I'm tired. I've obviously read too many mediocre Indian English authors lately, and when Once upon the tracks of Mumbai came my way for a review, I was prepared to not like it. And the book cover didn't make any good first impressions. But once I started reading it, I warmed up to it, and was soon immersed.
Rishi Vohra's unlikely protagonist, Babloo (or Balwant Srivastava, as I learnt in the last chapter) soon draws the reader into his joyless existence. Ignored by his family, unemployed and unsuccessful, Babloo lives the typical life of a lower middle class youth by the noisy tracks of Mumbai's local trains. But the greater bane of his life is his mental condition. Babloo is afflicted by a combination of mental disorders, that include Autism and what looks like borderline Schizophrenia. And this is where author, Rishi Vohra does a fabulous job. As a trained mental health professional, I would have found any 'fictionalising' of mental health conditions, unacceptable. But Vohra's novel is well-researched and it does not for once feel like he is trivializing or making fun of the protagonist's condition.
The narrative is mostly a first person account by Babloo, and the reader is witness to the kind of challenges even everyday living pose for the mentally ill. Vohra very realistically sprinkles the 'blank uncomprehending stares' and 'monosyllabic answers' Babloo gives people and the internal dialogues he has throughout the novel. The limited nature of his relationships with people in and outside his family are kept wonderfully consistent through the book.
The only exception is the character of Vandana, who Babloo loves and dreams of being with. Vandana is a sensible yet romantic girl. She is the only one who treats Babloo with some empathy, but cannot see his love. She falls for and is almost raped by the neighbourhood loafer, and much to her chagrin, is engaged to Babloo’s younger wimpier brother, Raghu. But an unexpected turn of events leads to Vandana's alliance breaking up, and Babloo finding a new identity. Does Babloo win over Vandana? Does his illness come in the way of him finding love and glory? With gossiping neighbours, a courtroom drama, love, heartbreak, villain-bashing, Mumbai's endless train tracks, media frenzy and even a 'superhero', the author keeps the reader hooked.
For his debut novel, Vohra has done a neat job with nicely fleshed out characters. The plot is inventive and the language, effortless. It is not difficult to empathise with Babloo, despise Raghu, hate Sikander, like Vandana, and generally admire the novel's easy style. The book is perfect for light reading and will appeal to people who appreciate this new crop of young, Indian authors. My only advice to Vohra is to find a different book cover designer when he writes his second book, and oh, think of a shorter title maybe.