Title: Haunting Bombay
Author: Shilpa Agarwal
Release Date: April 1, 2009
Publisher: Soho Press
Genre: Literary Fiction, Multicultural Fiction, Mystery
Source: Curled Up With a Good Book
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Pinky Mittal was just a baby when her mother died. Coincidentally, right at the same time, Pinky’s uncle’s baby daughter died under mysterious circumstances. Bereft, Pinky’s grandmother forced her son’s family to take Pinky in, though she was never fully accepted as a member of the family.
Thirteen years later, Pinky unleashes horror on the household with one simple action – she unbolts the door of the bathroom where the Mittal baby died. Until that point, the baby’s ghost had been locked in the bathroom every night, unable to do anything to those she blames for her death. But once Pinky lets her out, the Mittal family is forced to face some hard truths about their past and the way they presently live their lives, while Pinky tries to understand what really happened to the baby the night she died.
Shilpa Agarwal’s Haunting Bombay is an extremely unique novel about India. It’s difficult to categorize it – on one hand, it’s a masterpiece of multicultural fiction, giving the reader an eye into Indian culture and values. For example, the fact that Maji, Pinky’s grandmother, lives in a house with her son’s family is perfectly normal within Indian culture, though Agarwal never discusses it – it’s just an accepted fact of life. It manages to teach the reader without being blatant. Additionally, Agarwal manages to provide a social commentary throughout the novel – it’s sometimes difficult to pick up on, but she does an extraordinary job of revealing the injustices and prejudices that exist within Indian society. Though Haunting Bombay takes place in the 1960’s, the commentary is still relevant today. The ending of the novel is especially telling.
However, at its core, Haunting Bombay is also a ghost story. Agarwal does a wonderful job of keeping the reader on edge, unsure of what is going to come next. There is a level of unease that permeates this entire novel. The ghost story aspect of it is what really made it unique, and she handled it very gracefully. This entire novel is riddled with superstition, so including ghosts merely takes what is already present in the novel (and in Indian society) one step further. As a result, this does not come across as a fantasy novel, or one that includes magical realism. Agarwal handles the ghost story very realistically, and it is that much more compelling as a result.
Agarwal’s writing is also very beautiful in Haunting Bombay. It is difficult to tell that this is her first novel – her prose has the skill and confidence of a master of the craft. Her words have a wonderful rhythm; they make this book a real joy to read. Additionally, her style of adds to the theme of the novel. One of the central images in Haunting Bombay is water, both its life-giving and life threatening properties. The writing in this novel reminds me of smooth, calming, flowing water – it works incredibly well with the story.
Haunting Bombay is a wonderful work of literary fiction for anyone interested in learning about other cultures or in mysteries. This is a compulsively readable novel – once you pick it up, you shouldn’t plan on putting it down until the book is over.