Anosh Irani's latest book begins as auto fiction. You never really know if the protagonist in Translated from the Gibberish Part One is Irani himself, or a kind of persona that has a similar life trajectory as the author. There are poignant observations in this and Translated from the Gibberish Part Two at the end of the book. Sleep deprived, aware and reflective, the protagonist writes down his observations of his life in Canada, and as the returning son to a Parsi family living in Shahpur Baug, in Mumbai, India.
We enter into this smallish collection with Irani posing at the authorial "I" gazing down at a deceased elderly woman's underwear; a garment strung up by her living husband Dr. Hansotia. Some say the reason why he has left it there is to punish her infidelity in death. So, the garment hangs solitary on a line while the neighbourhood thinks the elderly doctor has lost his mind. This is one example of many where the living moment reaches into a past full of tragic happenings.
The author reflects on his own creative lens through a scene where he is driven by taxi over the JJ Bridge that connects Byculla to Colaba in South Mumbai. The bridge serves as his window into peoples' lives where he "stares(s) into homes, into peoples' apartments, to catch a glimpse of the smallness of their movements, to see complete strangers perform mundane acts such as reaching for a newspaper…". These quiet observations lead to the telling of eight stories.
Across these stories we are introduced to a range of characters, all with a common thread – they lead lives that have become fragmented and marginalized. Memorable characters anchor these stories such as a chef making butter chicken on a talk show while having an on air meltdown as his years of abuse catch up to him; an undocumented migrant exploited by a restauranteur in Canada; a swimming coach who swims his way across town to see his estranged family; and a sweet shop owner who befriends a stranger in his store that uproots him.
Irani displays a deep empathy for his protagonists, imbuing them with humanity and a level of pathos. While the stories have robust story arcs, there is an abruptness at which point the stories end, with the reader yearning for more of the story. Stories such as The Swimming Coach read like they should be a chapter in a novel.
Translated From The Gibberish does not shy away from the socio-political upheaval that India has gone through; and specifically, the rise of Indian fascism and the atrocities that are part of the public memory of recent times in India. Irani commits to social realism as the stories touch on the anti-muslim riots in Bombay, and the Anti-Sikh pograms that took place during the mid 1980s.
These intimate portraits are a stark contrast to the chaotic story scapes of authors such as Rushdie. Irani makes even a taxi ride across a bridge seem tranquil if not peaceful. This quiet motif allows for an intimate form of story-telling that belies the noise, bustle, hustle and chaotic nights scenes of Mumbai.
Irani's story telling is a fluid stream of consciousness that can at times make some of the stories fast paced and almost a blur of vignettes and gestures. If there is a critique here, it is that the stories draw the reader in, and leaves us wanting more of the world that these characters live in.
In reflecting on the title, both the words translated, and gibberish take centre stage in considering how stories transfer across languages and what coheres in language and words. In the context of this work, the Author decides a tongue-in-cheek way to frame the work. He turns stereotypes and stigmas of South Asians on their head and offers language in each story with care, craft and nuance. The title is grammatically incorrect which leads one to believe that Irani is playing with the stigma that South Asian immigrants carry - of being heavily accented and speaking languages that have no connection to the colonial language of English - of sounding like gibberish.
The question that arises for this reader is, is there a danger then that stereotypes can be reinforced with this form of parody; and if so, does this undermine the work itself as it provides the reader a more nuanced set of lives within the pages of this book.
Could this be just the multiple strands of narrative that hits a person in the midst of insomnia; or is it the author inviting the reader into a space with him; to make meaning out of what he observes from the bridge.