Archive for April 1st, 2012

April 1, 2012

Kiran Nagarkar, The Extras

Almost the best thing about reviewing The Extras was that it gave me an excuse to reread Ravan & Eddie and claim that I was working. I’m not sure if The Extras is ever going to achieve the sort of cultural importance that Ravan & Eddie has (I’m not sure it’s quite as good, even though that has no real bearing on the question of whether it will endure as well) but I wish everything I was given to review was of a quality as high as this.  My review of Nagarkar’s latest was published in this weekend’s Indian Express.

 

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Before embarking upon Kiran Nagarkar’s The Extras I reread Ravan & Eddie, the book to which The Extras is a sequel. Ravan & Eddie is the story of two boys born and raised in a Bombay chawl. Precluded from ever being friends by an incident in early life (Eddie’s father saved the baby Ravan from falling to his death and in doing so lost his own life) the two boys nonetheless lead parallel lives; both are unsuccessful at school, both become enamoured of films, and both learn martial arts.

When The Extras opens, Ravan and Eddie are on the cusp of adulthood. Ravan has a brief career with a wedding band before becoming a taxi driver, while Eddie balances a job in a speakeasy with a band of his own. In time, both are drawn inexorably towards Bollywood, and they meet and form an uneasy alliance as extras (or “sub-artistes”) in the movies.

As a sequel to Ravan & Eddie, The Extras mimics much of the style of the earlier book. Here again are the droll, scattered essays on various aspects of Bombay (and Indian) life that pop up every once in a while. (One of these kindly tells the reader that she should feel free to skip it and return to the main story a few pages later). Here also is the careful, almost too obvious parallel structuring of the two main characters’ lives. If Ravan lies to his mother about his job with a band, Eddie pretends to be working as a car mechanic. Ravan is taken in by a conman who offers him a passport and a Dubai visa; at the airport he learns that Eddie has suffered the same fate. With a rather excessive bit of symbolism Nagarkar at one point has these aspiring movie starts dance as mirrored, chromatic opposites in an item number featuring Helen and titled “Black or White”.

The author takes things even further by providing counterpoints to events from the previous book – aspects of Eddie’s relationship with the “Aunty” who runs the speakeasy, and Ravan’s foray into Catholicism will both seem very familiar. Reading the books in quick succession it was hard, for a great deal of The Extras, to remember where one book ended and the other began.

The Extras really comes into its own in the latter half of the book. One of the major shifts is that the impersonal essays peter out, to be replaced with more personal accounts of the city in the form of letters from a powerful criminal with whom Ravan has become embroiled. The tentative friendship that is formed between the two young men is expertly done – there are no sudden revelations of blamelessness on either side – it is entirely organic.

The Bombay of the late 1960s is fully alive, corrupt, chaotic, horrifying, full of violence but also unexpected kindnesses. Nagarkar rarely romanticises the city, but he observes it in loving detail until the city itself is as big a presence as the main characters. We move from grim scenes of botched abortions in the red light district to comic set pieces, including one in which a character attempts to hide his venereal disease from the family who visit him in the hospital.

The Extras is subtitled “★ing Ravan & Eddie”. This brings up a recurring theme of the book – are Ravan and Eddie the stars of their own story, or are they merely the “extras” of the title? A conversation with a fellow “extra” late in the book raises the question again.

One of the strengths of Ravan & Eddie was that it did not give its titular characters the story arc of a protagonist, allowing the central conflicts of their lives to go unresolved. This is The Extras’ biggest departure from the previous novel. Here, Ravan and Eddie may be naïve, ignorant and prone to failure, but they can also be extraordinary. The latter half of The Extras is pure Bollywood- the meteoric rise to fame, a partnership involving (shades of Amar, Akbar, Anthony!) a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim; one of the characters may even, in the face of religious difference and family opposition, get the girl in the end. Eddie stubbornly declares that he and Eddie can at least be the stars of their own lives and here, in the book not named after them, Ravan and Eddie come into their own.

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