It is interesting to see the evolution of Indian fiction in English. From being confined to serious academic kind of fiction read only by elite, Chetan Bhagat triggered an explosion of campus romances. Now when people are fast getting fed up of campus romances, we are seeing the emergence of new genres. “Once upon the tracks of Mumbai’ is one such different kind of book. It has an interesting premise of a middle class autistic person turning super hero.
The best thing I liked about the story is the pace. There is never a dull moment and it is easy to finish the book in one sitting. The language has maintained a correct balance between simplicity and elegance. It would not send the average Indian rushing for the dictionary and at the same time not earn too many brickbats from the pundits like some of the other popular Indian authors. The descriptions of the surroundings are really vivid and the book beautifully conjures up images of life in a middle class colony in Mumbai.
The hero instantly establishes an emotional connect with the readers. The other characters are also well sketched though most of them are stereotypical. Special attention has been given to the heroine but she also fits the typical stereotype of the modern Indian girl. There is hardly anything unique and memorable about her as such.
Aside from providing entertainment literature also has a social function. In this aspect this book brings out the problems faced by modern young woman in the Indian society. It brings out how the traditional family and society curb their aspirations and how the modern outside world tries to exploit them. The heroine in the story is caught between the traditional conservative family and society in the railway colony on one side and lecherous bosses and road side Romeos on the other. The story however does not provide any solution or inspiration to numerous women living in such situations.
Similarly the story highlights the problems faced by a differently enabled person in a middle class family. It brings out how the family and society fail to understand the feelings and aspirations of an autistic person. As I mentioned earlier the protagonist easily wins the sympathy of the reader and hopefully it will transform the way people view people with mental deformities.
Whereas Rishi has indeed done a commendable job, Indian writers still have a long way to go to catch up with some of the Western giants. So as an honest reviewer I need to point out the failings as well. One of the things I felt did not work was the first person narrative. The writer randomly mixes up first person and third person narrative. What adds to the confusion is that there is hardly any differentiation in style between the two. The first person narrative sounds too intellectual and does not at all sound like autistic hero. Authors attempting first person narrative must try to suppress their own voice and give voice to their characters. Rishi has failed in this aspect. Also whereas the character is immensely lovable, he is not realistic. There is too much inconsistency. Maybe some people might quote examples of autistic savants to justify how the hero of this story seems to understand some really complicated things but does not seem to understand some very simple things. But as a general reader I did not feel the character to be realistic. It was as if he was a normal smart hero who suddenly remembers he is autistic every now and then like the hero in the movie ‘My Name is Khan’.
One of the key aspects of a story is the ending. Sad ends work for some stories, happy ends work for others. Though a reader may not be able to guess, the narrative leads him to want one particular type of ending and a different ending leaves the reader disappointed. That is what happened with me in the movie ‘Jab tak hai jaan’. Not that I found the movie any good otherwise also. But as far as this book goes, I liked the ending. I am not going to make this review a spoiler by mentioning what happens in the end though.
So overall I found it quite a decent story. It would make an excellent script for a Bollywood movie starring Salman Khan. I think the writer has also something on similar lines in mind seeing the comments from people in the film industry on his book. He also mentions a fictional film star called Shahir Khan in his story who the hero in the story is supposed to bear a striking resemblance to. I doubt if it can be just a coincidence that he sounds very much like Salman Khan. I wish Rishi best of luck in his endeavors and hope to see a film based on his book soon.