“You’ve been to Mumbai a couple of times,” a colleague said to me a while ago; “what should I read to get a flavour of the place?”
Off the top of my head I recommended Maximum City, Suketu Mehta’s plump and populous non-fiction account, and Rohinton Mistry’s novel of endurance, A Fine Balance, and his short stories about life in an apartment building, Tales from Firozsha Baag. If I were asked again, I would have a few more suggestions, among them the poems of Arundhathi Subramaniam.
Subramaniam lives in Mumbai (Bombay), where she works as a writer, editor and curator. She was short-listed for this year’s TS Eliot Prize for her collection When God Is a Traveller (Bloodaxe Books), and I heard her read from it at the Royal Festival Hall in London last month. Ian McMillan, MC for the evening, noted that her words and stagecraft won her “the first whoop of the night” (actually, it was the only whoop of the night). There were giggles, too, during several of her poems, including one about a garrulous fellow-passenger on a train, “Or Take Mrs Salim Shaikh”. Among the many snippets of autobiography that Mrs Salim Shaikh dispensed were the lines ‘My heart is pure.’/’I practise no religion,/only homoeopathy.’, which, four days after the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, was funny and poignant at the same time.
“I have mixed feelings about Bombay,” Subramaniam said that evening, “but its trains have often offered me fodder for poems.” Those feelings are forcefully expressed in “The City and I”, which she wrote after the terrorist attacks there in November 2008, and which I’m now featuring on Deskbound Traveller. You can hear her discuss her work in an interview for the BBC World Service programme “The Forum”, recorded when she was in London for the TS Eliot Prize readings. On the video below, she reads more of her poems.