Review: While still in draft form, Shilpa Agarwal's debut novel received a First Words Literary Prize for South Asian Writers. A beautifully crafted mystery of amazing depth, sensitivity, and complexity, it is as haunting in its style as in its substance.
The matriarchal Mittal family – a controlling grandmother, her philandering son, devious daughter-in-law, and their 14-year-old twin boys, 17-year-old son, and a 13-year old displaced niece named Pinky – live with a handful of servants of varying loyalties in a well-to-do gated enclave in Bombay. The ghost of an infant girl lives there as well, by day quiet and harmless, by night covertly locked away in the family bathroom until one evening Pinky in a fit of pique unwittingly releases her to wreak havoc on the family's lives while avenging her untimely and mysterious death. The mystery that spins out so tantalizingly in the compelling story of the interactions of the family, its servants, and the spirit is how and why the weeks-old baby drowned in a wash bucket of bath water. And who owned "the disembodied hand [that] appeared out of nowhere, pushing her down, down, down into the thick glassy water?" Ah, but the baby's ghost knows, so it seeks revenge, striking terror into the entire household with its awesome displays of psychic power.
The ghost is vulnerable, however, and when the family members discover how it can be tamed, they try to trap it. But the plan is more easily conceived than carried through when weak links in the chain of family members break, enabling the ghost to live another day and in another way, leaving lives broken, the family turned topsy-turvy, and the baby's murderer exposed. In reaching its surprise ending the story ebbs and flows with information about the characters past lives seamlessly revealed while they struggle with their current situations. One has become an alcoholic, another is a lesbian. One has drowned "the purple sunbird who nested in the greenery of their garden." One vies for control of the household while another refuses to relinquish it. One is banished, one runs away after being raped, another is kidnapped, three are love-struck, and a few see the ghost while others can only observe its wrathful antics. All have memories to deal with, pleasant or not, even the teenager who finds most things, "Bor-ing."
Besides developing an outstanding story filled with family tensions and dark drama, Agarwal holds her reader's interest with passages of history and biting social commentary and references to Indian mythology, deities, and regional superstitions. She can evoke laughter as well as tears, fear as well as serenity, and she is masterful at springing surprises at just the right moment. Life comes alive in her kitchens where: "Onions, garlic, and ginger stood in piquant piles, freshly chopped and grated. A pan of oil simmered on the stove, black mustard seeds popping over the edge in sharp staccatos." Life is at risk in a hospital where: "An indolent ceiling fan lethargically stirred germs from one cot to its neighbour and back." Life is hell in the red-light district where the doorway to a brothel "reeked of waste: garbage festered in the corners with swarms of flies lifting up and settling back down in unison, vomit swam in the gutters, and cigarette butts littered the entrance," while, inside, the girls with their jasmine-scented hair serviced a clientele of "exceptionally hispid men whose breath smelled of rancid mutton." And life is not much better for the shipbreaking workers who lived "amidst the grave-yard of leaking barrels, open fires, and hazardous waste that possessed the coastline," and where, for the boss, "[E]verything was as it should be."
Full of insights into life, death, and the beyond in India, Shilpa Agarwal's Haunting Bombay is a memorable novel of exceptional merit.
Special thanks to M. Wayne Cunningham (firstname.lastname@example.org) for contributing his review of Haunting Bombay.
Acknowledgment: Soho Press provided a copy of Haunting Bombay for this review.
Review Copyright © 2009 — M. Wayne Cunningham — All Rights Reserved
Reprinted with Permission
Location(s) referenced in Haunting Bombay: Bombay, India
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Haunting Bombay by Shilpa Agarwal
Publisher: Soho Press
Publication Date: April 2009
List Price: $24.00
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Page Author: Lance Wright
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