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The Song of Kahunsha
by Anosh Irani
Doubleday Canada
320 pages, $29.95

In Kahunsha, police-tigers will patrol the streets to keep people safe, flowers will grow every-where, the water taps will gush forth pure rainwater, and, most importantly of all, no one will be deformed and people will not hate each other. This is the imaginary paradise envisioned by Chamdi, a 10-year-old boy who runs away from an orphanage—the only home he’s ever known—in search of his father on the streets of Bombay. Chamdi believes that “someday all sadness will die, and Bombay will be reborn as Kahunsha.”

The Song of Kahunsha is Vancouver writer Anosh Irani’s second novel, following his critically successful debut, The Cripple and His Talismans, published in Canada (by Raincoast Books) and the U.S. in 2004. Irani moved to Vancouver from Bombay in 1998 and wrote that first novel as his thesis in UBC’s MFA Creative Writing program. He is also a playwright—his first play, The Matka King, debuted at the Arts Club Theatre in 2003, and his second play, Bombay Black, was produced by Toronto’s Cahoots Theatre in January.

Shortly after leaving the orphanage, Chamdi encounters some other street children and becomes friends with a crippled boy, Sumdi, and his sister, Guddi. Their father was killed—run over by a car—three years earlier, and untold horrors have left their mother with another baby, and nearly comatose with despair. In spite of his disabilities, Sumdi is whip-smart and adept at living on the streets—an Artful Dodger to Chamdi’s Oliver Twist. This sample of their banter from when they first meet is a good showcase of Irani’s skills with dialogue, no doubt thanks to his work as a playwright:

“I’m from an orphanage.”
“What’s that?”
“You don’t know what an orphanage is?”
“Hah yaar, I don’t know.”
“An orphanage is where they keep children without parents.”
“There’s another name for such a place.”
“What.”
“Bombay.”

If Sumdi is this story’s Artful Dodger, its Fagan is Anand Bhai, a terrible villain who rules the neighbourhood’s criminal underworld with vicious ruthlessness. The children must give him any money they earn through begging, and Bhai decides how much to give back to them to live off. It’s a desperate equation, but Sumdi and Guddi have a solution—they plan to rob a temple on a certain night when there will be enough money for them all to escape Anand Bhai’s clutches. They just need someone thin enough to squeeze through the bars of the temple window. And now they’ve found him: Chamdi, who is so skinny his ribs all stick out.

Without revealing too much more of the story, suffice to say the children’s plan does not succeed. Chamdi becomes even more embroiled in Anand Bhai’s plots, and as a wave of racial violence descends upon the city, he is forced to play a role. The ultimate question of the book seems to be whether this orphan boy’s utopian dreams of a better Bombay can be quashed by the terrible reality surrounding him.
                                                                                         
Readers who enjoyed Irani’s first novel, which describes a man searching Bombay for his lost arm, may think that the author is returning to familiar territory here, but these are two very different books. The Cripple and His Talismans is an expressionistic fable told in magic realist style, where seemingly anything fantastical that can happen does. The Bombay evoked in that book is a squalid, overgrown, mystical place only half-based in reality.

The Song of Kahunsha is set in a much more realistic Bombay—the way Irani remembers it to have been in 1993, in fact, when a series of racially motivated attacks and counterattacks overtook the city. The only flights of fancy taken in this story occur in Chamdi’s admittedly fertile imagination, but those moments are rare. The reader, meanwhile, is left with the dirty, grim reality of a city that cannot be home to its own citizens.

Irani’s writing is much more restrained here than in his first novel, or even, for that matter, his plays. This bare-bones, straightforward approach sometimes left me wishing for the more florid, playful storytelling style employed in The Cripple and His Talismans. Perhaps Irani feels that the tragic story he wants to tell here demands a stricter approach, but the better choice, I think, lies somewhere in between the fantasy worlds of his first book and the harsh reality of this one.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who is currently working on his first novel.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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