Monday, March 21, 2011

Reflections: Haunting Bombay

The Mittal family lives in a huge bungalow in post-independence Bombay. Maji is the resourceful matriarch of the family, who rules the household with an iron-fist, much to her daughter-in-law’s chagrin. When Maji tragically loses her daughter during the violent aftermath of India’s partition, she brings in her infant grand-daughter, Pinky, to be raised in the bungalow. Pinky is not accepted by her aunt or uncle, and is lost in her own frustrations till she discovers a skeleton in the family closet.

Built during the colonial times, the Mittal’s bungalow is a relic of the beautiful and intricate  colonial architecture. The bungalow houses both the Mittal family’s precious heirlooms as well as its darkest secrets. Every evening, for the last thirteen years, the members of the household religiously lock the children’s bathroom by sunset and unlock it only upon sunrise the next morning. Nobody gives any explanation for this, and the elders panic if this ritual is not faithfully followed. On a sultry night, with the approach of Bombay’s monsoons, the bathroom door is opened. A vengeful spirit enters the household and haunts the members till the family confronts its  role in the buried secrets.
The book tells a vivid tale of downtrodden souls seeking justice and redemption.

Those who know me well are sure to be surprised that I read such a book. I’m extremely sensitive to the topic of supernatural/paranormal phenomena, and I can get far too easily disturbed and spooked. The worst part (at least to me) is that I went from being rational, to now being confused, thanks to some of my friends ;). So when I read such stories, my “rational” bolsters and shields of denial just weaken all the more. But I read this book only because my sister-in-law, an avid reader herself, gave me this book with the assurance that it wasn’t as scary and was a good read. I went by her words, and although I never thought I would say this (especially after my sleepless nights and my imagined fears in my own bathroom), I am glad I read this book.

This is not just a spooky, ghost story. The story contains strong, social topics, which are usually brushed under the carpet. Although the issues plague the whole of India, they are especially relevant to Bombay, and predominantly represent the darker core of the glamorous city. I thought it was creative of Agarwal to use a morbid theme as a vehicle to communicate these issues. And surely, these issues haunt the reader as much as the story. I don't want to discuss anything more here, for it may act as spoilers to the gripping suspense.

Additionally, Agarwal subtly interweaves the Indian family/household dynamics into the story. The book offers a decent peek into the various traditions and cultural influences on family hierarchies, and also shows the distinctions in class status between the family and the domestic helps. The ghost aspects bring to fore the several different kinds of superstitious beliefs that Indians staunchly hold onto. This made me uncomfortable, because the last thing Indians need is a reaffirmation of the million and one superstitions that continuously wreak havoc on their personal lives. And many of the social “evils” that percolate due to such superstitions, struggle to get resolved. Personally, it brought back suppressed childhood warnings - such as my grandfather’s insistence that we cousins shouldn’t go near mango or tamarind trees after sunset.  I have to concede that I don’t know how far rationality can take us to comprehend such beliefs and mysteries.

Digested Thoughts: The book is sure to be an entertaining and gripping read for those who like the spooky genre. Objectively speaking, the story isn’t scary and is not at all gory. But if you’re like me, and get disturbed by the mere idea of the paranormal, you should stay away ;). The mystery is very well wrought. The suspense is tightly paced and is complicated to the right amount. Shilpa Agarwal’s writing is impressive, considering this is her debut novel. Since I liked the book for its focus on really poignant social issues, I think it was worth reading the book! 


SecondSight said...

Haha, this is the story you were telling me about! It sounds fascinating but I'm going to ask for a private spoiler rather than read the book ;).

Neeraja said...

You should still read the book! ;). I was tempted to recommend this to A, but I think it's too trivial for him :)

Karthik said...

I think its nice it also touches upon social issues. Actually I can't understand why people read horror stories, only to get scared:-) I guess they enjoy the suspense! To be fair, I haven't read a single book based on the spooky theme, so I can't really comment! If I do get to the theme at some point, I'll give this a try:-)

Neeraja said...

Karthik, yeah it seems masochistic to want to read such books ;). But as you said, it's the suspense and mystery which eggs us - I seem to be more scared and restless if left hanging in the middle!
And honestly, nobody should want to read this genre ;)