HAUNTING BOMBAY by Shilpa Agarwal

Book Quote:

“The girl moved like water itself, unthinkingly toward the darkening horizon. She was only sixteen, or maybe seventeen. A brilliant red sari clung to her body. Tangled hair lashed at her face.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett (MAR 31, 2010)

It’s 1960 and partitioned India is rife with factions, superstitions, violence and oppression.

The Mittal household, living in a rambling bungalow in the old colonial enclave of Malabar Hill, Bombay, presents a comfortable, serene exterior to the world. But behind the walls, amid the remnants of British raj furnishings and “the aroma of sandalwood, peppers and fried cumin,” the extended family seethes with desire and discontent.

At the center of the story is Pinky, still more child than woman at 13. Left motherless at partition, she was claimed as an infant by Maji, the formidable matriarch in a white widow’s sari, who rules the household although crippled with obesity. Pinky may be Maji’s favorite but her aunt Savita despises the child. “She’s not your sister, she would admonish her sons whenever Maji was out of earshot, she’s your destitute cousin. Remember that.”

Savita’s husband, Maji’s only son, Jaginder, head of the family shipbreaking business, sneaks out every night to get drunk. The twins, 14, are rambunctious and teasing though not cruel. But the eldest boy, Nimish, 17, has always been kind to Pinky. Too kind, perhaps.

Pinky is devastated to discover late one night that her cherished Nimish is in love with the girl next door, a girl even more sheltered than Pinky. In her anger, hoping Nimish will come out of his room to stop her, Pinky unbolts the door to the children’s bath, a door that has been strictly bolted every night of her life.

Though at first no one else in the house is aware, Pinky has unleashed the unsettled ghosts of a tragedy that shattered the household 13 years earlier. Disbelieved by everyone, menaced by the ghost no one else perceives, Pinky gropes for understanding – hoping to appease the ghost with empathy.

But the ghost is having none of that and as the torrential monsoon breaks the stifling heat, tensions within the family – at first lulled by the cooling rains – reach a shattering point.

Agarwal, a native of Bombay, now living in Los Angeles, sets the arc of this debut novel to the rhythm of India’s climate. The parched heat strains tempers, and the still air lies heavy with secrets. The first monsoon rains bring giddy relief, renewing married love and awakening forbidden young hopes before the relentless wetness seeps into every crack and corner of the place, sprouting mold and hastening decay.

Her prose is rich with aromas and colors and tactile sensations. The magic realism of spirits and superstitions festoon the daily routines of everyday. Women’s lives are homebound and prescribed by virtue and duty (until cursed by widowhood), but men’s bonds, though less visible, are nearly as restricting.

The characters grow as the novel progresses, particularly those who seem at first to be almost background – the servants, especially Parvita, a formidable woman who has already survived more than most. And Agarwal branches out to include the sprawling city – from the Christian bars to the stultifying slums (where the shipbreaking company’s workers live) and the terrifying underworld of criminals and mystical tantriks.

A captivating, transporting novel.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 20 readers
PUBLISHER: Soho Press (April 1, 2010)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Shilpa Agarwal
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another ghost story:

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters


March 31, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Debut Novel, Facing History, India-Pakistan, World Lit

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