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Monday, October 26, 2009

Haunting Bombay by Shilpa Agarwal (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Visit Shilpa Agarwal's Website here
Visit the Official website for "Haunting Bombay" Here

Book and Author Information:

Haunting Bombay is Shilpa Agarwal’s debut novel. It is published by SOHO press in Hardcover format and stands at 362 pages. It is divided into 3 titled parts, further divided into a titled prologue, 38 chapters likewise & an epilogue.

Haunting Bombay has won the First Words Literary Prize for South Asian writers. Shilpa Agarwals was born in Bombay and relocated to Los Angeles. She completed her undergraduate studies at Duke University, specializing in Asian and African literature and Women's Studies. She later pursued her interest in post-colonial literature as a doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has also taught at both UCLA and UCSB which included a course on South Asian diaspora.

OVERVIEW & ANALYSIS:

The title, Haunting Bombay is was first caught my attention and brought me to reading this book. After reading the summary of the novel I might as well have drawn a bulls eye on my forehead as this was a book made for me. I was born and brought up in Bombay (now called Mumbai) so I’m always excited about any book featuring my hometown and since this was touted as a literary ghost story I was hooked on reading this book. Having heard that the story takes place in the 1960s era of Bombay which I have heard so much from my parents and relatives about, I was looking to see if the author could portray this time frame in what I had envisioned it.

The story begins with a prologue set in the year 1947. Alandmark year for any person in the subcontinent as it was a year of both great happiness and tragedy. The big happy event was that India gained its freedom from the British. At the same time the tragedy was that India had then became divided at the same time. The events in the prologue paint a very dark and foreboding picture describing a young girl and the tribulations of her life.

The story then shifts forward by 13 years and readers are introduced to a teenage inquisitive girl called Pinky Mittal, presumably the protagonist of the story. Pinky goes to wake her cousins up one day and makes a startling discovery about one of her cousins. It is from this opening chapter that Pinky's anguish from her discovery leads her to do something that has been forbidden to anyone in her family. She unlocks a certain door which is supposed to remain closed and locked at all times. No reason has ever been given as to why this is so. However, after opening the door up Pinky unleashes a spirit in the house, a spirit that has remained hidden in the locked room for a long time. Now that it's out it wants to seek knowledge of its failed existence.

There are many characters presented throughout the story. Most of them either play some major or minor role to the storyline. To get a better idea of the characters in the story I've listed some of them with a small description:

Pinky Mittal, the teenage cousin who is brought from her father during the partition by her grandmother due to the certain tragic events.

Maji Mittal, Grandmother and Matriarchal head of the Mittal family who presides over the family Bungalow and family matters. She is the one who bought Pinky home and loves her the most.

Savita Mittal, wife to Jaginder Mittal and Pinky’s aunt by relation, mother to three boys and who is always stuck in a power play with Maji for control over family matters

Jaginder Mittal, Son of Maji, Husband to Savita. He leads a quiet and orderly life. Due to certain events his marriage and life are slowly being destroyed.

Nimesh Mittal, eldest son of Jaginder & Savita. He is quite the bookworm and often dreams of going off to London to visit the people he reads about in books and gain the intellectual knowledge he so desperately craves.

Parvati and Kuntal, maids of the Mittal household who have come in from Bengal and have made the Mittal house their workplace and residence. Parvati is the sharp and steel-willed one who is married to the Cook Kanj and adores Kuntal as a younger sibling and takes care of her due to her docile nature.

Kanj, cook in the Mittal household, master chef and husband to Parvati. A quiet man with a talent for cooking and loves Parvati.

Gulu, driver of the Mittal family. A braggart by nature. He has survived the streets of Bombay by scrapping odds and ends together. However he knows a lot more then most people would believe.

There are many other minor characters such as Dheer & Tufan, the younger twin brothers of Nimish, Lovely Lawate, the beautiful neighbor of the Mittals and all her family as well.

Haunting Bombay does starts out at a rather slow pace as Shilpa Agarwal introduces the setting and the characters. Both very important aspects to the novel and important to readers. However within the span of 4 to 5 chapters things start to pick up once the ghost is set loose in the house and starts affecting the various occupants.

The characters are the real highlight of the book, as each one has their own thoughts and way of life. This sets up the readers to become involved in a lot more complex world beyond the story.

The joy-de-verve of this tale, however is that of the setting; the 60s era in Bombay. Shilpa Agarwal has done a marvelous job in recreating the world of Bombay through her words, portraying all its nuances and flaws that were present in that time frame. Is is all there in a heady mix that will wrap the reader right up in that world. Shilpa Agarwal has also done a fantastic job of equating the mystical world with the mundane life. In this Bombay era, ghosts are present and so are black magic wielding Tantriks (warlocks for lack of a better term). This effect permeates throughout the story as readers are introduced to a variety of characters whose interactions with each other often create more issues then it solves.

Shilpa Agarwal's writing is captivating and elegant. A fantastic job is done of typing in Indian mythology within this tale via vignettes and conservatory tales between the characters. Also as a former resident of Bombay I found the descriptions of the area and residents a sheer pleasure to read, and any Desi reader will find it easy to picture the areas in which they are so familiar with. For any non-Desi readers this book is a tremendous eye opener into Indian mentalities and cultural diaspora. Be it dazzling or lackluster it is all here, laid out for the reader to read and form their own opinions on some of the situations.

Hunting Bombay was a real pleasure to read all the way through to the end. It was fascinating to see what the outcome of the story was in the end. Kudos to Shilpa Agarwal for recreating such an enigmatic Bombay within this book. This is a must read for any Indian who has lived through this or even those that have only heard about this time frame from their relatives. For those that aren't as familiar with the Bombay area this novel is a dive right into what some of the lives, thoughts and prejudices of a family in India are. It also gives an outsider a good look at the human nature and cultural aspect of India.

In the end, this book was a huge surprise for myself. It is easily one of the best books of the year and with such a fascinating freshman effort I yearn to see what Shilpa's imagination will churn up next.



4 comments:

Charlotte said...

What fun for you, Cindy!

And it sounds pretty great for the rest of us too--I've added it to my list...

trish said...

Thank you for your review, Mihir! I think it's very telling when a book takes place in a place and time that particular readers may be familiar with, and those readers love the book! It's nice to know Haunting Bombay hit the place and time right on the head. :)

Thanks for being on the tour, Mihir! Great review!

The Reader said...

Thanks Trish the book was really an evocative one, I relished reading it. It was fun to be a part of the tour :)

Mihir

Shalini said...

i hope i can find it some where!!! :D
i would love to read it!!!

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