Book Review: ‘The Extras’
From constables to Helen (yes, the vamp extraordinaire of old Bollywood), all sorts of people pop up in the second part of the rollercoaster ride of Ravan and Eddie’s lives. The characters in The Extras, Kiran Nagarkar’s sequel to his 1995 novel Ravan & Eddie, are a collection of oddities particular to Mumbai and the author describes them all perfectly. Each person has a distinct voice, crafted out of the way Nagarkar makes them use the English language. While The Extras isn’t as biting as Ravan & Eddie, the novel is fun because of the storytelling. Rather than being realistic and logical, everything in The Extras seems to be tilted towards the absurd. For better and for worse, that seems to sum up life in Mumbai both in reality and fiction.
Ravan (actually Ram) Pawar and Eddie Coutinho still live in the same chawl but are now young men who must make a living in Mumbai. After some detours, including encounters with a nymphomaniac, a gangster and the police, Ravan ends up driving a taxi while Eddie works as a mechanic. Both of them also go to the same acting class and join the crowd of hopefuls that want a break in the movies. After a few months, without consulting one another, both Ravan and Eddie adjust their ambitions and try to get jobs as extras, rather than cling to hopes of being noticed as potential heroes. Their first assignment has them shimmying with Helen. But life and Bollywood being what it is, there are still numerous obstacles in Ravan and Eddie’s paths. However, it seems there’s a spotlight (and a soundtrack) at the end of the tunnel.
The Extras has some charming bits as well as sections that seem self-indulgent and unnecessary. The novel meanders and darts through events, slowing down sporadically to catch its breath. “Aunty’s bars” (permit-less drinking joints), wedding bands, a jigsaw-puzzle of a chawl—Nagarkar is at his best when he writes about the world of Mumbai’s middling, struggling set. His irreverence is delightful and he doesn’t shy of taking the occasional pot shot at the country’s political establishment. Interspersed in the novel are little essays about different aspects of the city. In the latter half, the essays are replaced by letters written by a gangster in exile. Some of these are fun; a few seem entirely superfluous, like the poems penned by an extra that show up in the latter half of the novel.
It isn’t just postcolonial politics that makes English an awkward vehicle for many stories set in India. Much of the country speaks in different tongues and so, when a story is written in English, there’s a layer of translation that warps attempts at realism and credibility. Take for instance, Ravan. As a Marathi boy who grew up in a Mumbai slum and the son of a woman who makes tiffin for labourers, Ravan is unlikely to speak or think in English. Yet, just as he had in Ravan & Eddie, Nagarkar uses English with wicked fluency, fashioning it to match the rhythm and tones of the languages heard on the streets of Mumbai. Nagarkar’s language stands out because he doesn’t use non-English words to craft his illusion. There’s no chutneyfication, no lingo to learn, no patois to decipher, no glossary to look up. It’s all in English that dots its i’s and crosses its t’s properly. You may not actually hear this language on the streets but Nagarkar’s uses it in a way that makes The Extras read like a quintessential Mumbai novel.
The Extras by Kiran Nagarkar, 4th Estate, Rs599. Buy it from Flipkart.com.
Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma. She is currently a consulting copy editor at Elle magazine.