The Song of Kahunsha


April 25, 2007

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Books | Individuals

Canadian novelist and playwright Anosh Irani pulls back that iconic image of his home city of Mumbai, India — malnourished and deformed beggar children — to reveal the tender heart of human need in his devastating yet surprisingly gentle novel, “The Song of Kahunsha.” In this tale of a 10-year-old boy struggling to maintain hopefulness, Irani threads strands of beauty and kindness into the weave of violence, squalor and depravity. The characters he creates face utter peril and are forced to degrade themselves daily, but his hero, little Chamdi, still dreams of Mumbai becoming a place he calls Kahunsha (City of No Sadness).

Chamdi lives in an orphanage when we meet him; he is skinny to the point of protruding ribs, but he is relatively well cared for by benevolent adults and is free to dream. When the orphanage is forced to close, however, Chamdi flees into the streets of Mumbai in search of the father he never knew. To guide him, Chamdi has only a white cloth with three drops of blood he believes belonged to his father when the man abandoned his son at the orphanage.

On the streets, Chamdi falls in with a brother-sister team of beggars who desire his lithe frame to assist in one large, life-altering larceny — a score big enough to free them from begging and save the life of their woozy, incoherent mother and the infant she is too malnourished to nurse. Although Somdi, the brother, and Guddi, the sister, are hardened and streetwise, the three develop a camaraderie, and Chamdi projects his dreams of a better world into a child’s sweet crush on Guddi. When the siblings introduce Chamdi to their Fagin — Anand Bhai, a hustler with various enterprises — Chamdi learns of all the horrible things that street children do to survive and the ways adults exploit them.

Irani displays the streets of Mumbai from a dreamy and good-hearted child’s point of view; while death and horror are never far from Chamdi, he isn’t mature enough to absorb the utter hopelessness of it all. Irani writes simply, using words that describe only what Chamdi sees and knows.

“The Song of Kahunsha” is set amid the Hindu/Muslim violence of the early ’90s, but that ethno-religious tension is never fully realized in this story. Although Chamdi witnesses the brutal results of this hatred, it seems to be just another hazard of life on the mean streets of Mumbai. Irani, who himself is neither Hindu nor Muslim but Zoroastrian, does a much better job of creating a Mumbai peopled with multiple languages and ethnicities than he does of explaining the continuing deadly rift between Hindus and Muslims. (Irani does refer to Mumbai by its 1995 — and less Hindu — name of Bombay.)

If Irani had intended “The Song of Kahunsha” as a fable, perhaps the cloth of his father’s that Chamdi wears around his neck even in the stifling heat would have become a talisman leading him through a series of adventures ending with a triumphant reunion with his father. Instead, Chamdi’s cloth is a poignant symbol of his foolish belief that he is not ultimately alone in the world. When he finally parts with it, Chamdi releases not only its hot and cumbersome burden, but the part of himself that awaited deliverance. Whatever hope Chamdi holds for the future will come from himself.

Original article here