A City of Sungazers is a collection of interlinked short stories – a book that can be read both as a series of individual short stories, each telling a whole coherent narrative in its own self, as well as a larger arcing narrative wherein each individual story feeds into the other and produces new revelations about the others. Set in Mumbai, the novel looks at the city through the lives of multiple characters. A City of Sungazers explores differences – socioeconomic, religious, sexual – and what happens when identities that embody these differences are brought up close.
A City of Sungazers is the recipient of Dartmouth College’s highest creative writing honour, the Sidney Cox Memorial Prize (2016).
Available on Amazon here.
“Apsara ma’am?” Her voice was gravelly, yet caressed by the elegance of an Amreeki accent.
Ma’am, Sushma laughed to herself. First and last time someone would call her that.
“Yes, who you?” Sushma was tired, and not in the mood to engage in small talk.
“Hi, I’m Vidya!” The woman extended her hand toward Sushma.
Sushma nodded and flashed a close-lipped smile.
Realizing that Sushma wasn’t going to shake her hand, Vidya retracted it and buried it in the pocket of her jeans.
A background bar dancer brushed past Sushma on her way to her station and shot Vidya a puzzled look.
“I spoke to your manager, Mohan, outside,” Vidya jerked her head in the direction of the dancing room, “I’m shooting a documentary on dance bars in Mumbai, and Mohan asked me to speak to you about the culture and your experience as a bar dancer. When would be a good time to do that, ma’am?”
“Documentary?” Sushma didn’t know what these big words meant. She could barely understand English.
“Film. I’m making a film!”
Sushma felt her chest tighten when she heard the word film.
“And you want me to be part of the film?”
“Yes actually. As an experienced dancer, your perspective would really contribute to the authenticity of this film,” Vidya switched to Hindi.
The door to the changing room opened once again and a bespectacled man’s face poked through. Mandakini, who was pulling the blouse over her head, shrieked and hid behind a pillar. One of the new bar dancers, whose name Sushma hadn’t bothered asking, blocked the man’s view into the changing room. He disappeared, and the door swung shut.
“So, what do you think?” Vidya looked at her, expectant.
“I’ll think about it.” Sushma didn’t want to sound too eager. She wanted to be nonchalant. That’s how these famous heroines always were. Cool, self-composed goddesses on-screen and off. Now that she was finally getting there, she better start rehearsing every skill she would need along the way.
Was this finally the day? As a child, she had stood before the cracked mirror her mother had found discarded on the street, brushed her long hair and rehearsed dialogues from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. On chilly December evenings, she had sat outside her tarpaulin hut in the slums with her friends, and played Interview Interview. She had always been the celebrity her friends had taken turns interviewing. She had played the part of actress well, Sushma thought – making up stories about exotic lands she shot in, about torrid romances with dapper heroes. Before the play-interview ended though, Sushma had always made it a point to wave to an imaginary camera, curl her hand around a stick that represented the Filmfare Award, and to say in immaculate Hindi, “I would like to thank my father for helping me reach this position. Without him, I would not have been able to be where I am. When the world told me I could not make it to the position of number one heroine, my father stroked my head lovingly and said, “Go achieve your dreams!”
Sushma had hoped that she would get her big break with Karan Johar or Sanjay Leela Bhansali, but she could make do with this Vidya lady for now. The road to success was long. She’d have to be patient.
“Ma’am, we’re actually running on a tight schedule. We need to start shooting tomorrow, so would it be possible to let me know by tonight? You can call me on this number,” Vidya took out a yellow steno pad and ballpoint pen from her bag and scribbled a number across it.