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Jonathan Koshy – the Disruptor

In Jonathan Koshy, Murzban Shroff has created a character who is like a force of nature—a disrupter of status quos and sanity, and an instigator of creative havoc, who also happens to be a witty Casanova, all 5 feet 2 inches of him. Jonathan holds the entire city of Mumbai and, in particular, the suburb of Bandra, with its glorious, rapidly decaying past, in his fidgety palms as they make broad sweeping, hyperbolic gestures, and bring the reader along on the chaotic, intoxicating journey of his life.

The image shows a man's head
Author Murzban F.Shroff

Jonathan is filtered through the first-person narrations of four of his fast friends. They spend a considerable amount of time waiting for him to come back to Mumbai from his hometown in Kerala. Shroff tells us at the outset that Jonathan is an invented character: had he not done so, I would have believed heartily in a real Jonathan’s existence somewhere.

Jonathan’s voice, bursting with argumentative enthusiasm and the passionate, indignant, idealism that borders on naivete, echoes through the pages, right from the start. Nothing defines him better for us than his response to the question of why he bothered to return to Mumbai from the natural paradise of his home state.

Kerala is for junkies

“Kerala is for nature junkies. Something about those coconut trees, those backwaters, those endless groves of dark green. The beauty overwhelms you, stuns you. You can’t think. You get paralyzed…. Kerala is the place you come to in order to die released from earthly bonds. But it is not big enough to hold me and my ideas. You guys know me. I am a big-picture man. And I need a platform and an audience. That’s why, fuckers, I am back.”

Tourists on a riverboat cruise

As the friends reminisce, we’re pulled along, like tourists on a virtual riverboat cruise. Our loquacious guides point out enticing, shocking, and enthralling sights along the way. There are small squalls and diversions throughout the journey, which takes on a Disneyesque quality in the number of broken hearts, plot contortions, and fantastic acts of sweet, justifiable revenge that take place. 

The throbbing core of this river of curiosities is Bygone Bandra in the bosom of old Mumbai. Shroff does a remarkable job of recreating it. Jonathan’s friend Anwar inherits 104 Pali Hill, a mansion in Bandra, from his film producer father Mustafa Khan. It’s presented as the hub and soul of the quad’s friendship with Jonathan. It’s the place where it all began, where memories were made, and where their youthful 22-year-old selves were defined.  

Pali Hill and Mumbai

Shroff takes us on a guided tour of the history of Pali Hill and of Mumbai’s film industry in the 1940’s. It’s a time when the name Bollywood wasn’t even a glimmer on the golden sands of Juhu and when graceful colonial mansions populated Bandra. Absorbing anecdotes drip like dew from Shroff’s prose as we learn about Anwar’s parents, Mustafa and Ammi Khan. They met on a film set, struggling with poverty and missed meals as they tried to make it in an industry with infamously closed doors to outsiders.

As for Jonathan, he hooks the reader from act one. He isn’t simply returning to Mumbai. A politician’s mistress expelled him from Kerala because he insulted her daughter. The goons sent to ‘rough him up’ are entranced by the joint of pure Idukki marijuana he is smoking. After Jonathan presses a few packets of pure stuff on them, they cuff him lightly for show and put him on a train out of the state. The notion of the Idukki- joint-loving enforcers is just one of the delightful gems this book offers.

Jonathan the Adventurer

We discover that Jonathan, like most adventurers, is not very scrupulous or very honest. However, his loyalty to his friends and to his causes, and his faith in his ability to turn a bad situation around are unsurpassed. We watch, fascinated, as Jonathan leads his quad of buddies in playing imposter, posing as a well-known business magnate’s son, and living it up at his expense at “The Palms” an exclusive Bandra club.

When he gets a young girl pregnant and cavalierly abandons her, we cringe at our fallen hero. He’s only partially resurrected in our eyes after he orchestrates an act of vengeance against the girl’s irascible, obnoxious father. Jonathan never fails to fascinate, even when he is deeply flawed. We follow his adventures through the flesh trade of Mumbai as he organizes an impromptu birthday party for a homesick sex worker. We follow him as he volunteers at an organization that rescues the children of sex workers and falls in love with its director, only to discover that she’s allergic to men.

Suspending belief  

 Occasionally the reader has to suspend disbelief—as in the episode where he converts a charlatan debt collector into an honest man, simply by the gift of the gab. But suspending disbelief in the capable hands of Shroff is an easy task.

Chapter Four introduces Jonathan’s painful, dysfunctional family. We begin to see him as human and vulnerable, instead of a skilled, amusing performer. His parents divorce unhappily, leaving Jonathan practically destitute, financially and emotionally. This is when we hear the maudlin twang of Bollywood’s violin concerto in the prose. It’s a credit to the skill of Shroff as a writer that he pulls off the tearjerker, soap opera quality to Jonathan’s life and weaves rich facets of history and humor into the mix.

A journey of friends

The journey of Jonathan and his friends runs parallel to the journey of Bandra and of the entire country over the last few decades of the 20th century into the 21st. They lament the tearing down of Bandra and Pali Hill to make way for the greed of builders and ugly high rises. The book seems to mature with the protagonists. A later section is devoted to philosophical musings on the direction the country is headed, and the increasing commercialization of the economy.

There is some limp academic guilt over the growing gap between the rich and poor people, alleviated by the good whiskey they are drinking and the great kababs their servant, Bhisham, is cooking up in the kitchen of 104 Pali Hill.

Shroff’s book is a delightful concoction, which reminded me of the idiosyncratic escapades of Jerry Seinfeld’s gang of misfits on the sitcom, “Seinfeld,” in the early ’90s. If there was anything missing from the book, it was a female lens through which to distill the rich chaos of Jonathan’s life.

Waiting for Jonathan Koshy,” published by Astrophil Press at the University of South Dakota is available here

Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins and is working on a novel about the Partition.