BOMBAY TIME by Thrity Umrigar. Picador, New York. $24. 2001. www.umrigar.com and www.picador.com
In her debut novel, Thrity Umrigar takes us on a journey through the lives of a group of friends who live in Wadia Baug, a Parsi community apartment building in Bombay. Like her characters, Umrigar is a Parsi, and while she is acutely aware of their strengths and their shortcomings, she brings compassion and reservation to the writing rather than indictment and judgment. Set around and during the wedding reception of Jimmy and Zarin Kanga’s son, two grades of alcohol flow, tongues loosen, and memories come pouring forth of lost youth, hopes, and dreams.
As they celebrate this festive occasion, we are taken into each character’s past, one by one, to learn who they were, who they had hoped to be, and who they are to each other. The structure of the novel is such that it resembles a series of short stories that intermingles and entwines the characters as neatly as their friendships keep them together into middle age. Each chapter takes the time to focus on an individual character, bringing in the others as supporting players. And while most of the characters are ordinary, educated, and without flash, Ms. Umrigar’s treatment of each provides the spotlight that makes them special in their own right.
All of the characters tell stories of pain, of loss, of heartbreak, but it is their friendship and youthful ties that surface to remind them that life wasn’t always so difficult. Self-isolated from the city around them, this group of friends is close-knit via memories and the not-so-common denominator of being Parsi—acknowledged by, but not absorbed into Indian society. They are their own people, their own community, their own means of survival.
The glue that binds these friends is Rusi Bilimoria, the once-promising young man whose choices resulted in professional non-fulfillment and a disintegrating marriage to Coomi. He is the character to whom the others look for advice, but unlike “… the days of his ambitious youth, Rusi no longer wanted their awe or admiration. Now all he wanted was their approval. And failing that, he wanted them simply to leave him alone.”
And there is Dosa Popat, the character that decade after decade holds gossip court in the apartment she rarely leaves. The father of the groom, Jimmy Kanga, came to Wadia Baug as a 9-year-old orphan and later studied law at Oxford on a full scholarship. A corporate lawyer who is loved, envied, and revered by his friends and colleagues, Kanga is the golden boy of the community. In contrast, Adi Patel’s inability to have a satisfying relationship with a woman drove him from his village into the arms of Bombay and alcohol, where his frustrations and sorrows reside. Meanwhile, Soli Contractor frets over the shocking news that his first love, a Jewish woman, wants to see him again. The surprise guest at the wedding is the reclusive widow Tehmi Engineer, whose memories of her long-dead husband continue to haunt her. Retreating more and more into her own world, her appearance at the wedding both startles and reunites them all.
Like a mother’s gentle hands that cradle and protect a baby, so is Wadia Baug for this group of middle-aged friends. Remaining in the apartment building of their youth, they find comfort and familiarity, a shelter against the story’s antagonist. And what an interesting antagonist we find: the City of Bombay itself. The city in which the characters grew up together has changed, and none of them can bear it, let alone adapt to it. They diligently work to block out the poverty, the noise, the filth, the beggars, the daily life of the city they once loved, the city that once gave them life and hope. While their Bombay has changed, so have they, knowing with “… a dull, flush-faced recognition that in a city of hunger and rampant poverty, their world of silk and gold was a glass house that others could not resist throwing stones at.”
And stones are thrown. An incident at the end gives the partiers a slap back to reality, if only for a short duration, as the poor, anticipating hand-outs and leftovers from the feast, tire of waiting and watching the extravagant doings. One desperate beggar decides to take matters into his own hands and lobs a rock at one of the partiers, hitting her heavily on the arm and injuring her. By this action, the dirty fingers of the city touch their pristine lives without warning. Instead of being awakened to the plight of those around them, the group uses it as an excuse to elevate and remove themselves from ever being the kind who would stoop so low. They are the more educated, the more civil, the more respectable, the more deserving, above and apart from the city of Bombay. And as quickly as they are distracted, they ease back into the comfort of their own, ready to face another day of the same living, loving, and lamenting.
With a talent for dialogue and a sensitivity to human nature, Umrigar has created a collection of characters that is worthy of our time and of our sympathies. While we may be led to believe these characters are snobbish and aloof, we are also given many opportunities to see how they genuinely care about each other. In an ever-changing world, and in an ever-changing society, caring is essential to survival. And these characters are survivors.
Jeanne Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as an advertising and promotions copywriter.