Book Review: Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai
Some books are like A.R. Rahman’s music, first you are struck and then you are awestruck; they just build on you as you go forward. Honestly when I first checked this book out, on getting a review request from Rishi, neither did the title nor did the cover intrigue the reader in me. But a no to a debuting Indian writer is such a mammoth task for me that I said yes and here I am writing the final debut book review in the year 2012, comparing it to the effect of music. Rishi Vohra makes a remarkable debut with conventional sounding characters, average Indian middle class settings and a well-written common man’s uncommon story.
Page one of the book and we meet our hero: Balwant Srivastav aka Babloo – a middle class railway junior clerk’s son who has spent his entire life in a railway colony in Bandra, Mumbai. The first local train’s rattle on the iron tracks wakes him everyday out of his slumber and he tip toes out of the house before his family wakes up. A loner and good for nothing (for his family) he spends his days near the railway tracks, sometimes gazing at them, sometimes racing with the trains and most of the times thinking about Vandana.
Vandana too lives in the Bandra railway colony and is the only person who understands and behaves humanely with the autistic Babloo. A good-looking young girl, she is struggling to convert her mundane existence amidst the middle class, gossip mongering railway citizens into a meaningful and loving life.
Babloo loves Vandana and Rajma Chawal, is hyper-hygienic, learns more from B-grade hindi films than from people around him and has more conversations in his head than real ones. Vandana is sympathy driven towards Babloo, is ambitious, has her head in the right place but is also a dreamer romantic. Between his love confession and her knowing are – his world ignorance, Sikander who plays his game too well with Vandana in the pretext of helping Babloo, Babloo’s parent’s plans to get his more worthy younger brother married to Vandana, an ever gossip starved colony and Rail Man – the superhero who averts crimes on the railway tracks between Khar Road and Bandra.
Rail Man is everything that Babloo wants to be – He is courageous, fights the wrong people, meats out justice to the wronged, just like the hero in hindi films that Babloo watches and learns from, is strong to beat four people single handedly and does all this credit free. Will Rail Man close in the distance that society has built between Babloo and Vandana? Is he the law breaking criminal, as the police claim, or a justice obsessed superhero? Will the America calling Vandana see love at home?
Rishi Vohra in his debut attempt as a novelist impresses with his narration and the simplicity of language that he engages his reader with. He has chosen a difficult central character to deal with – a character who is autistic, a social introvert, someone who dwells more within than outside but someone with dreams, intelligence and logical understanding – but Rishi handles Babloo with finesse. He never lets his reader to sympathize with the protagonist but at the same time he makes us understand Babloo, empathize with him and feel for him in his desperate moments. The writing has a visual quality to it, which makes the book like a 70 mm of words. We can mind watch – Babloo react or gaze intently, Vandana’s desperation and Sikender’s lust – we can even see ourselves in the Bandra railway colony.
A conventional story with an unconventional twist and a conventional climax but written to near perfection. Saadgi Mey Sundarta (simple is beautiful) seems Rishi’s mantra with this one and it works. Recommended.
A grinning thanks to Rishi Vohra for sending me the signed copy and getting me to Babloo and Rail Man.
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