Haunting Bombay by Shilpa Agarwal

I was somewhat disappointed by this book and by the fact that it is my book for India.

There are so many wonderful books from India and Indian authors but this is not one of them, in my opinion.

It did win the 2003 First Words Literary Prize for South Asian Writers which made me hopeful that I had found another gem. I found the book to be painfully drawn out and I lost interest just over half way through. The end tried to make the whole book seem awfully exciting but it was too little much too late.

Haunting Bombay is a ghost story set in Bombay (funny that) with everything revolving around one family and their neighbour. It is also, I guess, about love and freedom and how people are treated by others, especially the less powerful like staff, women and those who are not quite physically perfect. Pinky is the main character except when she is possessed. Her grandmother is her benevolent rescuer from a useless father and greedy paternal grandmother when her mother dies. Pinky lives with her grandmother and uncle and his family and is never part of the family really. Which is one story I think could have been very interesting just on its own.

But Pinky then releases the ghost of her baby cousin and so starts a whole muddle of magic, religion, superstition and fear. This then becomes the story.

Her male cousin is in love with the neighbour. She behaves rather oddly and her end is never explained. Story 3.

There is sexual abuse, alcoholism, a hooker, transsexuals and crazy ayahs (nannies) all crowding into the pages, demanding attention. Rather than a symphony it turned into a cacophony.

The lushness and cloying moisture of Bombay during the monsoons was well portrayed; I thought Agarwal managed to convey that very well. What started out as verdant, succulent and lush soon became scary, sinister and unpleasantly soaked.

This book is, to my mind, very obviously a first novel. It could have been well-edited to 70% of its length without losing anything. There are too many sub-plots, none of which are gripping enough to stand alone, too many pointless details which were not part of painting the picture but seem like verbosity. I got to the point of actually not caring about the characters at all but just wanting them to go away.

I would like to read another offering by Agarwal as I am sure she will have grown into an author I relate better too.

But Haunting Bombay did win that prize, so maybe I am the problem reader rather than it being the problem read.

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