I'm a Bihari-Bombaywallah - I'm Trishanku

August 30, 2006
Gaurav Mishra

My preferred mode of reading a book is to find a character I can identify with and then look at the entire book from his/ her perspective.

It takes me more than 500 pages of 'Maximum City' to find that perspective.

Babbanji is the son of a Geology college lecturer from Sitamarhi. At 17, he is a "slender youth with a thin moustache and wispy sideburns creeping into a beard." He is the intense sort, the sort who dreams of making petroleum out of waste plastic and writes poetry in Hindi.

Until one day, when a not-really-pretty classmate leaves a note in his textbook

"From my loneliness I am speaking to you."

and he replies

"Why are you seeking for your loneliness one who could go away tomorrow?".

After he is beaten up by some thuggish rivals in front of his entire class and humiliated by the girl's family, he decides to run away from home.

He ends up living on a footpath in South Bombay, and spends his time working as an assistant to a footpath bookseller and roaming around the city to find inspiration for his muse. Adil Jussawala, the poet, happens to have a discussion with him on a book of French short stories and, impressed by his poetic bend, introduces him to his writer friends, including Suketu Mehta.

Eventually, nothing much happens. Babbanji's father, who has been searching for him for months, finds him. As he boards the train to his hometown, Babbanji tells Suketu:

"I'll go back to the Patna branch of Time magazine and write for them!"

In a 600 page book about Mumbai, a 20 page detour about a Bihari boy is something of an anomaly, but it defines the book for me. I realize that, with a little twist of fate, I could have been Babbanji. More importantly, I realize that a part of me still is, and will always remain, Babbanji.

Suketu Mehta writes in the book:

"Bihar and Bombay are the two polarities of modern India, the success story and the disaster. If Bombay were only to be rid of its Bihari migrants, it could be a booming city state."

How true, I say, forgetting for a moment that I am a Bihari migrant in Bombay myself. And then, I see myself as who I am. I am a Bihari-Bombaywallah, the mythical 'Trishanku', stuck between two worlds, belonging neither here nor there, intent on rejecting my past, but not sure about what really I want from the future.

Suketu himself is one, as he reconciles his conservative middle class Gujarati upbringing with his high-flying New York based NRI writer status. So, as he walks down the rundown corridors of his Gujarati medium school, I remember my ten years in a Hindi-medium government school in Patna. As he oscillates between yearning for his roots and rejecting them, I share the ever-changing litmus of his emotions. As he contemplates the complexities of his class-change, his context-shift, I tell myself: that's exactly how I feel.

And then, I return to the beginning of the book and re-read the passage where he decides to marry his wife.

"I had met my wife, who was born in Madras and raised in London, in an Air India plane, the perfect metaphor for a meeting of exiles: neither here nor there, happiest in transit. The day after my first date with her, a cousin was going to Kanpur and I went to Victoria Terminus to drop him off. As the Gorakhpur Express pulled into the station, an enormous horde of migrant workers going back to their villages rushed towards it. The policemen beat them back with lathis. There was an immense clamour, and I stood to one side, watching, despairing. I thought of the girl I had just met, her beauty, her Englishness. She was the way I could distinguish myself from this herd, prevent myself from being annihilated by the crowd. At that moment, I realized I was in love. Being with her, a fine woman like her, would make me an individual."

As I re-read this passage, I realize that I have said the same words to myself more than once.

Iím a Yenta, Iím Trishanku, Iím a Used Car Salesman.
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August 31, 2006
01:07 AM

Loved the article. Pardon my ignorance but I still don't know who Trishanku was. Praps u could enlighten me?

August 31, 2006
06:08 PM

trishanku is apt

in the end little matters - bihari-mullu-punjoo-ghati-hindu-muslim-sikh-christian-nationlaity

in the end it dawns we're all temporal


September 1, 2006
03:35 AM

This Trishanku aspect applies to most of us - whether we are in India or elsewhere in the world. Growing up in Chennai, I felt I belonged there - but when I visited my dad's village, I felt torn - like I should belong to these people, this village but not really, cos I am a Madrasi.
Now, I still am a Madrasi, though Brentwood has its influences on me.
These are all the minor things - the core of what we are has got nothing to do with where we come from or where we end up.

October 6, 2006
07:39 PM

I loved this book. I just finished it last night. Thanks for the nice review! The closest I could find to finding myself in here was the author, mostly identifying with his sense of distance from the place and characters, yet his fascination in understanding and explaining their lives.

Babban Jee
March 2, 2009
01:06 AM

Dear Gaurav Mishra

Thanks for re-narrating my story on you blog.

"Babban Jee: A Run away poet"

Babban Jee
March 2, 2009
01:07 AM

Dear Gaurav Mishra

Thanks for re-narrating my story on your blog.

"Babban Jee: A Run away poet"

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