The Lad Who Would be King
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Book: Days of Gold and Sepia
Author: Yasmeen Premji
Publisher: Harper Collins
Price: Rs 399
It could be the story that you heard at your grandmother's knee. It's an everyday story of how an insignificant boy from a remote village in Kutch struggled his way to fame and fortune to become one of the cotton kings in the City of Gold, as Mumbai was known in the late 19th century.
To the telling, Yasmeen Premji brings both the simplicity of a rural bard or boppa, as the storytellers of Gujarat are known, and the compelling need to grab the attention of the reader with her vivid recollections of the past. She weaves the glittering motes and dusty shadows that inhabit the mansions of her memory into a rich tapestry that is woven with many motifs, much like the wall hangings created by Kutchi women.
Certain motifs are repeated. Certain threads and colours are used to link episodes into one coherent design. There is the haunting lilt of a peasant's song heard long ago from the desert sands of the Kutch landscape, the street cries of Mumbai's pavement dwellers who dream of making it big, the smell and swell of a merchant ship's bilge carrying boys, desperate to strive for their fortunes, to the East African coast, and the clatter of Mumbai's teeming textile factories and the clink of money changing hands as swiftly as the shuttle flying across the loom. Linking them together is Lalljee Lakha, the lad who would be a King.
At times, Premji's young hero appears like a Dickensian version of Pip in Great Expectations, at others he has the jaunty optimism of Dick Whittington seeking his fortunes with a bundle on his back. Then again, in situating Lalljee's rise from penury to the pinnacles of entrepreneurial and social glory against the background of Mumbai's commercial growth, Premji has written the equivalent of The Frosyte Saga. Even in the theme of Lalljee's longing for his first great love, though it is played out a bit like a Hindi film sequence, there is something of the Galsworthian ideal of a beautiful woman who inspires a man to dream beyond his reach.