HYDERABAD: A potboiler dream that Bombay is, it gives writers the maximum experiences that breathe on pages of print. And author Murzban F Shroff’s fiction is no different. His book of short stories ‘Breathless in Bombay’ explore the city as a living organism. This book was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the best debut category from Europe and South Asia. His recent novel, ‘Waiting for Jonathan Koshy’ explores Bombay from microscopic angles and the pictures are baffling. Shroff was a finalist for the Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize. He is the recipient of the John Gilgun Fiction Award and has six Pushcart Prize nominations, the highest award for the short story in the US. Murzban speaks to Hyderabad Express.
Your collection of short stories ‘Breathless in Bombay’ stirred quite a controversy about the usage of a particular word. Do writers become more conscious or reckless after such rows in which the HC verdict is also involved?
When you go through three years of litigation, a certain amount of circumspection does set in. But it is important to see that you don’t slip into self-censorship after that. I was convinced that I had written ‘Breathless in Bombay’ out of the best of intentions: to sensitize the haves to the have-nots. The police also certified that the book had a unifying effect. And the High Court ruled conclusively in my favor. So I will continue doing what I do best: write with absolute conviction, honesty, and vigor.
Did you feel unsafe in the city after the incident?
For a while, yes! While I was going through the litigation and my family was threatened.
Is Bombay still Bombay for you or has ‘Mumbai’ changed some perceptions associated with this city?
For me, Bombay will always be Bom Bahai, the Good Bay. It is a city of benevolence, an all-encompassing city, which, sadly, has been betrayed by its rulers.
What paradox have you used in ‘Jonathan Koshy’? How different is the plot and protagonist from those of your short stories?
In ‘Breathless’ I had to take a clear moral position. What was happening to the city, to its heritage trades, was not good. There, I was tracking the lives and issues of its citizens: the civic apathy, the corruption, the threat to certain livelihoods. In ‘Waiting for Jonathan Koshy’, I have attempted a more ambitious picture. How do you define success? How do you understand India? Can you really do so? ‘In Koshy’, life is the hero and life is the villain. That, is the plot.
Is Jonathan Koshy you or your alter-ego?
Koshy is too much of an individual to be anyone else. He is an original creation.
How tough was the research for the novel?
Since the novel is set in Bandra, a neighborhood I adore and which is now under threat of rampant development, the research became a delightfully obsessive journey. The problem was sifting through reams of material and deciding what was crucial to the narrative.
How was the book received in India and abroad?
In India, the response has been almost unanimous. Reviewers and readers have found it a quick engaging read. In the U.S, it has drawn a top-drawer agent who will now take it forward.
You are often invited to international literary events. How different or vibrant is that scene as compared to ours?
What amazes me about international events is the kind of state support they receive. Take the London Short Story Festival, for example. It is supported by the Arts Council of England. Recently, when I was invited to the California State University at Monterey Bay, I was amazed to find that the professors and students had already done research on my work. In international events everything goes like clockwork and you come away feeling deeply gratified.
Are we Indians not progressing in the right direction?
Here, I can only answer for the arts, about which I am concerned. If we cannot protect our writers, artists, and film-makers, if we cannot create an environment of natural curiosity and trust, what legacy can we hope to leave for subsequent generations?
Tell us about your journey to the literary world. What brought you to the World of Word?
I always wanted to be a writer. I was an active contributor to my school magazine and the editor of my college magazine. After 16 years in advertising I started my own consultancy which grew so fast that I was worried. There was growth, but no fulfillment. I knew then I had to create something enduring, something meaningful, beyond the transitory appeal of an ad. So I took to writing, working on the nuts and bolts of it. But before that, I travelled to the villages and studied migration patterns into the city. This gave me an expanded sensibility and sensitized me to cultures and issues beyond my own milieu.