Saturday, February 14, 2009

Coming in April: A Supernatural Mystery Set in Inida -- Shilpa Agarwal's HAUNTING BOMBAY

Soho Crime is a favorite here at Kingdom Books, for its steady commitment to publishing both new and classic mysteries written is settings outside America. That includes Leighton Gage's police procedurals set in Brazil; Eliot Pattison's Inspector Shan series in Chinese-occupied Tibet; Garry Disher's Australian crime novels; the French detective series by Cara Black; and books set in Laos, Thailand, Korea, and more. It also includes Henry Chang's Chinatown (New York) mysteries.

This April, Soho Press -- not the crime group, but the enfolding larger organization -- brings out a thick and satisfying first novel from Shilpa Agarwal, set in Bombay, India, in 1960. Is HAUNTING BOMBAY a mystery? It's certainly a ghost story, and it includes deaths, disappearances, dramatic moments of courage and shame. Thirteen-year-old Pinky, growing up in her grandmother's home after the death of her mother, lacks control or power over most aspects of her life. In some ways, she's content to leave decisions and choices in the hands of her beloved Maji, who embraces and adores her, telling her stories of India, teaching her to pray to the gods, feeding and cosseting her. But there are shadows in this paradise within the upper-class bungalow: jealousy from her aunt and cousins, a dark remnant of a missing child, tensions among the live-in servants that reflect terrifying mistakes that have been firmly put away without discussion. Pinky's insecurity and the pivotal space she occupies in the three-generation household lead to a Garden-of-Eden style struggle toward knowledge. And then there is the Fall, the ejection from Eden, the fierce hauntings that try to steal the very breath from her small body on the verge of womanhood.

Sustained tension and risk alternate with the freshness of exploring another culture, from food to toilet to clothing and then to family structures and loyalty. At moments in the book, when Pinky and her sensitive cousin Dheer caught the scent of fenugreek or other spices symbolic in the Bombay household, I swore I could savor a whiff of that haunting myself. And some of the aromas are not so welcome. Here is the sensory moment that announces one of the more ominous moments in the early part of the book, when a parade of hermaphrodites threatens to curse and offers to bless babies along its route:
The double-decker bus, reeking of stale urine and undigested fried lunch, now contemplated a full shutdown in front of the Empress Café while the enraged driver coaxed it back to life, with a solid beating by a rusted pipe. After the engine finally sputtered to ignite, the driver blared the bulb horn and veered onto the road, where he overtook a contingent of Fiats and narrowly missed three lunching cows.

Although nearly every character in Pinky's snug world grows and changes in this novel, their moments of bravery are mostly small ones, quick sharp efforts to exert themselves in the face of the ghosts in their lives. I enjoyed especially the way Agarwal paints the values of the Bombay family and the attitudes around love in its varied forms. I wish the book's ending were a bit richer in terms of Pinky's ability to seize and savor the life she carves out -- but that's a small quibble for a book of wide sweeping imagery and unforgettable characters. Pinky in particular is the child in most of us: not quite ready to leave home or the arms of the one person she's sure really loves her.

So yes, this is a literary novel, not a conventional mystery -- but in its parallels to the hauntings of Poe's stories and to the hot pulse of today's vampire narratives, HAUNTING BOMBAY earns a place within the genre, and I'm glad to have it appearing on our shelves. Watch for copies in April.
So it vanished.
Along with a million other stories that haunt Bombay in its darkest, deepest, more naked core.

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