Not a Bollywood Fairy Story

By Keates, Jonathan | The Spectator, October 12, 1996 | Go to article overview

Not a Bollywood Fairy Story


Keates, Jonathan, The Spectator


Passengers at my local underground station - or 'customers' as official consumer-speak calls them - can while away the intervals between fretting at the train indicator's latest mendacious proclamations by reading the extensive text of an advertisement for Thames Water. Several columns of chirpy, fact-filled copy are accompanied by a photograph of a young man in a white coat to whom the camera has unfairly given the appearance of a participant in one of those Northcountry face-pulling contests known as `grinning shows'. He is what used to be called a boffin (meaning any scientific expert), named Andy Roach and is, we are assured, `dying to tell us' about the mysteries of pipework seepage and filtration.

Clive James is one of fiction's Andy Roaches, volubly didactic on the singularities of life in Bombay, where his latest novel unfolds. More accurately, the setting is 'Bollywood', that rarefied world of Indian movie-making in which the trappings of stardom constitute a camp extension of the 1930s movie studio atmosphere, distorting and parodying the original.

Sanjay, hero of this pleasingly oldfashioned story, whose ending so cleverly subverts the Horatio Alger up-by-the-bootstraps convention, is a child of the streets, born on the pavement among pi-dogs and raw sewage, and doomed initially to living off whatever he can filch from roadside stalls. His family is not altogether the dysfunctional nightmare of modern sociology, since he has at any rate the regulation brace of parents in the hovel called home. A run-in with his brutal father, however, soon after the seven-year-old urchin has stumbled by chance on the Silver Castle itself, drives him onto the world, which, after somewhat grudgingly swallowing him up, spits him cynically out again.

The castle is, as we might expect, an affair of plywood and pasteboard and the actors and actresses posturing in front of it can hardly pretend to any greater degree of moral authenticity. Each of them nevertheless contrives to teach Sanjay something, for besides much else the novel is essentially a Bildungsroman, a sequence of `in which our hero' episodes, providing meticulous perspectives for each of Sanjay's varying educational experiences. …

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