Picture this. A day in the life of a reader and writer.
On one of my visits to the local library, sheltered by the Old Drill Hall in Darling Street, Cape Town, I was feeling a little disoriented and hungry for new words.
This library was formerly housed in City Hall, and I still remember its haunting, dark and meandering passages. I still remember the dusty shelves and the musty smell of its ancient books.
The interior of the new Old Drill Hall has a post-modernistic aura.
When I am disoriented – what or who to read – I usually start my search in alphabetical order. I did not linger long over the letter A when I came across Shilpa Agarwal’s debut novel, HAUNTING BOMBAY, published by Soho Press Inc in 2010. I was immediately drawn to the book’s colourful spine. Like a working bee to its hive, I have always been attracted to the colour, textures and multiple layers of Indian culture.
HAUNTING BOMBAY is a delightful romp through the passages of an urban middle-class Indian home into the dark, narrow, squalor of Bombay’s streets of its many untouchables.
The protagonist, Pinky Mittal, a young Indian girl, is at the forefront of a family adventure to rid their home of a ghost perceived to be malevolent. At first, only Pinky senses the ghost’s presence. Only much later do the rest of the Mittal family react in hilarious and chaotic fashion to the ghost’s manifestations.
The one weakness of HAUNTING BOMBAY, the slow introduction to the Mittal family and entrance of the ghost, is eclipsed by Shilpa Agarwal’s skilful arrangement of a multitude of colourful characters. The writer is taught not to assemble such a long cast of characters in order to not labour, nor confuse its reader, but here it is done with aplomb.
While HAUNTING BOMBAY is a highly entertaining debut, it does not rise to the same macabre levels of intensity and force as Arundhati Roy’s THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS and Toni Morrison’s modern classic, BELOVED, do. This is compensated for by the narrator’s authoritative referencing of Indian culture, its castes and unique cuisine, colourful metaphorisation, the use of the annual Monsoon season as metaphor, the country’s political and colonial history and the narrator’s consistent shifting of focalisation from one character to the next.
The reader’s enjoyment is spoiled in parts by a poor trail of proofing errors, clearly not the fault of the author. I was intrigued by this and, new to both author and publisher, was persuaded to research the background and commercial manifesto of Soho Press Inc, based in New York City.
HAUNTING BOMBAY was deservedly awarded a First Words Literary Prize for South Asian Writers.
Amazon.com rates Shilpa Agarwal’s debut as a bestseller. It is not the case here in South Africa. They describe the novel as a “literary ghost story set in 1960’s India that weaves together a gripping mystery and haunting supernatural spirits in a story of power and powerlessness, voice and silence in modern India”.
The Goodreads web page gives a detailed biographical profile which is worth repeating here to understand how HAUNTING BOMBAY has evolved as a novel;
“Shilpa Agarwal is a Los Angeles-based writer and academic. Born in Mumbai to a family uprooted by India’s Independence movement and made refugees by its subsequent Partition, Shilpa’s early writings explored how colonialism and the chaos of dislocation shaped human interaction.
As an undergraduate at Duke University, Shilpa specialized in Asian and African literatures and Women’s Studies. She pursued her interest in post-colonial literatures as a doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles. She taught at both UCLA and UCSB, including a course on South Asian diaspora, and spoke regularly on the politics and poetics of community.
Shilpa’s current writing is informed by glimpses into moments of alienation and awakening, especially during geographic and metaphoric crossings: east meets west, centers meet the peripheries, the living meet the dead. She writes to call up the haunting utterances of the excluded, to excavate fragmentary memories that edge consciousness, and to imagine a more nuanced narrative of history itself.”
Soho Press, located in Manhattan, New York, is an established independent company which has been in existence for over twenty years. By most standards, it remains a young company, but that does not excuse the unfortunate trail of proofing errors.
The Mittal family, with young Pinky as its protagonist, is led by the alcoholic Jaginder and his wife Savita, who in turn, is antagonized by her domineering and traditional mother in law, Maji. The middle-class privilege that this family enjoys is foregrounded by the children, Pinky, Nimish, Dheer and Tufan, and the family’s servants, led by the enigmatic cook Kanj, the corrupt and underprivileged driver, Gulu, Parvati and Kuntal. Their next door neighbours, led by Lovely Lavhati, add to the hue.
References to Hindu religion and mythology are abundant, and English translations for the benefit of the international reader (in the case of the Soho Press publication) are politely and considerately woven into the characters’ dialogue.
As mentioned earlier, at the heart of the story is the presence of a ghost in the Mittal family’s home, and their subsequent and respective reactions to its presence. Pinky’s recognition of this ghost needs to be seen in its proper context against the reactions of other family members, particularly the matriarch, Maji, and her daughter in law, Savita.
After a lengthy approach, the conclusion to the story’s narrative brings a few surprises. The narrative strategy, once again, focusses on its characterisation. The use of the literary device, magic realism, popularised by the South American authors, also presents a refreshing turn. Through the story’s focalisation of its characters, the reader learns much about Indian culture, specific to Bombay.
I have enjoyed Shilpa Agarwal’s debut which remains rooted in her birthplace and heritage.
* Look out next week for my essay on narrative strategies of characterisation.