Behram Rustomjee has all the hallmarks of a fine Parsi gentleman. He loves music, knows his operas, is dutifully loyal to his Irani cafes and Parsi restaurants, and has single-handedly raised his daughter. One would think his post retirement life would include watering his plants and sunbathing in the baug gardens gossiping with those his age. There’s just one tiny problem. Rustomjee likes to rinse his mouth with rum as soon as he wakes up.
It would have been fine had he not started passing out in public places and his married daughter not gotten tired of driving all across Bombay to keep rescuing him. Rustomjee now resides as an extremely unhappy tenant at a rehab facility for the community.
So begins Adi Pocha’s novel of a man looking for redemption and purpose. Through repeated flashbacks, Pocha strips Rustomjee of all his respectability and gentleness. What is left of him is more animal than human incapable of restraint and given to the fulfilment of hedonic pleasures. Pocha turns on Rustomjee as Rustomjee turns on his nemesis, a young boy called Pesi, who plays in the garden right outside his window. What follows is a showdown that shocks Rustomjee to his core.
An existential crisis later he discovers his purpose. He must help the community numbers grow by any means necessary. His plan is direct, simple, and crude. Young people must have sex. He will build a boat, fill it with Parsi couples and retrace the journey of his ancestors between India and Iran and back. On this long and arduous journey, the couples would get plenty of opportunities to get pregnant. His only ally in this crazy scheme is the wily editor of the Parsi newspaper determined to milk this controversy to sell as many copies as possible.
While there are several stumbling blocks in Rustomjee’s quest — protestors within the community, being labelled a sex maniac, and coming up with the funds to build the boat — Pocha infuses healthy doses of levity using a barrage of eccentric characters. His pages are filled with memories of the Ripon Club, lunch comas, dhansak farts, bike rides with torches for headlamps, Alzheimer-ridden aunties, flashing grannies, crazy neighbours, and the rehab crowd whose average age is senile. Pocha’s language is extremely colourful and has the usual mélange of creative Parsi insults. When Rustomjee asks the waiter at the Ripon Club for horny Keki, he says, “Fifth armchair. Don’t wake him up till six. Otherwise, he will be very angry. Then he will shout. Then everyone else will wake up. Then they will also shout. And the day will be lost. Wait till six.”
Rustomjee’s redemption is rooted not in his struggle to gain legitimacy but in the execution of his plan. In true possessed madman fashion, he works on the boat with the labourers of Salaya. He toils in the hot sun impatient at the slow progress, impatient at the noonday sun, impatient as he turns home at sundown with bleeding hands, ready to drop dead on Salim bhai’s charpai.
There are several poignant moments in Pocha’s work including when Rustomjee’s daughter is bullied and when he confronts the priest about wanting his daughter’s Navjote done not for religious reasons but to make her eligible for community welfare. He wants her to decide about religion when she comes of age. These are surprising moves when they come from Rustomjee.
Despite the usual stereotypes that the baug characters are bestowed with, Pocha also gives them immense empathy. They do more than just talk of past legacies. When Rustomjee is roughed up by outsiders, the same baug protestors rescue and nurse him back to health. They give him food knowing he has none at home. Though against the sex boat scheme, they are against violence even more. They arrange for his security through colony volunteers. The leader of the protesters apologises, hands him money to pay for his broken windows and then goes back to chanting with gusto, “Behram Rustomjee, shame, shame!” It is a rare, honest image of a people and certainly an endearing one.
At 400+ pages Behram’s Boat is not for the faint of heart. The beginning is a bit indulgent and the scenes of Rustomjee’s alcoholism and swearing seem a bit contrived. The meals at Irani cafes soon become repetitive. But Pocha hits his stride once the building of the boat begins. The sections after Salaya fly off the page and the ending is deliciously ironic. He frames Rustomjee’s toil on the boat like a training montage from Rocky.
It is a testament to Pocha’s strong visual prose that I can so vividly picture Rustomjee on his old Enfield speeding along the western coast at night with a taped torch as his headlamp and a terrified reporter riding pillion.
Behram’s Boat is a unique portrayal of a man possessed by purpose at odds with a community that is also aligned in purpose but too refined to agree with his methods; of a flawed man working on himself and his way of life and the hypocrisy of those who once stood by his side.
Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha
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