'Bombay Duck is a Fish', Kanika Dhillon's first novel that catapulted her to fame, is written with a light touch but nevertheless strikes a chord with not just Bollywood aspirants but also those looking for a fantastical getaway. The novel is a retrospective account of the protagonist, Neki Brar, and her journey from Amritsar to Mumbai. For most part, the novel adheres to the tenets of realism though it is written with a light touch.
Neki’s diary ‘Nano’ becomes testimony to Neki’s adventures and the daily life crises she battles at home and on the sets of Bollywood. The crisis of the sets percolates into the life of readers as if they’re battling their own. Neki’s crush on Ranvir, the handsome actor she assists, her being accepted and rejected by him within the span of a few days and writing lengthy letters to her mother to placate her are all everyday things that most girls can relate to. The first person narrative further helps the reader not just to relate to the protagonist better but also to uncover his/her own dreams. Yet, Dhillon cautions her readers against the perils of fanciful dreams.For instance, note this sentence- “Film City, the place where beautiful celluloid dreams are created, is ugly.”
The novel constantly punctures the idea of a perfect reality by pitting it against the world of films. The author reiterates, time and time again, that the notions that we harbour of the world are indeed different from our experiences of it. Dhillon says, “Sometimes a dream can be the heaviest burden you carry in your life.” And indeed, Neki has to grapple with several adversities—both on the personal and professional front.
In the novel, Neki says, “For the first time I was face to face with the grim side of glamour—the morally debauched one. But somehow debauchery in this place was bearable.”
These lines bring out the angst of working on the sets in Mumbai where Neki for the first time sees, the ways of the world, so to speak. The foreigners are treated differently, with more privileges, people take credit for work that they have not put effort into, and people on the sets are sometimes found necking in the midst of work and then conveniently blame others.
Perhaps the underlying theme of the novel is that of migration, a theme that is greatly being explored by several Indian writers writing in English. The novel describes how people struggle to adapt to a new places, especially those who make a journey from the home into the world. Neki is caught off-guard when she the “underwear model”, the model’s boyfriend who is a man she has seen on hoarding, and the curt welcome she receives when she gets to Bombay. However, there is a flipside to it. Shahrukh Khan, Neki’s dream star turns out to be everything she has imagined and more.
What makes the novel especially engaging is the beaten yet empathetic strain of a small town girl rising to fame through hard work, struggle and the will to succeed. Dhillon’s first work is also party autobiographical in nature because she herself started out working as an assistant director in Bollywood.
The title of the book probably comes from the misnomer that people have about Bombay
Duck being an actual duck. In reality, as Neki tells her mother in one of her letters, it is a fish. Dhillon probably uses this as a metaphor for the city of Bombay where behind the face of bright lights, is immense struggle. Neki’s aspirations, her unrelenting attitude and her faith keep her going throughout the novel.