Haunting Bombay

Here is a review I did for Dhvani magazine. They have an interview with the author, Shilpa Agarwal. Also look for an interview with the delightful Manjula Padmanabhan. Welcome your comments on the following:

‘Haunting Bombay’ is a supernatural thriller/mystery and a coming of age story. Pinky is a precocious thirteen year old orphan, who lives with her grandmother and extended family. One day, Pinky opens a forbidden door and unleashes a ghost, the vengeful spirit of a dead infant. Subsequently, a fierce haunting ensues and forces the entire family to deal with all that is corroding their souls; all the secrets and prejudices that lurk under the veneer of respectable families living on Malabar Hill.

Its an intricate and complex narrative. Ghosts lurk, grandmothers hobble around being tough matriarchs, and adults in general behave quite badly. There is a huge cast of characters in this extended household, which includes all the servants and the neighbors. And all of them get their arc and back stories. A tall order for any book. It makes for a jam packed narrative which keeps you turning the page to find out what happens next.

Haunting Bombay is smart genre fiction. It follows the imperatives of its genre, with its particular requirment of plot and character. However, it does so with a consciousness of the intellectual work that has gone into the questions that interest the author. And indeed Agarwal acknowledges sources as diverse as Ashis Nandy and Richard Burton. The book explores, very explicitly the postcolonial condition and how class and gender inflect relationships in post-independent India. Some of this exploration is achieved through meticulous research into the materiality of the characters’ lives. We find out details like how the first train service started from Bombay to Thane, and that Cherry Blossom shoe polish was the brand of choice in post-independent India. Sometimes these details are woven seamless into the narrative and sometimes they feel a little more self-conscious. But a lot of care has been taken with these details, and a lot of the pleasure of the book is in these minutiae of everyday life. One trusts the author about things like the cake delivery man on a bicycle, with a tin trunk full of cakes made by an enterprising family in Dharavi. In a sense, a ghost story/thriller is the perfect vehicle for the author’s project. It performs an archeological operation into the psyche of modern India. It may not always do so very effectively, but its exciting that it is being tried.
Another reason to celebrate ‘Haunting Bombay’ is that popular fiction in English, set in India is finally finding a place. There is popular fiction in Hindi and other languages, but the offerings in English have never been that plentiful. The expansion of a popular idiom means that Indian writing in English need not expire on the segregated and rarefied shores of Booker Prize winning High Art. It can finally be a multi-dimensional enterprise. We have our Rushdies and Mistrys, we need our Chandlers and Stephen Kings.