His literary arrival already hailed by the likes of Salman Rushdie and John Updike, Ardashir Vakil has a reputation to live up to with this, his very first novel. Rushdie, who knows an authentic voice when he hears one, has excerpted Beach Boy in his new anthology of the most brilliant Indian writing of the past 50 years since his and Vakil's native country gained independence in 1948. Both writers now live in London, but both are still emotionally immersed in the life of India's most populous and varied city. They continue to live and breathe Bombay.
Beach Boy is in the classic mode of the coming-of-age story. Its hero is only a bit younger than usual a very precocious, even highly sexed eight-year-old. Cyrus Readymoney belongs to Bombay's privileged Parsi class, those adherents to Zoroastrianism who have been largely Westernized. He feels no guilt about his family's wealth in a city of grinding poverty, and his closest adult friend is a holdover from the Imperial regime, an eccentric and brilliantly evoked maharani. Rather neglected by his social (and adulterous) parents, Cyrus wanders all over Bombay, usually in search of Hindi and Hollywood cinema. He even pretends, with some success, to be an Indian child film star. His fantasy life injects both humor and pathos in Vakil's portrait.
Set in the early '70s, the novel is clearly autobiographical. Even if Vakil's own adolescence didn't so closely parallel Cyrus's, the luxurious sensory detail of the story would reveal the author's teeming memory of the sights, sounds, and, most of all, tastes of his setting. Cyrus loves to eat, and one of the richest pleasures of the book is in vicarious feasting. Wherever our young voyeur goes, he's sure to find food and, with few exceptions, sure to relish it.
A bit of a thief and a rogue, an eavesdropper and a liar, Cyrus is reminiscent of Truffaut's hero in The 400 Blows. Like Truffaut, Vakil lets the story unfold through character and incident, not formal plot. And the characters are vivid and unique from Cyrus's love interest (the adopted daughter of the maharani) to his imperious Aunt Zenobia and his neighbor Mr. Krishnan, a thundering but lovable Communist. The boy's immediate family only gradually come into focus, however, and for good reason. By the end of the novel, great sorrow will come to the Readymoneys, and Cyrus will confront a harsher world. With Arundhati Roy's best-selling The God of Small Things and Vikram Chandra's wonderful Love and Longing in Bombay, Indian literature seems to be entering a golden age. Beach Boy has been touched by Midas too, and Ardashir Vakil is on the threshold of what could be a gilded career.