Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Waiting for Jonathan Koshy
by Murzban Shroff
Oct 2022, ISBN: 978-0-9980199-8-7, Paperback, 132 pages, $16.99
In Jonathan Koshy, Murzban Shroff has created a singular character as enticing as he is problematic, a walking contradiction who draws the reader in with a kind of unsavoury cunning that isn’t without its charm. The book is so full of verisimilitude – real places, historical events, and situations that it’s hard to believe that these are indeed not the recollections of the author, recalling, as he says in his introduction, a larger-than-life protagonist full of wit, effervescence and indignation, always ready to solve a personal problem with gutsy smarts, and always in need of a loan. Jonathan Koshy is perpetually the outsider in this story of four friends who are awaiting Koshy’s return at the comfortable residence of Bollywood child Anwar Khan, whose home becomes a focal point for the four friends: Prashant, Dhruv, the narrator, and Jonathan. They come together there on the regular, aging disgracefully and gathering to reminisce over drinks and the odd joint, laughing, supporting one another, and allowing their voices to weave in and out like different parts of the same organism as they recall their youth:
On its lawn we had lain insensibly happy, unable to rise with all the liquor and food in us, and we had counted the stars and slept, and woken to the sun on our faces. And in its cozy den-like rooms, we had spent hours listening to music, or discussing books and movies, what works, what doesn’t, what endures, what fades. And we did all this with the knowledge of the elders, who stayed away while we overstayed. You could say we were allowed our explorations, our journeys. We were allowed to create memories of our own free will, so that if ever we needed to look back and make sense of our lives, 104 Pali Hill would be that safety vault which would have them intact. (22)
Shroff has a gift for description and detail. Even minor characters like Ammi and Mustafa Khan, Esmeralda Pinto, Koshy’s landlady, or Koshy’s parents are depicted with style, depth and a great deal of humour:
His mother—for all her ebullience—had a look of fluttery apprehension in her eyes, and her mouth was always half-open, as though groping for answers. On the other hand, Thampu Koshy had decided long back that the world was not to be trusted. His mistrust was instinctive. He took nothing at face value, believed no one, exuded a subtle contempt and disdain. It was also a kind of cerebral snobbery, the kind that came from imbibing an excess of knowledge and from raking up too much dirt in his profession. (26)
The prose is so silky and seamless that it’s easy to miss how much information is coming across. While we wait for Jonathan, or listen to the reminiscences of his friends about the many times he got them out of trouble and the debts they owe to him (and that he owes to them), we learn about Mumbai, Kerala, Bandra, Goa, a rave party on Madh Island, or the increasing divide between rich and poor as the long term cultural impacts of colonialism and the way it disrupted social systems is played out across India. This is subtly handled, and woven smoothly into the story. We hear Jonathan’s English teacher mother Karuna Koshy, a somewhat heroic character in the end, quoting Coleridge, Pope, Tennyson and Browning, played against stories like that of Kanhoji Angre, a Maratha Navy admiral known for attacking colonial merchant shops. The tension between the many different faces of India mirrors the the tension in Jonathan’s life as he tries to change but is forever returning to his dysfunctional past. While Jonathan is charming and resourceful, he is also a con man, stealing drinks, leaving a trail of unhappy women, and never paying back the loans his friends make, even as he makes others pay for their transgressions against his friends with a flourish of indignation.
There are many mini tales in here as the friends recount their experiences, from the decline of Jonathan’s father to the building of the Bandra Gymkhana, the time they all pretended to be a rich tycoons at an upper class club, or the number of times Jonathan left a woman, pregnant or despairing. There are disruptions at the cinema, the razing of the Bombay Bazaar, the time Jonathan got back one of the narrator’s creditors Goldie Shukla, the repair of Prashant’s laptop, or the story of how Jonathan supported the organisation Manshakti which counselled prostitutes and their children, falling in love with its director Kavita Desai and running drama classes and plays about HIV prevention and drug abuse. There are so many little stories, often laugh-aloud funny, and often ending with a pithy twist. Though Jonathan is often a cad, he is also likeable and it is clear that the relationship between these friends is unconditional.:
It was a good life, after all, I thought. Even if things did not manifest as they should, when they should. Sometimes it took years, because the truth was all wrapped up in other stuff —darkness, doubts, and individual longings, the fury of non-attainment, essentially—and sometimes the realization came when you least expected it, making you sit up and savor it better, simply because it was hard-earned, because it came at the end of a long journey, and then that realization had the power to make everyone happy, make them forget what the reality had once been. (128)
Waiting for Jonathan Koshy is a delightful, beautifully written and intelligent novel full of a kind of exuberance that sheds light on what makes life joyful even in the face of inevitable disappointment and dissolution. It has its own unconditional quality – we love these characters simply because they are real, true to themselves, and because they love one another.