Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi surprises with everything he creates. His debut novel, The Last Song of Dusk, was the ethereal journey of a couple in a world defined by its architecture and the presence of the supernatural. His current photography exhibit, recently moved from Bombay to Delhi, chronicles the last months of his father’s life. And in his second novel, The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay, Shanghvi attacks the socio-political system of the city that journalist/author Suketu Mehta termed “maximum” and inspects how relationships survive against the odds.
Four individuals linked by need, art, and fate remain united through tragedy and circumstances in a city fueled by crime, corruption, fresh affluence, and political maneuvers.
Photographer Karan Seth moves from Shimla to Bombay, intent on capturing the essence of the city through the lens of his camera. Everything changes when he is assigned to photograph Samar, a famously elusive pianist. Flamboyant and eccentric, Samar introduces Karan to Zaira, the reigning queen of Hindi cinema, who suggests Karan search Chor Bazaar for a particularly rare but sexually functional piece of furniture. While on the hunt, Karan meets Rhea, a happily married woman who sees her neglected passion for art revived in Karan. Karan and Rhea find that their own passion for each other cannot be ignored. However, the rules are not easy, and the expectations are never clear.
When tragedy strikes, once-blissful lives and relationships shatter and crumble. During the difficult months and years that follow, each character discovers the fragility of love and the resilience of friendship.
The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay is a busy book. It offers no downtime, no leisurely contemplation, no simple answers to some of India’s most difficult questions. It enrages, prickles, and irritates while it comforts, sympathizes, and worships.
Shanghvi wrestles with AIDS, political corruption, extra-marital affairs, gay life, Bombay’s youth, fast money, a changing society, and India’s questionable legal system. He pitches his characters into a world of chaos, futility, confusion, frustration, solace, camaraderie, adoration, self-realization, dreams, and hope while expressing his love for Bombay and his frustration with wrongs that are rarely righted.
Meanwhile, the flamingoes come and go, thundering overhead, taking up temporary residence in an unlikely area of Bombay, much like the thousands who come to find their fortune or a better life.
There is a visual literacy to this novel, so perhaps Lost Flamingoes was the stepping stone for Shanghvi’s own artistic switch from publishing to photography. Occasionally, the imagery is stark, startling, and odd—like the unexpected sharp shadows of a black and white photo—but strangely appropriate, with a curious composition. Other times, the language is raw, shocking, and determined. The book crackles with sex from beginning to end, and friendships vacillate between the tangible and the implied.
One conspicuous element of this book is that it harbors no expected Indian novel stereotypes: multiple generations, arranged marriages, traditions and customs, or immigrants. When asked about this via email, Shanghvi confidently responded:
“I was trying only to write about a version of India I’d seen firsthand—of privilege, of excess, of corruption. On a personal front, I wanted to examine how we live our friendships—the new Indian family; and of how desire can corrode love. There was no conscious effort to write any particular book, nor was it a response to the kind of books that may be read now.”
Shanghvi is a literary sociologist examining and recording the flux of life around him. However, much of the story relies upon current events and people without disguising reality. The Jessica Lal shooting and court case is modified for Lost Flamingoes. Shaded references to film personalities—and incidents that surround them—are incorporated into characters. While Shanghvi won’t confess to specifics, he defends his “ripped-from-the-headlines” approach.
“Lost Flamingoes may have echoes of real life events,” he explains. “It’s a world to which I had a ringside view: of fashion and political corruption, of extreme wealth and the sudden, haphazard rise of a nation. We consider India in terms of its poverty—particularly in Western discourse—but I find its wealth more troubling: it perpetuates the divide between the rich and the poor.”
But why integrate the Jessica Lal case and make it so critical to the story?
“[That case] had a great impact on me,” Shanghvi states simply. “A powerful politician’s son walks into a bar. Asks for a drink. When he’s turned down . . . It all sounds like the start of a really bad joke, and indeed, when you study the case in its entirety—including how key witnesses all turned hostile and the police were bribed—it goes from tragedy to farce. That’s what I feel is real state of the rich and the poor in India, tragic in public and farcical in private.”
As for other living people reflected in the novel, some are clearly recognizable because of their high-profile status. Others fill in the gaps and give immediacy to the city and its inhabitants.
“The novel drew from life what was essential to keep its fabric authentic. There’s no point taking names but the kind of things that happen in India, and are accepted here so freely, happen in few other places in the world. It’s strange, uncanny, and no one bats an eyelid. But maybe someone should. This novel is that bat of eyelid.”
Lost Flamingoes covers a great deal of ground, including the validity and worth of both love and friendship. The relationships between some of the characters remain open-ended, offering hope and reconciliation. Shanghvi, himself, is practical about the topic of relationships.
“I believe all relationships remain open-ended: I don’t know of any real relationships that are prescriptive or remain defined for too long. So Samar might be in a relationship with Leo but on reflection he recognizes that his heart always wandered toward Zaira. Rhea might have an affair with Karan but she finds her marriage is central to her life—how can she love two men equally but differently? There is also a sense of an almost-romance, friendships conducted with a private voltage of desire and integrity. Such things remain free and fluid. I’m not interested in characters who can fill all the blanks Facebook asks of their personal lives.”
Important choices are made by these friends: to live/to die; to cheat/to love a married woman; to love a gay man/to deny love; to leave/to return. The characters are multifaceted and made more complex by virtue of the relationships they cultivate, reject, and uncover again. Perhaps the most summarizing comment in the book is what Karan’s mother tells him shortly before her death:
“People love people in such strange ways that you will need more than one lifetime to figure that one out.”
If that’s Shanghvi’s angle, then it doesn’t get any wider than that.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she is a paraeducator specializing in Reading, Language Arts, and Technology. She is working on two novels for middle grade and young adult readers.