Book Review: Vanity Bagh
Vanity Bagh could be anywhere in India. Any City. Or any town even. It could be the gali you pass through everyday. It could even be the street you may have lived in. For me Vanity Bagh could have been a neighborhood in old Bhopal (my home town) – the characters, surroundings and conditions are that familiar. Embarking on a journey into the history and histrionics of a Muslim neighbourhood through the eyes of one of its young inhabitants, the book is one hell of a ride. Anees Salim in his second outing as a novelist gives the reader a near visual peek into a world that is as familiar as it is unique.
Like any other neighbourhood Vanity Bagh, nicknamed Little Pakistan after a celebration of Pakistan’s world cup victory or as the imam claimed England’s defeat, has its over-beliefs, legends, quirks and stories. We are party to all this through the protagonist’s eyes and it is a ride filled with dark humour, bare realities and humans as real as they get.
Imran Jabbari is our guide into Vanity Bagh. It is his voice we hear and his eyes through which we see this little neighbourhood which is continously brewing animosity against is Hindu neighbourhood – Mehendi, still entrapped in the past glory of its anti-law hero and still living its isolated yet content existence. The book starts with Imran in the jail, transferred to the book making section and he detesting it wholeheartedly. While enduring his jail term grudgingly, he spends his time plotting to jailbreak drawing inspiration from the films he and his friends – the 5½ Men – had watched together. In the meanwhile, staring into the blank pages of the books he binds in the book making section, a talent to see reading material on blank pages manifests itself. Stories of Vanity Bagh start appearing in snippets.
Imran’s blank page reading talent is what tells us that back in his free-days he was part of the 6 membered gang that he and his friends had formed inspired by the legend of Abu Hatim – Vanity Bagh’s very own aging anti-law hero – an ex-Don. That they had christened themselves 5½ men and were still very young and inexperienced while pretending to be all grownup and hardcore gangsters. That they had landed an assignment to drop off scooters to various parts of the city. Eager to move into the big league they had accepted the work and were gung-ho about the accomplishment till the scooters started exploding – painting the city red and their destinies black.
Vanity Bagh is dark humour at peak form. The situations, people, their descriptions are so real that one can see them around. The writing is that visual. The perspective is so stark bare and honest that it effortlessly manages some uncontrolled chuckles from you. The narration seems effortless and quotes by the characters (and some others too) in between just helps in taking the story forward in the most interesting manner.
The best thing about the book for me was the maturity in writing. A rarity in Indian literature in these times but
once in a while comes along a book that reinstates your belief that gems are just stones with a shine. You just have to keep looking. And when you find one it puts a smile on your face that you have added a shining stone to your collection. This is exactly that kind of a gem (book).
This gem is definately a recommended read. I have this weird habit – when I like a book by an author I want to read all their published works; going by that I plan to read Anees’s debut The Vicks Mango Tree and his lastest Tales From A Vending Machine soon. Very soon.
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