Night in Bombay by Louis Bromfield

Rating - Read if you have the time

I happened upon this book in an airport bookshop (which by the way, contrary to general opinion, can actually yield some interesting stuff). It was a Penguin publication, originally from the 1940s and which had been republished recently. The title was tantalizing enough and the backcover promised a view of the 1940s Mumbai with its mills and its parties and so on. I could not imagine a time when the mills where not dilapidated buildings waiting to be taken over by builders to be sold at exorbitantly high prices. I promptly bought the book.

As such things tend to turn out, the mills only got a passing reference in the book. Still, there were enough other references to the Taj Mahal hotel, Juhu Beach and Malabar Hill to give me a peek into how these areas were back then. (Not too different as it turns out. Just that the skin colour has balanced out. The money quotient remains the same)

The story starts off with the arrival of rich American heir, Bill Wainwright in Mumbai to handle some business matters. Bill is hoping his wild past is finally behind him and this trip is a chance for him to show himself that. Bill meets his ex-wife Carol and his old friend Buck Merrill. The trio rapidly ends up in a love triangle. In the background are various interesting characters – a down-on-her-luck Australian woman, an ugly and mysterious baroness, a rich and perpetually tipsy Indian Maharaja, a slimy Parsi suitor, a hardworking doctor and his beautiful dancer wife.

It has been a long time since I have read a story where the Indians are not well-rounded characters but some sort of stilted stereotypes – either noble like the doctor or vicious like the Parsi suitor. (This strangely enough was not particularly annoying now that we are largely past the time when the general assumption was that all Indians were buddies with snakes and spent their spare time doing handy rope tricks.)

Ironically, the story itself was vaguely Bollywood, what with a love triangle, sacrifices, just desserts and so on. Some of the characters are fairly well developed, especially the peripheral ones. You expect them to come in and out and provide background prop, but they end up evolving over time. The pace is also fairly taut. The observations can sometimes by startlingly true, though not necessarily flattering. The writing may get melodramatic at times but keeps you engaged throughout.

The book is good for a read on a relaxed weekend.

Incidentally, googling revealed that Louis Bromfield won a Pulitzer.

The strangest thing though was that he started out by being a writer but spent the latter half of his years pioneering scientific farming practices and gaining recognition for that. Sort of like he started out being a F1 driver but spent the later half of his year studying newts in Minnesota or something like that. How does one move from doing two seemingly disconnected things at different ends of the 'interesting' spectrum...?

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