I once had a professor who said every book could be distilled into a sentence. My sentence for Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay is: “Despite its sexy, modern plumage, Bombay remains a traditional old bird.”
Lost Flamingoes tells the story of Karan Seth, a small-town photographer who arrives in Mumbai with a big dream: to capture the “real” Bombay in photos. Along the way he finds himself befriended by a glittering and rarefied social circle, including Bollywood actress Zaira, and Samar, her best friend, an openly gay concert pianist who simply stopped performing one day – and has apparently never looked back. He also encounters Bombay-native Rhea, a former artist who becomes his muse.
I have to admit to some very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, the narrative is strangely compelling, apparently based in part on an actual Indian crime story. Once I got into it, I did want to see what happened next. On the other hand, I found the greater part of the book really frustrating. The ending, in particular, left me totally cold, probably because I'd stopped feeling sympathy for the main characters by then.
One of the things that made this book an interesting read was its straightforward discussion of the rampant corruption in the Indian judicial system, as well as its explanation of the conservative Hindu movement. It made me wonder how the book was received in India. Do Indians distrust their government as much as this book indicates? I have no idea, but the book really made me want to know more. Since most Indian novels I’ve read tend to be multi-generational family epics, I enjoyed the “macro-level” perspective on India that Shanghvi provides in this book.
Unfortunately, other things didn’t work well for me. In particular, I thought Shanghvi was really lazy in his character development of Samar’s lover, Leo, and Karan’s lover, Claire. Both characters supposedly played significant roles in the lives of the book’s protagonists, but Shanghvi reduces them both to cultural tropes: “American” equals “selfish,” “English” equals “self-indulgent.” They deserved better treatment, if only so the reader could understand the main characters more completely. I also found the author’s writing a bit too flowery for my tastes – the metaphors run thick and furious throughout this book, sometimes elucidating, but many times just plain mystifying. For the sake of being mystifying, as far as I can see. Like the author was trying hard to be "deep."
The book does have a lot of the elements I tend to like in a novel – focus on culture, international setting, complex characters – but it just wasn’t a good fit for me. I know other people really enjoyed this book, though. In fact, Swapna at S. Krishna’s Books named it one of her top books of 2010 – her review is here. And Audra at Unabridged Chick had this take. You might want to read another point of view before you make a decision.
This book completes the South Asian Challenge 2011, and counts toward the GLBT Reading Challenge. So thanks to Swapna, Christina and Natazz for hosting.