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Breathless in Bombay: Stories

Breathless in Bombay: Stories

by Murzban F. Shroff

Paperback(First Edition)

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Shortlisted for the 2009 Commomwealth Writers' Prize

Shroff's vibrant narratives in this concept collection of 14 stories set in contemporary Bombay feature a range of beautifully drawn characters in fascinating situations: from the laundrywallas' water shortage problems, to the doomed love affair of a schizophrenic painter and his Bollywood girlfriend, to the wandering thoughts of a massagewalla at Chowpatty Beach, to the heart-warming relationship of a carriage driver and his beloved horse. Each of these stories is richly crafted and arranged against the grand chaotic backdrop of life that is Bombay. Shroff's love for his hometown shines through, but so does his deep understanding of its challenges and problems. The reader is afforded an insider's view of this pulsating city, and through an unforgettable emotional and cultural journey comes to care for the characters presented in these stories.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312372705
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/05/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Murzban F. Shroff is a Bombay-born writer. His stories have been published in over 25 literary journals in the U.S., including the Gettysburg Review, the Louisville Review, the Minnesota Review, and the Southwest Review. He has received two Pushcart nominations and is currently at work on his first novel.

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MATAPRASAD MAHADEV fifty-three, dark, and fiercely mustached, was in a thoughtful mood as he sat cross-legged in dhoti and chappals on the floor of the luggage compartment of the Churchgate-bound local. Next to him was his khep, a soft white cloud of a parcel that held the clothes of his customers in a firmly knotted bedsheet and announced his occupation to be that of a dhobi.

The train, being a "fast," rocked and rolled and sometimes threatened to leave the tracks. The clickety-clack of the wheels was loud and slicing; after a while it settled into a rhythm, which made Mataprasad drift into reverie.

The compartment was empty. As it was a Sunday and close to lunchtime, it was considered an inappropriate hour to travel — unless of course you were like Mataprasad, for whom Sunday was delivery day, as busy as Monday for the general order of the human race.

Mataprasad had delivered three kheps that morning: one in Tardeo, one in Bombay Central, the last in Bandra, from where he was making his way back by train. It was a shame he had to travel so far these days, but then what to do? Work was work, and there was not enough to come by these days, damn those washing machines: front loading, top loading, tumble wash, bungle wash, whatever!

The washing machines had put the dhobis out of business. Well, almost. It was all right initially when the machines were expensively priced, when the housewives had shied away from those fancy push buttons, flashing lights, and beeping sounds. The women had wondered whether the machines would get rid of all the sweat and grime that came with Bombay humidity. Would the clothes be damaged with all the slapping the machines put them through? Not quite sure, the housewives had decided not to dispense with their dhobis yet.

Hilda Pestonji, his old customer from a Parsi colony at Colaba, had dragged Mataprasad in for a demonstration. She — a glum-faced, good-hearted dragon of fifty-two, an obeisant lover of fads and diversions — had led him to the bathroom, and there she'd press-started the enemy into action.

Through the transparent lid Mataprasad had watched the trickle of water till the tub filled, then the spin rinse, back and forth, back and forth. Oh, what speed! He could barely see the clothes. The whirring noise made him fret. Was this any way to treat clothes? he thought, and here, if there were a button missing or a collar frayed, he would fetch an earful. Yet this machine bashing around the clothes was considered fine. How strange, he thought, people were happy to bury their prejudices just so that they could be seen as modern. He stood in silence, wondering if this were a conspiracy between the clothes manufacturers and the machinewallas.

Another thing that angered him about his squatlegged, motordriven competitor was that no individual care was given to the garments. They were treated alike in a bundle. Now, how would that remove the sweat? And the dirt that slid under the cuffs of shirts and the hemlines of skirts? He said to Hilda Pestonji, "Just think, sister, can a gadget go into armholes and seams? Can it bully the dirt out? Can it compare to the strength of human hands? You know how much work it takes to get the sweat out? Believe me, hand wash is the best!" "Nonsense," she scoffed. "There is nothing wrong with the machine, Mataprasad. Do you think people all over the world wear dirty clothes? You are simply finding fault and not seeing the good side. See, the clothes are washed already. No waiting for one week; no giving up Sunday mornings, counting, taking stock of what you deliver and what you take. I can wash while I cook and can watch television at the same time. No jhanjhat! No khitpit! And no chance of clothes getting misplaced." Mataprasad had sighed. How to argue with a woman whose mind was made up? How to fight that swell of chest that would go around proclaiming to the neighbors: "See, I bought a new washing machine today. Very advanced it is, and what a blessing! I don't know how I managed all these years"? How, in other words, to fight a machine that never strikes back, that just takes over man's life quietly, with new, new promises every day? But then who had invented this machine if not man himself? So man fights himself, puts himself out of business. And it doesn't matter as long as there is a new toy to enjoy.

But this was not the paradox occupying Mataprasad's mind today. This was not why his eyebrows furrowed and why he plucked at his mustache, a greasy black and white caterpillar bristling with arms, legs, hair, life, anything that hid a lip.

The mustache brought to his face a startling masculinity, a sense of authority, grim and sharply defined. All he had to do was stroke it and it came to life. It got people's attention, made them sit up. This was important when you were head dhobi, officially in charge of a dhobi ghat with eighty-nine families and their problems.

The train picked up speed. Lines of tenements flew past. It being Sunday, Bombay slept or was frozen before the television set. Overhead, the handgrips swung in unison; like gongs they hammered at Mataprasad's head. The train seemed to toss him, make light of him and his khep. His thoughts returned to the morning: the meeting at the dhobi ghat where so much was discussed and where some trouble had appeared and settled in his mind, a burden bigger than his khep.

THE GHAT WAS AN ARID HILL, brown and rocky, with green shrubs near the top. Behind it were two new skyscrapers: tall, thin birds of prey. At the foot of the ghat was the washing area: long, cement tanks grouted into the ground, and parallel to the tanks were the tubs, where the clothes were soaked before washing. A few feet away from the washing area was the basti, where the dhobis lived in small, dingy houses. The houses faced each other, in rows, with long narrow lanes in between — just enough space for a single person to pass by In the houses, there were no doors, windows, or vents — only curtains, drawn back at all times.

The houses were made of old wooden boards and sheets of asbestos, plastic, and tin. The rooms were cramped and dark. There were stacks of clothes everywhere. White clothes. Colored clothes. Old clothes. New clothes. Outer wear. Inner wear. Daywear. Nightwear. There'd be kurtas and kaftans, frocks and baba suits, school uniforms and cotton saris, curtains and linen, napkins and towels, and old kitchen rags yellow with stains. The clothes would be stacked in lots, on the floor, on bunks, on a wooden platform reserved for ironing.

Mornings, an hour after sunrise, the basti would spring to life. Curtains lining the doorways would be flung open. The dhobis would emerge, yawning, stretching, and snapping the sleep out of their bones. The more religious ones would pray to the sun, or they'd chant and sprinkle water outside their doorsteps to ward off evil energy that had accrued during the night. The men would gargle at their doorsteps in the narrow lanes. Scooping water from stainless-steel buckets, they'd splash their faces, hands, and feet vigorously. The soapy water would collect and run in a steady stream, making the lanes wet and slippery. On finishing, the men would carry the dirty clothes outside. They'd be followed by a musty stench because the clothes would have been bundled up for days. The men would collide in the lanes — a clash of kheps, a conflict of burdens. One of the two would have to give way, and he who'd squeeze past on the merit of being older would invariably comment on the size of the khep — its value — that the other dhobi was carrying. Immediately there'd be a quip back about the size of the customer's pocket, which was shrinking. Yes, everybody knew that — so why rub it in, brother?

The separation of the clothes would have been done earlier by younger members of the family. The colored clothes would be separated from the whites, the heavy garments from the light ones. The stained ones would be set aside for special treatment. Otherwise the memsahibs would be unforgiving; they'd rail, rant, and threaten to switch to washing machines. Mataprasad had a saying for such stains, the ones that need a longer soak and intense scrubbing. "Ah," he would say to the younger dhobis who would sweat over them, "ah, trouble is a stain that doesn't wash easy."

First, the clothes would be soaked in wooden tubs called bambas. They'd be immersed in soapy water while the dhobis chatted about customers or about the scarcity of work and the rise in prices. After a while the clothes would be taken to the rinsing tanks, which were marked for three levels of water: low, medium, and high. The level would be decided by the dhobi as per his load, and the water would be released on request by a mukkadam, who would maintain a logbook of accounts. Each level had a different rate, starting with 40 rupees, going up to 120 rupees, and this would have to be totaled and paid to the municipality at the end of every month.

The actual washing was done in the rinsing tanks, but before that the clothes would be scrubbed against a grinding stone, the dhoolayi patthar. The act of scrubbing was called dhona, and it was a real sight to see the dhobis with their strong, sinewy arms raise the clothes like exuberant lassos and slam them against the grinding stones. While they did that, they'd sing quaint songs that they had inherited from their forefathers. The songs inspired the dhobis, brought to their labor a speckled unity, a magnetism that locked them like ants to a hill or bees to a hive.

Washed, the clothes would be taken up the ghat for drying. It was the women who'd go up, sure-footed like mountain goats, their saris knotted at the waist, their hair twisted in plaits, baskets of sweet-smelling clothes resting delicately on their hips. Within an hour, the hill would erupt in a blaze of colors, tents of wet clothes flapping like joyous birds on bright nylon strings, flapping, fluttering, threatening to leave their place and fly into the sun.

While the women would be hanging out the clothes, the men would watch from below. Some men would recline on charpoys, pulling dreamily at their beedis; others would be soaping and washing themselves in the tank water they had paid for. One of the men would call from below, "Arrey, woman, how much do you wring that garment? It's not your husband's neck, you know?" And she — the one spoken to — would turn and say irrepressibly, "Good thing, no — otherwise he'd be dead by now." The dhobis would laugh. The women were becoming bold now. It was the effect of those television serials they were watching.

Their eyes narrow with the glare of the sun, their skins wet with soapy water or sweat, their heart and muscles pounding with a rejuvenated flow of blood, the dhobis on the charpoys would call to Mohan and Sohan, the chaiwalla boys, who'd rush up and pour steaming hot chai from an old kettle into palm-size glasses. The air would be sharp with the smell of bleach; the breeze would bring its own fragrance — of freshly washed clothes wafting down from the ghat — the sun would rise and glower down on the clothes; the clothes would soak in the warm rays eagerly, gratefully; the women would tiptoe down, taking care to avoid the burning hot rocks that could scald their feet; the men would stretch, yawn, and dream of lunch and of a good sleep thereafter.

Outside, the city would be oblivious to this piquant little community holding its own, frozen, by its own choice, in time. Outside, cars would rush to well-appointed destinations; buses would honk fiercely, admonishingly; taxis and two-wheelers would dart out of their way; signals would flash and fail; cops would arrive; men in cars would roll down their windows and peer anxiously, then look at their watches and make frantic calls on their cell phones. Against this, the ghat would bask in its own space, its own serenity. Life here had its own language, pace, and traditions, which were part of the city's history of livelihoods. It was Mataprasad's dream to keep it so.

THE MEETING AT THE GHAT began harmlessly enough. Mataprasad sat under the banyan tree, flanked by two colleagues, Ram Manohar and Kashinath Chaudhary. Between them they made up the ghat pan-chayat, managing the affairs of the dhobis and their families. There was no question of an election or a change of leadership ever. Everyone trusted their judgment, their ability to resolve matters, swiftly, decisively, the same day.

That Sunday, the smaller matters were taken up first: the allocation of time slots at the rinsing tanks, the cleaning of pipes that brought water to the tanks, and the replacement cost for two leaking bambas, which would amount to six thousand rupees and which they'd share equally.

Someone suggested switching from Ariel to Finex. The new washing powder bleached as it washed; it would bring down operating costs dramatically. But then someone pointed out that the new product scalded your hands. What use was a washing powder that did not respect the tools of your trade? The dhobis nodded in agreement. The makers of Finex were condemned unanimously. The new product was never to be brought up or discussed again.

Kolsaram, the coal merchant, was acting up with his rates and with his late deliveries. He was charging six rupees per kilo, when all over it was five. He had to be told to pull up or they'd look elsewhere. The ironing couldn't pile up like that. The kheps couldn't be delayed. Worse, they couldn't allow Kolsaram to hold them for ransom. Ishwarilal, the head istariwalla, was told to call in other suppliers and begin negotiations right away. That should teach Kolsaram a lesson.

Lacchman Dubey rose. He was a dark, fat dhobi, with a shock of gray hair, a puffy face, small eyes, and a hard belly that protruded unabashedly. He was facing a serious problem, he said. Every morning someone was littering outside his doorstep, someone with malice in his heart, for they all knew how pious he, Lacchman Dubey, was; he'd have just finished his puja then.

Mataprasad suppressed a smile. Lacchman Dubey was unpopular with the kids. He'd chase them from the place at the back of his shanty, where they played their games of cricket and kabaddi. He'd run after them, catch them, and cuff them with a little extra strength. Or he'd confiscate their ball, pushing his fingers into it so that it became unusable. And he'd hold their ears and make them do baithaks, up and down a hundred times, till their knees ached and their breathing turned hard. But the children of the ghat wouldn't do something so mean. At most, they'd burst a firecracker outside his door, nothing beyond that.

Mataprasad knew who the real culprits were: the stray cats that lurked at the garbage dump on the main road. They were the ones who brought their excretory habits to Lacchman Dubey's door.

Solemnly he said, "I don't think this should bother you, Lacchman Dubey. It is a well-known fact that anyone as devout as you on the road to spirituality is bound to have obstacles in his path. That is God's way of testing you, to see if you get flustered and show intolerance to your fellow beings. By being upset, you are playing into the devil's hand. You are weakening your puja, stopping your own progress. You should show more forbearance than that."

"Yes, Lacchman Dubey," the other dhobis agreed. "Leave the culprit to his own deserts. A holy man like you should remain unmoved."

"If you say so, brothers," Lacchman Dubey said. He sat down feeling pleased and understood, oblivious to the smiles, the snickers, the warm eyes twinkling with mirth.

Kishore Sahu, an elderly dhobi, rose. He had a complaint about his son-in-law, Daman, he said. Why was Daman still staying with him when he had promised to leave once he got a job? And now the couple was expecting a baby. Was Kishore Sahu expected to look after the baby, too? How could he afford that on eight kheps a month? How could he feed four mouths on that?

Mataprasad asked Daman why he had failed to move out. He was working as a delivery boy to a jeweler. So did he not make enough to live on his own? To burden his father-in-law at his age was such a shame.

Daman rose — a thin, worried youth in his twenties. His eyes were gaunt and melancholic; his face was etched with worry lines; he mumbled as he spoke. He confessed he was making two thousand rupees a month and was desperately trying to find a kholi somewhere, but everywhere they wanted a deposit. "How do I raise thirty thousand rupees?" he said. Plus, there was an extra charge for water, electricity, and personal protection — yes, that, too. And some of the tenements were so shabby. Just enough space to crawl in, water one hour a day, and long queues and fights, and rats, mosquitoes, and dogs with disease, and in between huts places serving illicit liquor. How could he live there after living at the ghat7 If only Kishore Sahu would give him more time.


Excerpted from "Breathless In Bombay"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Murzban F. Shroff.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Immeasurable Gratitude,

Reading Group Guide

BREATHLESS IN BOMBAY is a concept collection of 14 stories set in contemporary Bombay, featuring a wide range of beautifully painted characters in fascinating situations: From the laundrywallah's water shortage problems and fear of displacement, to the efforts of a taxi driver to exploit the tricks of his trade and make ends meet, to the heart-warming relationship of a carriage driver and his horse in the light of an increasingly automotive world, each of these stories is richly crafted and smartly arranged in front of the grand chaotic backdrop of life that is Bombay. Shroff's love for his hometown shines through, but so does his deep understanding of its challenges and problems. The reader is afforded an insider's view of this pulsating, vibrant city and comes to care for the characters presented through these stories. Shroff is definitely a writer to watch, as he tackles his first full-length fiction project.

Praise for Breathless in Bombay

"Breathless in Bombay pulses with desire and dreams and wrong and sorrow, with chaos singular and general, and ultimately, with hope. A marvelous first collection by a writer to be watched." —Janet Peery, author of What the Thunder Said, The River Beyond the World, and Alligator Dance

"It's a rare thing to see human troubles described with such energetic good humor—Murzban Shroff leads you through the chaos of Mumbai with an avuncular arm around your shoulder and a spring in his step. Not since V. S. Naipaul's A House For Mister Biswas has the discomfort of people in their society been so engagingly chronicled—Shroff has written a stellar debut. We could use four or five of him." —J. Robert Lennon, author of Mailman and Pieces for the Left Hand

"In this excellent debut short-story collection, Murzban Shroff distills the delirious reality of Bombay into a vivid, multi-layered collage that's nothing short of stunning. It's all here— the beauty, the suffering, the grinding wheel of modernization, the desperate machinations for love and money, plus a cast of characters that in its richness and scope rivals anything we find in Dickens, Balzac, or Tom Wolfe. Shroff writes with an energy and intensity equal to his subject, and has given us an extraordinary book that satisfies on every level." —Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara

"Like James Joyce's Dubliners, Breathless in Bombay is a story collection that has the range and fullness of a novel. Shroff's empathy for his characters is filled with wisdom and great-heartedness, and his people and their city linger in the reader's mind long after the last page is turned." —Ron Rash, author of The World Made Straight, One Foot in Eden, and Chemistry and Other Stories

1. How has the book changed your understanding of Bombay? Does it make you want to visit?

2. Who are the characters you felt most drawn to? For what reasons were you drawn to them?

3. If you were residing in Bombay, how would you—as a responsible citizen—go about addressing these issues: unplanned development, corruption, encroachment, poverty, and class divide? If you were to start a nonprofit organization, which cause would you take up?

4. What role has the author intended for the women in the work? Please discuss in relation to Ritika in Breathless in Bombay, Silla Mullafiroze in The Great Divide, the three ladies in A Different Bhel, Shyla in Haraami, Kaveri in The Maalishwalla, and Vicki in Traffic. Which of the women captures the true essence of the Indian woman?

5. With temptation having set in at the ghat, what do you think happened to Mataprasad after the end of Dhobi Ghat?

6. Do you think Bheem Singh from The Maalishwalla returned to his village? Bearing in mind that going against tradition was to invite the wrath of the entire village, what course of action would you advise for Bheem Singh in his marriage?

7. Do you feel trading off his sense of ethics makes Chacha in The Queen Guards Her Own any less heroic?

8. Which portions of the work did you find most shocking, touching, humorous, and/or thought-provoking?

9. Did Madhulikar Srini in Babu Barrah Takka take the bribe eventually? If you were in his shoes, what would you do? How would you justify your actions to your wife and your to-be-married daughter?

10. Does the author's approach to his work remind you of any American author, past or present?

11. By the author's own admission, his work has one overriding goal—to sensitize the haves to the have-nots. Has he succeeded in his purpose? What feelings does the book leave you with?

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