In the 1990s hit British comedy series, Goodness Gracious Me, there was a sketch of a dad or uncle-figure who saw India in everything grand that he saw. It sent up a certain type of non-resident Indian – one who left his homeland many decades ago, but still carried rose-tinted memories in his chest pocket.
At the other end of the India love-in is a certain type of Westerner. From London to Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, myriad aspects of the country and its history – from Gandhi’s asceticism and Indic religion more generally, right through to Bollywood and her nautch girls – India has always enchanted. All things being equal, therefore, one could reasonably assume that Mahesh Rao’s One Point Two Billion would particularly appeal to these two robust constituencies. And concomitantly, for those outside that superset, the single, fixed locus for this collection would eventually wear thin.
The inside cover blurb hints at something of a USP – of stories that ‘offer glimpses into the loves, triumphs, and tragedies of everyday life in a world torn between tradition and the shock of modernity.” And indeed, the first story – about a manageress at a yoga retreat with an exclusive Western clientele – surfs that very wave. In this opener, Rao (playfully) mocks both Indians and Westerners, spearing both with precise observations:
“..On her second day a woman from Los Angeles had arrived at the centre, saying that she wanted to become a Brahmin.
Bindu had creased her brow and said: ‘I am very sorry, madam, but we are not running such classes.’
‘Oh sure, I know that. But after the yoga, that’s where I want to be at.’”
“..Srinivasa was the day watchman. His main tasks included patrolling the grounds, directing guests to reception and chasing away any local youth who came to ogle foreign women..”
It’s a solid opening sortie, however as someone ‘outside the superset’, I expected eventually to hit a brick wall – i.e. for the sheer ‘Indian-ness’ to overpower my palette. But it didn’t happen. Despite the title, this collection is remarkably variegated. Rao has harnessed his fixed-point – rather than trading on goodwill to all things Indian, he has, first and foremostly, crafted some exquisite stories. From the undercurrents between couples out fine-dining, an aged film star being mothballed by self-loathing, a man whose estranged wife returns as a preacher, and a spoilt little rich girl: majoring in sun-lounging and insults – Rao gives the reader detailed, believable and surprising characters, whose human–ness (not Indian-ness) take centre stage. Indeed the extent to which the Indian angle has been soft-pedalled is remarkable, however this serves to make Rao’s deft touches all the more delicious:
“…Sabine had a French grandparent, long dead, who was invoked whenever possible. Formerly called Sabina, she had snipped off the last syllable. And even though she spoke little French, the words she knew she pronounced with a histrionic correctness…”
Any Cop?: This is an excellent collection of short fiction that delivers on every front: high drama, unexpected twists, laugh-out-loud humour as well as a bitter sobriety. What Rao shows us, perhaps even unintentionally, is that the currents carrying Indian hearts and minds today are more universal; less distinctly Indian. And that’s a powerful point to take home. Gandhi would be turning in his grave.