Not quite a novel, but more an interconnected set of short stories each with its own protagonist-narrator offering a different point of view on a series of unfolding events, Half-Open Windows is a superb translation of Ganesh Matkari’s fast paced Khidkya Ardhya Ugdya published in 2014. This novel (for want of a better term) marks a new departure in contemporary Marathi fiction, both in terms of its bold form and structure, and its focus on a set of urban, largely upper middle class characters who are technologically with-it and networked, but operate in a profoundly atomized environment. Matkari uses the structural device of allowing his characters to
take over separate chapters and narrate in
the first person their own version and
opinion of the surrounding people and the events in the making. This strategy attenuates the impression of fragmented psyches and worlds that appear in the end to be curiously soulless.
The material attributes of this world are recognizable, as is the frenetic pace and disconnect that dictate lives; these are but features of a liberalized world order characterized by a global political economy. Matkari plots the lives of his characters within this contemporary world, in stories that revolve around the people that are connected to SNA Architects, an architectural firm based in the financial capital of Mumbai, which has made the headlines through a recent project: a high-rise building located in the uptown area of Colaba.
It is the narrow cast of characters in this rather postmodern slice of urban life which contributes to the restricted orbit of events and relations etched by the novelist and eventually to a sense of claustrophobia. The novel begins and ends with Sushrut, an aspiring and out of job writer, who is the live-in partner of Sanika, a core member of the SNA firm. Sushrut’s sole engagements seem to consist of downloading audio novels and defending his dog against the complaints of an elderly neighbour called Joshi Kaku. He suffers from few economic anxieties, and nor does he appear to have had any trouble by the last story at the end of the novel finding an apparently prosperous job. His companion Sanika is the only honest, if rather naïve, member of her firm; the other partners are the corrupt Niranjan, whose manipulations get them their lucrative if legally questionable projects in a city where land mafias abound and Anant (Antya) who is happy to play along. It is the younger lot of characters in the novel whose singularity and complete lack of an emotional life that troubled this reader: the thirteen year old school going Rohan, who is Anant’s son and the wealthy, gifted if self-indulgent student Ramakant who contemplates suicide. There is a point when young Rohan and his group note the on-going preparations for a ‘religious’ fair just by the lane adjoining their swanky apartment block, in the pouring rain of the Ashadh month. For the Maharashtrian reader these are unmistakable cultural motifs and it is sad that neither any character nor the novelist himself identifies these. One wishes that Matkari had allowed the cultural world of the unorganized economy to crash into the empty though wired void of the organized one.
As edgy and fast paced as the lives of its characters, this novel offers a very contemporary and a visually rich account of modern urban life, though restricted by its very vision and location. Jerry Pinto’s felicitous translation renders the nuance and flow of spoken Marathi in contemporary upper middle class Indian English. It captures the multilingual context of cosmopolitan Mumbai, weaving into it jingles from advertisements, Bollywood songs and the visual and linguistic presence of the several forms of multimedia that impinge upon everyday contexts, without sacrificing the cadence of colloquial Marathi complete with diminutives of first names. One must watch if this experiment in Marathi, and its English translation, heralds the inauguration of a new trend in Indian fiction.
Rohini Mokashi-Punekar is Professor at IIT Guwahati. Besides several papers in books and journals, she is the author of On the Threshold: Songs of Chokhamela (Altamira Press 2005 and The Book Review Literary Trust 2002) and Vikram Seth: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press 2009) and co-editor of Untouchable Saints: An Indian Phenomenon (Manohar 2005). She is currently engaged in translating Phule’s play Tritiya Ratna to be published by Orient BlackSwan and an anthology of medieval Varkari poetry from the Marathi, which will be published by Penguin in their Black Classics series.