, will actively pursue a romantic fate involving Mrs. Mirchandani’s son. For Rasmus, the episode is a quintessential subcontinent experience: “Where else but in India,” he thinks toward the end.
Written in simple prose but straining for impact, this debut is overloaded by its schematic burden. Wanting more to be a screenplay than a novel.