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Haunting Bombay (thoughts)

October 1, 2009

Haunting-BombayBack before I started blogging, it seemed like if I read international fiction, it was set in India! Then I decided I should be more diverse, and somehow I ended up avoiding Indian lit for quite awhile. Well, no longer-I’m back to reading authors from the subcontinent, and I liked it! ;)

Haunting Bombay by Shilpa Agarwal sounds like a book I’d love: it’s set in Mumbai, there’re repressed family secrets, and an angry ghost. So I broke my ‘no review copies’ rule and agreed to a book tour.

I think the best thing Agarwal does in the book is bring post-partition Mumbai to life. The food, the religion, the lifestyle of the wealthy, the cafes, the streets…I felt like I was in the city being soaked by the monsoon rains as well. And I loved that. At the beginning, she also creates some marvelous characters. There’s Maji, the powerful matriarch who is getting bigger every year. There’s Nimish, the seventeen-year-old firstborn son who loves the old library.

When the rest of the bungalow had been updated, this sole room remained as it was, lost in the past. Nimish spent hours in here with the books, breathing in the residue of another era. His plan was to read every single book that the library contained, from the hard burgandy or green leather covers richly engraved in gold to the small ones dressed in cloth dust jackets, all the while imagining what it was like to have been a pukka English sahib.

So for the first 150 pages, I was quite happy and excited.

But then, things changed. The plot began to move at a frenetic pace, point of view shifting all of the time without really a change in tone, character development was at an end, and I felt a little lost. The writing grew a bit more clunky, like this:

“My little pakora,” Cook Kanj said, affectionately calling his future child a fried ball of chickpea flour.

And I stopped enjoying myself as much. The plot becomes the most important part of the book, and although it is a suitably complicated one, with several strands that are (mostly) tied up in the end, I’m not the type of reader who enjoys plot-driven books. Also, while there are some interesting ideas that are half-touched on (everything from class to gender to love and sex), none of these are fully fleshed out, which frustrated me. I wanted to hear more about the hijras, who are men who dress as women, and I think they’re castrated or maybe hermaphrodites or both. Some of the characters seem them when they’re at a cafe, and now I want to dig up some nonfiction about them, since the book didn’t go into more detail!

At the end of the day, this felt like a first novel. There are parts that are marvelous, but other parts that need some work. If you’re more of a plot reader than character reader, you’ll probably be happier than me with the book’s shift about halfway through. I’m glad that I got to see Mumbai through Agarwal’s eyes, and I plan on keeping an eye on her future writing career. There’s loads of potential in this book, it’s too bad it doesn’t live up to it-I can’t call it ‘literary’. This feels like a ‘book club’ type of book, that raises issues and has a twisty-turny plot but doesn’t worry so much about fleshed out characters or strong writing, like The Poisonwood Bible or Mudbound or The Kite Runner…if you’re a fan of that, definitely try this one out!

21 Comments leave one →
  1. October 1, 2009 8:44 am

    That last sentence you quote… :| I’m sorry to hear this wasn’t better!

  2. October 1, 2009 9:36 am

    So, from your days when you read a lot of Indian literature…anything you’d highly recommend? I’ve no idea why I’ve never read any. Rich has an uncle from India. Haven’t seen him in a while, but I love listening to him talk about India. He still goes back every year to visit family.

  3. October 1, 2009 10:02 am

    I liked “The Kite Runner” but didn’t like “the Poisonwood Bible”, so now I have no idea whether I’d like this book! I do enjoy reading international fiction, so I might pick it up at some point.

  4. October 1, 2009 11:01 am

    Oh well, I loved The Kite Runner and love plot based books too, so I’ll probably like this book.

    And I love books based in Mumbai, there is something about the city that surprises me every time I go there or even read about it.

    I haven’t seen any non-fiction on Hijra’s but there was this documentary on CNN some time back which was really awesome (called Eunuchs: you could probably look for it online if available)

    Sorry, you didn’t love the book but at least parts of the book were good :)

  5. October 1, 2009 11:03 am

    Hi Eva! I was glad to hear your thoughts on this one since I’m on this tour too, and haven’t started the book yet. I am equally a fan of plot-driven books (like the ones you mentioned) and character-driven books, so I’m still feeling like I’ll enjoy this one more than you did. But weird point of view changes that don’t make sense confuse me, so now I’m a little nervous about that part. We’ll just have to see!

  6. October 1, 2009 11:34 am

    I adore plot, so I may like this a bit better than you did, but the example you gave for clunky writing… ouch. Certainly, an author can do better than that! Perhaps it’ll be worth a rental for those first 150 pages, but I’m probably not going to give this a shot.

  7. October 1, 2009 1:03 pm

    I have been after this book for quite some time. I am not sure if I really do want to read it now. Thanks for a honest review.

  8. October 1, 2009 1:34 pm

    I always appreciate an honest review. I took this book home from the library a few months back, but I never did get a chance to read it. I might try again sometime???

    Great review; again thanks

  9. Natasha Maidoff permalink
    October 1, 2009 4:36 pm

    I can’t disagree more, Eva. I read this book with such delight. Every single page was so rich for me, and I enjoyed exploring such a completely different universe. I love plot, but I also like experimental fiction. This book seemed in no way overly plot-driven, yet I was fascinated and excited when all the threads began to weave together in an intensely compelling way. I found the book really satisfying and the details uniquely intrinsic to the plot. I would never call Agarwal’s writing clunky, far from that, it is graceful and profound. The quote above, calling his unborn baby a chickpea flour ball is like someone here calling their baby “my little dumpling.” Cook Kanj is afterall, a cook. To me it was funny in a wonderful, understated way. I think of Agarwal’s writing as magical and engrossing, sensual and seductive. If this isn’t “literary fiction,” I don’t know what is.

  10. October 1, 2009 8:57 pm

    I think that last quote is kind of sweet, actually, esp. coming from a cook!

    I like both plot driven and character driven novels, and I love novels set in India. Comparing it to The Kite Runner and other “book club” books actually entices me, so onto the TBR list it goes!

    Thanks for the honest review. Funny how one person’s criticism is what another person likes. That’s what I like about the kind of review that says “this is why it didn’t work FOR ME” because that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad book. It just means it’s not the book for you.

    Thanks again, Eva!

  11. Kelly permalink
    October 1, 2009 10:06 pm

    It was interesting to read your review, Eva, since I recently finished reading the book myself. I agree that the second half of the book was more plot driven, but instead of being disappointed, I found my heart in my mouth – and unable to put the book down. I read it cover-to-cover, stopping only for potty breaks! It’s been a while since I’ve done that. I’ve always been drawn to both plot and character driven novels, and found Haunting Bombay to satisfy both desires. I also love reading books that take me someplace new, and Agarwal did an amazing job of painting a picture of India. Thanks for the blog, and letting me add my two-cents as well.

  12. October 2, 2009 9:27 am

    Nymeth, you can’t love every book! :)

    Debi, SALMAN RUSHDIE. That’s the short answer! ;) I also really loved The Space Between Us, which is a marvelous ‘women’s issues’ novel.

    Valerie, I’ll be curious abotu your reaction!

    Violet, I *really* want to visit Mumbai at some point (well, let’s face it-I want to visit all of India!). Thanks for letting me know about the documentary-I’ll see if I can get it through netflix or my library!

    Heather, I just don’t like it when points of view shift but the writing stays the same, so I have no clue who’s supposed to be narrating. It’s one of my pet peeves, lol. ;) Looking forward to your reaction!

    Literary Omnivore, yeah-I’m not sure where the editor was in the second half!

    Vivienne, I’m glad my review helped. :)

    Diane, thanks!

    Natasha, well you’re entitled to your opinion. Obviously, I understood the *sense* of the second quote I shared. I wasn’t annoyed that the cook was calling his baby by a nickname. I was annoyed with the awkward way the author set up the sentence, and if you read the other comments you’ll see I’m not alone. Have you read Byatt, or Rushdie, or Woolf? That’s literary fiction.

    Lisa, I thought what the cook said was sweet-just not how the sentence was constructed! I figured comparing it too book club books would be enticing-even though the book wasn’t for me, I bet a lot of people will enjoy it. :) I’m glad I managed to hit that note in my review!

    Kelly, thanks! I can totally see why you read the way you did, and I’m glad you commented since that way other readers will have your opinion as well!

  13. October 2, 2009 5:03 pm

    I am planning to read a number of novels by Indian authors in 2010 when the S E Asian Challenge begins-I will probably look for this one-I like to read first novels also

  14. October 3, 2009 9:58 am

    I’m so addicted to books set in India – particularly during the Raj. What’s your favorite of Salman Rushdie’s books? Have you read them all?

  15. N B permalink
    October 3, 2009 7:41 pm

    Hi there,

    You can enjoy novels by Thrity Umrigar.The last one which i read was ” If today be sweet”.It is a nice novel on an Indian widow who has lost her husband and is in dilemma to settle down in US with his son & family or all alone in Bombay , India.You can enjoy Jhumpa Lahiri .

  16. October 4, 2009 1:25 am

    Thank you, as always, for an insightful review, Eva!

    I like the way you’ve written this review, because I don’t think it turns people off who would otherwise enjoy the book. Rather, those who liked the books you mentioned will happy put HAUNTING BOMBAY on their list. When someone is specific in their review about what didn’t work for them, readers can decide if those things will be a problem for them as well, or if they will enjoy it. :)

  17. October 5, 2009 1:29 pm

    For some reason I’ve never been able to explain, Indian lit and I just don’t get along very well, so I think I’ll give this a miss… but MAN is that cover gorgeous!

  18. October 11, 2009 6:34 am

    Mel U, SE Asian Challenge?! How did I not know about this?!

    Jenny, I’ve read about 80% of Rushdie’s books. My fave is Shalimar the Clown! But I’ve loved them all. :D

    NB, thanks for the recommendations-I’ve read all of Lahiri’s books and loved them! And I’ve read Umrigar’s The Space Between Us-it was marvelous. I need to read more of her!

    Trish, thank you. :)

    Fyrefly, isn’t the cover pretty?! It’s expensive feeling too.

  19. October 28, 2009 1:41 pm

    Okay, I’m glad it’s not just me. I read so many great reviews for this that I thought I was bonkers for not really liking it.


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