In The Song of Kahunsha (Doubleday Canada, $29.95), the second novel from North Vancouver’s Anosh Irani, paradise is a place of no sadness. Or so believes his protagonist, 10-year-old Chamdi, an orphan who winds up on the streets of Bombay just as Hindu-Muslim violence is tearing the city apart. This paradise–Kahunsha–will be a place of magic and beauty, full of “words that are positive, that can only soothe, never hurt.?He will create a language that does not have the word ‘No’ in it. Then his request for food will always have the desired outcome.”
Sadly, such generosity is not forthcoming.
“I don’t think such a place can exist,” Irani says over samosas at a West Side caf?. “What Chamdi’s trying to reach for is the good that exists in Bombay. Somehow children see the good, whereas when you grow up, we become so cynical that we fail to see small acts of kindness, we fail to recognize goodness in people, or in ourselves. So he creates that dream out of goodness, out of hope, out of the faith that he has.”
Chamdi’s dreams, unlikely though they might be, are very important to Irani. “A lot of these street children,” he says, “when you talk to them, they have dreams. They are very poor. They live in grinding conditions, but they have very large dreams: some of them want to become doctors and find cures for diseases; they want to become movie stars, singers, dancers; some want to join the police force and bring about real change. They are all about change, because they know that if they don’t hope, if they don’t create some kind of dream, survival for them is going to be very difficult.”
For Chamdi, survival is difficult indeed. Fleeing his orphanage to begin an impossible search for the father he never knew, he falls in with a young brother and sister planning a heist to jack them out of the poverty, filth, and violence of their lives. It’s clear that the threesome’s chances of escape are slim to nil.
“Unfortunately, Bombay can be very harsh to people who don’t have money,” Irani concedes. “It can also be quite magnificent to people who do have money. What I’d like to do is by the end of my career have a series of novels which will show different sides of Bombay. So you see one side of Bombay here; you see a kind of surreal, almost nightmarish Bombay in the first one [2004’s The Cripple and His Talismans].”
Irani was born in Bombay and lived there for 24 years, in a gated Parsi colony bounded by neighbours who went through some of the same violence that marks Kahunsha. (The Zoroastrian Parsis were not part of the sectarian warfare of the 1990s.) “One night,” Irani recalls, “the Muslims and Hindus had a street fight right outside the gates of our compound. At one point, they wanted to burn down a gas station which was right next to one of the buildings in which people of our colony lived, so people had to beg and say, ‘Look, if you burn this gas station down, the buildings will explode. And we are not part of this violence.’ Luckily, people listened, which is quite rare.”
For all that a sense of doom pervades the novel, Kahunsha does harbour moments of hope. “As a writer, I think you explore the darkness and move toward light,” Irani argues. “If it’s only light, it becomes untrue because there’s no place on Earth that is without pain today, no matter what country you’re in. So if you only explore Kahunsha, then it doesn’t hold true for me. But if someone can manage to think of Kahunsha when you are in a very difficult circumstance, that is inspiring. So for me, it is a positive story. It’s like having a black canvas and adding small sparks all over it.”
Anosh Irani is the guest of a special B.C. Book and Magazine Week edition of the CBC Radio Studio One Book Club. For info and free tickets, visit www.cbc.ca/bc/bookclub/.
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