Pinky Mittal is just a baby when her mother dies. Right at the same time, Pinky’s uncle’s baby daughter dies under mysterious circumstances. Bereft, Pinky’s grandmother forces her son’s family to take Pinky in, though she is 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 has been locked in the bathroom every night, unable to do anything to those she blames for her death. Once Pinky lets her out, the Mittal family is forced to face some hard truths about their past and the way they live their lives, while Pinky tries to understand what really happened to the baby the night she died.
Shilpa Agarwal’s Haunting Bombay is a unique novel about India. It’s difficult to categorize. On one hand, it’s a masterpiece of multicultural fiction, giving the reader an eye into Indian culture and values. 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. She teaches the reader without being blatant. Additionally, Agarwal provides 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 within Indian society. Though Haunting Bombay takes place in the 1960s, 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 keeps the reader on edge, unsure of what is going to come next. A level of unease permeates the entire novel. The ghost story aspect is what really makes it unique, and she handles it gracefully. This entire novel is riddled with superstition; 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 employs magical realism. Agarwal handles the ghost story realistically, making it that much more compelling as a result.
Thanks to Agarwal’s beautiful writing, it is difficult to tell that Haunting Bombay is her first novel. Her prose has the skill and confidence of a master of the craft; the wonderful rhythm of her words makes this book a real joy to read. Additionally, her style enhances 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, and 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 and a compulsively readable novel. Once you pick it up, you shouldn’t plan on putting it down until you’ve read the entire thing.