The Lost Flamingoes of Bombayby Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
When photographer Karan Seth comes to Bombay intent on immortalizing a city charged by celebrity and sensation, he is instantly drawn in by its allure and cruelty. Along the way, he discovers unlikely allies: Samar , an eccentric pianist; Zaira, the reclusive queen of Bollywood; and Rhea, a married woman who seduces Karan into a tender but twisted affair. But… See more details below
When photographer Karan Seth comes to Bombay intent on immortalizing a city charged by celebrity and sensation, he is instantly drawn in by its allure and cruelty. Along the way, he discovers unlikely allies: Samar , an eccentric pianist; Zaira, the reclusive queen of Bollywood; and Rhea, a married woman who seduces Karan into a tender but twisted affair. But when an unexpected tragedy strikes, the four lives are irreparably torn apart. Flung into a Fitzgeraldian world of sex, crime and collusion, Karan learns that what the heart sees the mind's eye may never behold. Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay is a razor sharp chronicle of four friends caught in modern India 's tidal wave of uneven prosperity and political failure. It's also a profoundly moving meditation on love's betrayal and the redemptive powers of friendship.
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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 plotinvolving 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.
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Read an Excerpt
The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay
‘Oh God, Iqbal,’ Karan Seth said, looking warily at his boss, ‘you sound like you’re setting me up for trouble.’
‘Trouble is good for character building, Karan.’
‘Character building is too much work.’
‘I’m asking you to photograph a subject whom most other photographers on the team would give an arm and a leg to shoot,’ Iqbal said impatiently.
Karan grinned. ‘You picked me because I’m junior on your team and wouldn’t have the guts to say no.’
‘Well, I’m glad you see the light.’
Iqbal Syed and Karan Seth were sitting across from each other at a long cafeteria table; two glass mugs of cutting chai freed tendrils of steam between them. Copies of the magazine they both worked for—The India Chronicle—were scattered over the length of the table.
‘The story is on musicians who were once world famous but have now fallen off the grid,’ Iqbal said. ‘I want you to photograph the pianist Samar Arora.’
Karan looked blankly at Iqbal. Who was Samar Arora?
Gauging his puzzled expression, Iqbal added, ‘After graduating from Juilliard, around fifteen, maybe sixteen years ago, Samar performed at his first concert. He was twelve, or some such ridiculous age. The New York Times declared that a new star had arrived. Samar produced many hit records and performed at countless concerts to standing ovations. And then, without a word of warning, he quit.’ After a pause, Iqbal added, ‘At the ripe old age of twenty-five. Three years ago.’
‘Why did he do that?’
‘No one knows; I doubt he himself does. But you can see why Samar would be a fantastic subject for this feature.’
‘Yes, he would be perfect for the story but why do you want me to photograph Samar?’
‘You’re both in your twenties; it’s likely you’ll capture a side of Samar the seniors in the team may miss.’
Iqbal did not tell Karan that the real reason for his choice was that never before had he hired a junior photographer who had come to the desk almost fully formed: Karan had consistently delivered eloquent, powerful pictures, with unsaid things trembling at their corners; his work possessed the dazzling throb of permanence. Iqbal admired the oblique humour and elegant restraint in Karan’s pictures; of course, he would need time, and experience, for the raw, ferocious energy of his oeuvre to discover wholeness and patience, but fate had sent him out with a deck aflush with aces.
Although swamped with assignments, Karan figured that photographing a formerly famous pianist would be a breeze. ‘I’ll set up something with Samar Arora.’
‘You might be getting ahead of yourself,’ Iqbal cautioned. ‘After retiring, Samar hasn’t agreed to a single interview.’
‘I could always request his agent.’
Iqbal sipped on his chai. ‘He doesn’t have an agent since he no longer performs.’
‘What if I wrote to his record company and requested a one-off meeting? I could assure them that Samar would have the right to choose the pictures he wanted to see in print.’
‘It won’t make a difference. After moving to Bombay a few years ago he’s been a bit of a hermit. Although, when Samar does step out, he paints the town every shade of red and people talk about it for days.’
To their shared dismay, they were assailed at this point by the fluted voice of Natasha, the magazine’s fashion editor. She settled her plump, provocative derrière on the chair next to Karan; the new kid on the block had caught her eye at the water cooler the previous week.
Karan, however, had been avoiding Natasha from his first day on the job because she proudly sashayed around the office with a crocodile-skin clutch, as if announcing how she had thoughtfully rescued a poor reptile from the terrifying obscurity of the swamp.
‘I’ve met Samar,’ she said after enquiring what the two men had been discussing. ‘At a party in Bandra; he was guzzling Bellinis on the roof of the mansion, his best friend in tow.’
Karan tilted his head. ‘On the roof?’
‘One drink too many and he’d have come rolling down like squirrel shit.’ Natasha ran her predatory fingers through her bright blonde highlights. ‘Apparently, Samar claims the low temperature on the rooftop after midnight does his complexion a world of good. At one party he had to be rescued by firemen, ladders, the whole shebang; most Bombaywallas think he’s one pretentious prick.’
‘Who is his best friend?’ Karan asked, in the hope that the person might provide a lead to reaching the eccentric pianist.
‘Zaira, of the movies. I styled her shoot for our last issue. So beautiful she’s single-handedly responsible for raising India’s National Masturbation Index.’
‘The nation’s biggest film star is Samar’s best friend.’ Karan shook his head. All of a sudden, his proposed subject was not just another comet whizzing by in a distant galaxy of enigmatic failures. ‘So, why was Zaira on the roof with him?’
‘So they could be smug together! One is famous; the other is notorious; they’re joined at the hip. Y’know how it is: birdbrains of a feather…’
Karan sighed. He was new to Bombay—he had lived in the city only a few months—and Natasha exuded that odious, imperious indifference sired by snarkiness. He was not immune to its discouraging effects.
‘How do you propose I get hold of Samar for my assignment?’
‘Why don’t you try waiting outside his house?’ Iqbal suggested.
‘And jump him when he steps out!’ Glee dripped out of Natasha like precum.
‘I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful.’ Iqbal rose to leave. ‘And since you have a deadline that cannot be missed, get on with it.’ He strode off, winking at Karan, who looked stricken at the prospect of being left unchaperoned in Natasha’s clutches.
Karan turned to Natasha. ‘What a pity Samar no longer does the media.’
Natasha touched Karan’s arm and intoned in a voice laced with suggestion, ‘Luckily, I’m a firm believer in doing the media.’
‘In that case,’ Karan said as he picked up his camera and slung it over his shoulder, ‘you should get going, too; you have a lot of ground to cover.’
The young man’s sharp, watchful face, his deep-set auburn eyes, the swathe of jet-black hair and defined jawline continued to excite Natasha even after he had walked out of the line of her vision. For a little hick out of Shimla, she thought in the glowering light of his rebuff, he’s got a lot of cheek. But let’s see how far it gets him in a city that’ll chew him and spit him out like he’s a sliver of supari.
For the next two weeks Karan tried but failed to get hold of Samar. Calls to Samar’s cottage on Worli Seaface went unanswered. As Iqbal had told him, there was no agent to set up a meeting. He had to write off the Zaira lead too as it would mean he would have to cosy up to Natasha for Zaira’s coordinates. As the days went by, his dejection at failing to contact Samar was compounded by fear; Iqbal repeatedly asked for the photos and Karan wasn’t ready to let his mentor down.
One night, a week before the deadline, Karan was ruminating on the fact that he had come to Bombay in search of images that would reveal its most sublime, secret stories; instead, here he was, single and sleepless, busting a vein on a paparazzo job. He knew his desire to document Bombay was not wholly unique but perhaps his hunger had an original worth, an intensity powered by ravenous curiosity and a quality that was a lot like compassion but without its air of moral conceit. How many others, he thought, had come to the city with a dark, delicious dream in their pocket and four thousand rupees in the bank? And how many others had found their passion exchanged for indifference, even resentment?
His mood was darkening by the minute when Iqbal rang him to say that he had just got word that Samar Arora had been spotted at the city’s most cunning joint, Gatsby. Although exhausted, Karan bolted up; it was like the moment in a rave when people are no longer dancing to or against the beat of the music but into it, the currents of bass and tune raging through their body and into the spirit. Not bothering to change out of his crumpled white tee-shirt and torn blue jeans, he raced down the stairs of his rental in Ban Ganga, made it to the main road, flagged a taxi and begged the driver to get him to Colaba in less than ten minutes: he didn’t want to get to the restaurant only to be told that Samar Arora had left the building. As he adjusted the lens cover over his Leica he found himself secretly hoping that Samar Arora had left the building and was, in fact, dusting a tile on the roof and drinking to the moonlight that now cast luminous bars outside the window of his taxi. What a photo that would make!
A little before 2.00 a.m., Karan reached Gatsby, tucked away at the end of sleepy old Mandalik Lane.
In front of the portal, under a big rain tree, liveried chauffeurs traded flashes of filthy gossip about their bosses, and tipsy memsahibs, smelling of their husbands’ abandonment, waited for valets to pull up their fancy cars.
No sooner had Karan stepped into the restaurant than he was subsumed with unease; in his shabby clothes and his unshaven, sleepy face, he was an obvious impostor. The waiters looked on with indifference and the haughty mâitre d’ eyed him as if he was going to walk right over and ask Karan to make tracks.
Karan slunk through the bubbly horde of painted faces, negotiating a jungle of expensive perfumes, vines of vetiver, marshes of musk. So as not to drown in a whirlpool of anxiety, he focussed all his attention on spotting his subject. Where was the piano man? He scanned the throng, but it was impossible not to be led astray. For here was a perma-tanned socialite with angry silver hair and narrow rapacious eyes, clanking her ivory bangles. A pack of icky corporate types, obese and bald, were surrounded by heroin-thin models with sepulchral expressions gouged with scorn. He recognized a famous film-maker, dressed in a stunning orange sarong, standing regally under the outrageous shield of a green cloth umbrella, his long wrist bent like the spout of a teapot. The music—a canvas for the assembled to spew their bon mots and display their neuroses—was electric tandava, and it washed over Karan, diluting all his worries. He imagined that the people here would never die: they would simply evaporate into the carnal smoke of the music, their loins wrapped around each other, self and sorrow abandoned to the roar of lust. His eyes coasted from one person to the next before zoning in on a small group under the wooden stairwell at the far end of the bar. Thrilled to see his elusive subject was very much around, Karan took a deep breath and readied himself for the decisive moment.
THE LOST FLAMINGOES OF BOMBAY. Copyright © 2009 by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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