It is so refreshing to read a novel by a Los Angeles-based South Asian author that is not about immigrant angst. Shilpa Agarwal’sHaunting Bombay is like a desi game of Clue, a whodunit with all the usual suspects, set in a large home in an affluent neighborhood in the gloom of a relentless monsoon. But it is much more than that—it is about the marginalized, crying out from beyond the grave for their voices to be heard.
When Pinky Mittal’s mother dies in a refugee camp in Lahore during India’s partition, she is taken in by her maternal grandmother Maji, who raises her in her bungalow named The Jungle, in Bombay. Maji’s son Jaginder, daughter-in-law Savita, and their three sons also live in The Jungle. Maji, the matriarch, thrives on her rituals—religious and domestic—and rules the roost with an iron rod. Savita, who loses a child just before Pinky’s arrival, cannot bring herself to love the newcomer and Pinky grows up yearning for acceptance in her new home. One day, the unhappy teenager unbolts a forbidden door and releases the troubled spirit of a baby named Chakori.
The vengeful Chakori, drowned as an infant, draws sustenance from the monsoon rain waters and unleashes chaos on the house, seeking to reveal the truth behind her murder. Chakori’s ayah Avni, who left The Jungle under a cloud of suspicion, also returns yearning to establish her innocence. It is up to Pinky to unravel the painful secrets of the past.
In the course of her narrative, Agarwal takes us on a lyrical and witty journey from the homes of Bombay’s elite, to the warrens of Dharavi’s hovels, and the brothels of Falkland Road in the red light district of Kamathipura, and brings in the disturbing themes of incest and rape. She eloquently and lovingly describes the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. Her vibrant characters are drawn in rich detail. On the family priest: “Panditji droned mantras for more than an hour, occasionally yawning and scratching his armpits. His mind flitted … He had seen carefully veneered families simply crack open … running to him for a magic balm.
He kept these family secrets tucked inside his Buddha-like belly, each a delectable sweet duly consumed, regurgitated, and enjoyed once more. Every secret, after all, came with a side of forever-indebtedness, a chutney of money and gifts that silenced his tongue.”
She writes deliciously about the food the cook Kanj churns out—tikkis, aloo parathas, samosas, and saffron rice—and one can smell the ubiquitous cups of hot cardamom tea that the Mittals chug down in a futile attempt to find warmth and solace as the ghosts wreak mayhem. In conjunction with post-partition Bombay, the wet sheen of the rain, the supernatural, spiritual, and the mythological are a constant presence in the novel.
If you are the kind of reader who likes a mystery to be neatly resolved, t’s crossed, i’s dotted, and justice served, then this book may leave you unsatisfied. The brooding unraveling of the mystery does reveal the surprising identity of the killer and the motives behind the murder, but other questions are left unresolved. In the end, the Mittals and their coterie move on with their lives, holding secrets close to their chests, some relationships strengthened and others weakened, although the power structure within The Jungle is altered, and Pinky claims her place in the family. Its inhabitants find a tenuous peace as the ghosts are laid to rest.
Haunting Bombay is an impressive debut, and if psychological mystery thrillers are your cup of chai, then this is a brilliant, gothic read.
Sharda Krishnamurty writes from Carmel, Indiana.
Q & A with Shilpa Agarwal
Why did you choose to use the theme of the supernatural?
I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to know the flesh of the story. You hear this tale of the baby who dies by drowning, and the ayah who is dismissed as a result—I wanted to explore whose voice gets heard and whose gets dismissed. What if we could hear the voices of the ayah and child? The ayah and the baby have both been silenced within the realm of human language. That’s the starting point. The ghost is a metaphor for those who’ve been silenced.
Is this theme of displacement (Pinky is displaced as an infant and has trouble adjusting to her new home) something that you had to deal within your own family?
A lot of Pinky’s story honors my mother’s story. My mother’s family left Pakistan during the partition when she was an infant, and I’d heard that (even) her skin wept, and that she didn’t speak for many years. She was adopted by her grandmother and came to live in Bombay. The Mittal’s bungalow is a metaphor for the nation. Prime Minister Nehru on the eve of India’s independence said, “We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell.” The bungalow is the mansion and the narrative is of who belongs and doesn’t belong inside it. I wanted to bring out the idea of the centers and peripheries, and the center becoming the periphery, and the periphery becoming the center. When the ghost takes over the bungalow, the family is pushed into the shanty in the back. Now the ghost is trapped inside while the ayah is desperate to get into the bungalow.
How is it that your female characters are really strong—Maji, even Pinky—while the men are not as tough?
I mostly wanted to bring out the bigger message of compassion and inclusion—of building the mansion of free India—the humanist perspective, rather than the feminist one. And Jaginder, though initially weak and dependent on his mother to make the hard decisions, eventually realizes he needs to be strong to earn his wife and children’s respect and hold the family together.
How did you create hilarious characters like the panditji and the tantric?
I go into a meditative state as I write, and I found the story getting darker and darker as I was drawn into it and I wanted to bring humor into it. Both the panditji and the tantric are composites of priests I’ve observed over the years, growing up in an Indian household. I wanted to bring out the idea that Maji’s personal connections with God or the spirit are much stronger when she worships in the puja room on her own than when the panditji performs the rituals.
You write in such meticulous detail about Bombay. There is so much of the city itself in the book. How did you do your research?
I read exhaustively about post-partition Bombay. I was born in Bombay, and have also spent many summers with relatives in the suburbs of the city. And I spent a semester at St. Xaviers in a study abroad program. So the Bombay in the book was born from my observations of the city plus my reading and research, and I’m really happy to hear I’ve successfully captured the city for my readers!
Could you tell us something about your next book?
In Haunting Bombay I was interested in the idea of crossings, maybe because I’ve crossed over from the east to the west. I wrote of Pinky becoming more ghostlike as she gets sick, and the ghost getting more human.
In my next book I explore different kinds of crossings, of the realms of heaven and earth and between sanity and insanity. We’ll see if I can pull it off!