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Homesickness led this young Indian author to literature: born in 1977 in Mumbai (until today known by its Old Colonial name: Bombay), Altaf Tyrewala lived in New York City from 1995 to 1999. He studied business economics at Baruch College and earned a meager living doing part-time jobs like his work for a call center. For him, this city became synonymous with “hunger, coldness, and backbreaking work,” and while living here he harbored an intense craving for his homeland – assuaged by reading novelists such as Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and Rohinton Mistry before finally returning to Mumbai. It had only been a small step from reading to writing. Then Altaf Tyrewala worked as a software specialist and published a few short stories in his spare time. Beginning in 2002, he concentrated on his first novel, No God in Sight, which was published in 2005. It met with great praise in India, but also worldwide. Among other events, Tyrewala was invited to the 2006 Frankfurt Book Fair, when India was the fair’s official Guest of Honor.

Originally, the newcomer had aspired to writing a grandiose Pan-Indian epoch modeled after the literature of Rushdie. Then he realized that the reality of his starkly ghettoized birthplace called for fictionalizing of a different kind. With its circa 17 million inhabitants, Mumbai is one of the world’s most densely populated megacities at the same time a cultural stronghold whose countless religious minorities and hundreds of spoken languages make it assume Babylonian proportions. The different sectors of the population are assigned specific districts according to their ethnicity and religious beliefs, and even with money these invisible boundaries are as hard to break as the caste system. Altaf Tyrewala, who originates from a liberal Muslim family and by no means wants to be identified exclusively by his religious affiliation, realized he could only write about what he knew, namely the life experienced by Muslims who only have contact with Hindus at the edge of mainstream society, even if they do play a substantial role in his novel – for example as members of the authorities who never hesitate to use the slightest misconduct as their daily excuse to repress and marginalize.

It’s remarkable that Tyrewala refrains from using a baroque, Oriental narrative style to depict the fate of his diverse horde of protagonists. Instead, he uses an extremely modern and sparse language likewise poetic and descriptive enough to allow the megacity’s fullness to unfold before our eyes in nearly two-hundred pages. Or better, he makes this fullness resound before our ears, since around forty characters make an appearance – some closely connected, others not – and, one by one, they share their lives in brief monologues.

All this begins with the few lines of a housewife-mother who used to be a poet and “spent the entire day obsessed with delicate metaphors” and meanwhile finds herself “silenced by the hum of the air conditioner and television programs.” As a motif running throughout the entire novel, the disappearance of poetry is sustained like a missing god, even though what matters most on the surface are the characters’ worries and needs. Minaz, the daughter of the former poet, wants to have an abortion and the actual storyline begins and ends at the “angel maker”. The doctor has a key position in this merry-go-round of human lives: yelling in his mind, he hears a chorus of unborn babies whose voices anticipate the appearance of the protagonists to come: the old shoe salesman at the threshold to death, the shop owner planning to illegally immigrate to the United States with his family, and the beggar who gradually loses everything that makes a person human, if nothing else, one’s language – “Every twenty-nine days a full moon rises in the east. The silvery moon steals your breath away. When you’re a beggar, you no longer have the words for exceptional things.” Altaf Tyrewala gives a voice to the poor and the rich as well. In his novel, he succeeds in holding the most inconceivable contrasts at bay in the narrowest of spaces. He tells of migrating into cities, of the beginnings of xenophobia, of the frustrated and the intolerant who turn India into a “Hindustan,” of the slums that even develop on the roofs of high-rises, of the wealth which has no way of warding off inner emptiness, of archaic and hypermodern worlds, of the difficult relationship between man and woman honoring ancient rules on the one side and influenced by western notions of free love on the other, of the fear of terrorism and the hounding of alleged terrorists, of religious rites and erotic encounters, and he conveys all this in a manner as sparse as effective. So it’s not surprising that his first novel won the praise of critics and readers worldwide – in the United States, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, and in other countries.

Apart from speaking Gujarati, his mother tongue, Altaf Tyrewala is also fluent in Hindi and Marathi. Yet he writes in English, the language he claims he best expresses himself in. Since most of his characters speak no English, and, in reality, use a vernacular Hindi, Tyrewala works as translator as he writes, enriching his command of English with countless expressions created from these characters’ common speech.

Currently, he is at work on his second novel, another story set in Mumbai and focused on investigating the social effects of globalization. Tyrewala has begun a third novel as well, Siddhartha, which consciously references Hermann Hesse, his intention being to illuminate the meaning of meditation in modern India from a new perspective.
We have good reason to anxiously await new works by this author. After all, none other than Tyrewala’s role model of the past, Salman Rushdie, called his literary debut: “A fiery work of great talent and esprit, inventive and written with an impressive lightness. The depth of his humanity opens up a world of intense and noteworthy existence.”

Publications translated into German. No God in Sight. Novel. Translated from English by Karin Rausch. Published by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, 2006
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