"Haunting Bombay" is a richly detailed ghost story set in 1960's Bombay spanning three generations of the wealthy Mittal family, whose past and hidden ghosts after being unearthed begin haunting them. The protagonist, Pinky, grows up in her maternal grandmother's home following her mother's death in the violence surrounding India's partition. It is an odd household with Maji, the matriarch, consumed by the daily rituals that have governed her life for decades; Pinky's aunt, Savita, enslaved by her superstitions after the freakish death of her daughter; and Jaginder, Maji's son, who lives in an alcoholic stupor instead of facing his daughter's loss.
Pink finds her life in the Mittal household challenging and is constantly battling Savita, who hates her because she reminds her of her lost daughter, Chakori. But Maji is constantly by her side defending her at every given chance. Thirteen years later, when Pinky grows up, her aunt's hatred is a constant but Pinky does not care. She is in the throes of her first love for her older cousin Nimish.
Circumstances change in the blink of an eye when one summer evening she discovers that the object of her affections and a beautiful neighbor, Lovely, are in a relationship. Distraught and heartbroken, Pinky unbolts the bathroom door which her aunt had kept locked up because she believes that the wicked spirits that killed her daughter still lurked there. Soon after, the Mittals are tormented by vengeful ghosts and all hidden family secrets come out in the open. The stormy Indian monsoons contribute to the spooky atmosphere that is pervasive throughout, much reminiscent of the eerie Poe narratives but is almost devoid of scares and gore that are a part of many ghost stories.
Who are these ghosts? Is one of them Chakori, Savita and Jaginder's dead daughter? One has to read this award-winning debut novel of Shilpa Agarwal to find out how Pinky sets out to uncover the secrets that skulk under the surface. This old fashioned gothic story was so deeply enchanting that I had to read it in one sitting. The descriptions of Bombay, its slums, beggars, Hindu traditions, ghosts and spirits made it a fascinating read. What I really liked was the way the lives of women in various stages of their lives and from various walks of life and those of the men were interwoven with the supernatural element and showed how intertwined everything had become over the years.
The characters had a depth to them and so were the surprise turns and twists that make a story interesting. The only back draw is that it dragged on a bit unnecessarily. Also, the typos and grammatical errors, of which they were many, became irritating after a while.
Nonetheless, they did not detract from the story itself and I would call Haunted Monsoon a "good and interesting" read. Haunting Bombay has received rave reviews. USA Today described it as, "Intriguing debut novel... draws on the broader mystical culture that envelops India, where there is always a supernatural explanation for everything that happens... seeks to give voice to the
dispossessed through the supernatural."
And the ReviewingTheEvidence.com said, "Moving slowly and gracefully as if underwater, focusing on light and dark and emotion instead of thought... this is a story that slowly unfolds in allusion and emotion, with the reader being left to infer from hints as much as being told what is happening… Although a ghost story, it relies less on scares and gore than it does on pervasive feelings of oppression and gnawing secrets, as inescapable as the heat of India."
The author Shilpa Agarwal is a Los Angeles-based writer and academic. Born in Mumbai to a family uprooted by India's Independence movement and subsequent Partition in 1947, 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. Incidentally, Haunted Monsoon won the First Words Literary Prize for South Asian writers.
[ BY GAURI KUMAR ]