Friday, December 14, 2012

Book Review: Once Upon The Tracks Of Mumbai

 Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai by Rishi Vohra
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The title is straight Bollywood kinds and so is the front cover, which made me a little apprehensive, thanks to every Tom, Dick and Harry with an engineering or management degree churning out a bestseller these days, which I call the Chetan Bhagat effect. Thankfully, the apprehension diminished when I scanned the back cover.

"Autistic, Schizophrenic, Psychotic. 'They' use these words to describe Babloo." Ok so the central character had a psychiatric problem (or something close to it). Definitely not the beaten path.

But more importantly, would Rishi Vohra's language be up to the mark, better than a certain Chetan Bhagat?

Before you tag me overly biased against Indian authors in general and Chetan Bhagat in particular, I myself acknowledge to be one. No denying that there are Amish Tripathis and Ashwin Sanghis and Debdutt Pattnaiks, but these prolific writers are in the minority, and though their works are no less popular, it troubles me to see that the less deserving ones are bestsellers too. Sadly, this is the case not just in India. When Stephanie Meyer happens to be one of the best selling authors in the world currently, pop garbage has to have something. Only I don't get the 'something'. And bashing Indian authors is easier than bashing others without reading their works, thanks to my friends. Alright we can move on now.

The various short reviews at the back were encouraging and the author's bio data turned out to be pretty interesting. You can check it out here.

The first few pages and I was sorted regarding the language. Though it is easy, obviously keeping in mind the masses, it is not pedestrian. Rather there is a lyrical touch and fluid lucidity in the words, almost an effortless grace that goes about the equally enthralling plot.

The first chapter of less than 10 pages took me 3-4 seatings, owing to an upcoming paper presentation in a conference. But the second chapter onwards, in which Babloo meets Vandana, made me stay up all night and finish the rest of the story in one go. In other words, the pace is good and the lead character the more and more loveable as you go along. The story is told from Babloo's vantage point and so one poignantly comes across the various thought processes and emotions of a differently abled person.

Here I will digress a little from how I liked the book and point out two major fallouts of labelling people with developmental difficulties or psychiatric disorders. Firstly, the label carries stigma. Nobody would like to, for e/g. have a child who is Mentally Retarded or marry a Schizophrenic. And in India, where there is sadly very little awareness about mental illnesses, everybody from a dyslexic to a child with Down's Syndrome is just called 'mad'. Secondly, once a person has been labelled as such, society or even mental health professionals wash their hands off the person. Society finds itself with the license to be insensitive and psychiatrists stop looking further, equating the person with just the label now attached. Sometimes this is the chaff and the wheat remains undiscovered, unappreciated and the real person is lost somewhere. The first one is built upon beautifully in the first few pages eventually culminating in the second issue coming across as the main idea behind the story.

It is a story of love essentially and how Babloo's love for Vandana inspires him to embark on a voyage of trying to be somebody she could be proud of, his weaknesses notwithstanding. This voyage is given direction by a chance event in which Babloo comes spontaneously to do something exactly of the sort and by and by discovers himself, though for very good reasons can't go tell Vandana about it. He himself takes it as a different person initially and decides to forsake his life as Babloo for that of this 'Rail Man'. The interactions of Vandana with Raghu, the younger brother of Babloo with whom her marriage is fixed and the fiasco with Sikander who is out to 'get' her, illustrate the tight rope on which today's Indian woman walks and it was heartening to see the way Vandana and Babloo finally came together.

What was that chance event? Who was Rail Man? How did Vandana come to love Babloo and not the successful Raghu who could have made the ideal provider? These are questions you'll find answers to in the book Read it. If you prefer light reading and want to read Indian fiction that won't make you regret wasting those 150ish bucks on toilet paper, this book would be it.

Coming to the parts that I found touching/remarkable are firstly how the author attempts valiantly (yet makes it appear natural) to normalise a psychiatric patient. At the outset, the labels of Dissociative Identity Disorder (that's the correct term, not Split Personality Disorder), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism, Psychosis, Schizophrenia are all frowned upon and by and by, very sensitively, it is shown that Babloo does indeed show symptoms of the kind that would get him labelled as such. "But so what if I show those symptoms?", "Do I become less of a human in lieu of that?" are questions that scream out of the pages.

Secondly, the equation between the Rail Man and the police throw light upon the unusual way in which the system reacts to Good Samaritans.

Also, the patriarchy that surfaces when it comes to arranged marriage (totally mismatched, to top it) and the unrealistic expectations out of a to-be bride that accompany are dealt with using subtle humor and refreshing directness.

Furthermore, from the title itself it would be apparent that railways and Mumbai are at the heart of the plot and the author should be congratulated for the eye for details he has got, that comes out in his explanations of everything to do with how the railways have an impact on Babloo's life.The uniqueness of Mumbai is well elaborated too and the whole plot revolves around the rail tracks and the city, justifying the title.

To conclude, Rishi Vohra surprised me, I must say, as a debutant author and I would be looking forward to this novel making it big in the charts.

View all my reviews

P.S. The book, as I recently came to know is already a bestseller. 


  1. Hi Sudha,

    You 'got' the book! And you actually got what I was trying to say between the lines. Thank you for taking the time to read it and for the encouraging review.

    Hope your presentation went well!


    Rishi (Author)

    1. Hello Rishi

      Good to know that. Yeah, my presentation went well too.


  2. I also had the opportunity to read the book.But as you said about the Tom Dick & Harry part about the Indian fictions,, I stayed away from it.Though after reading your review I think I will try it.
    Thanks :)

  3. Good review, Sudha...! I would like to read it. Thanks for sharing..:)


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