GHOST STORY TOOK A LONG TIME COMING OUT OF INDIA
Released just a month ago, the reviews for Haunting Bombay , so far, have been pretty. Written by Shilpa Agarwal, Haunting Bombay is the winner of the First Words Literary Prize for South Asian Writers, and parallels are being drawn to the mysticism of Isabelle Allende and the spirituality of Toni Morrison as they are to the writings of other authors of South Asian heritage. "Agarwal's work will definitely appeal to fans of Monica Ali and Jhumpa Lahiri...but it retains a fresh, original feel that will draw in new readers with its own literary merit," says Library Journal.
Personally, I am surprised it took so long for a ghost story to be set in India. After all, it's a country teeming with belief in the supernatural, ghosts and witches. As kids we grew up hearing that we'd be taken away by them if we didn't behave, and there's always a family or two who've had prayers done to ward off the evil eye.
Set in post-colonial India, Agarwal weaves together literary fiction, a mystery, and haunting supernatural spirits in a story of power and powerlessness, voice and silence. The novel is a tale of three generations of the wealthy Mittal ( no relation to the Mittal Steel Multi-Billionaires!) family who have buried a tragic history and the ghosts of the past who rise up to haunt them, illuminating their deepest fears and desires and underscoring the singular power of utterance.
I had a tete-a-tete with the author:
Q: HAUNTING BOMBAY breaks with the tradition of the South Asian-American novel. How did you decide to go in that direction?
Shilpa: My book is an exploration of how the privileged can hear the voices of the dispossessed - about what sacrifices and risks must be taken in order to actually hear. The ghosts are metaphors for the dispossessed, those who have little or no power in a family, community, or nation. The novel has very suspenseful and eerie moments but it is also full of humor and lightness, especially in the interaction between the members of the Mittal household. I would say that it expands the boundaries of the Indian or South Asian novel. When I was researching ghost stories, I discovered fairy legends, mystical traditions, references to ghosts in the ancient religious texts, and a 115-year old English translation of Sanskrit Vampire stories which I've woven into my novel. There is such a rich tradition of the supernatural in India yet I didn't find any other English-language South Asian authors who were writing about it. Readers instead have connected my writing to the mystical and magical literary traditions of South American writers Isabelle Allende and Gabriel García Márquez.
Q: Without giving it away completely, can you tell us more about the novel?
Shilpa: Yes - the story opens with the drowning but as it unfolds and the ghost begins to haunt the household, the Mittal family's tangled memories of that drowning day - of where and what theywere doing when the child died - are revealed. The family and the servants all have secret desires and motivations - the ayah who was dismissed was in love with someone in the household, the father illicitly visits drinking dens while his children sleep, the driver maintains a relationship with an aging prostitute in the red-light district, one of the housemaids despised the ayah and so forth. There are a number of characters who could have been involved in the child's death. My protagonist's journey is about finding the truth of what happened but also finding the courage to face that truth because often times truth itself can be terrifying.
Q: Why did you set the story in 1960?
Shilpa: At the moment of India's Independence in 1947, Prime Minister Nehru had talked about how the nation, suppressed by centuries of invasion and colonialism, at long last finding utterance. I wanted to set my novel thirteen years after this moment, as the nation moved into its adolescence to explore this idea of finding utterance - of a national consciousness informed by the voices of the underclass. I also set it in the 60s because I wanted to weave in my parents' stories of their youth. My mom's family were refugees during the partitioning of India and I wanted to show both the loss and sense of hope at that time.
Q: As a mom of elementary school age kids with aspirations to get a novel published myself, I'm in awe of how you pulled it off. You have such young children yourself and still managed to get the words out each day.
Shilpa: I started writing the novel when I was pregnant with my first child. After that, I had to write in snatches of time - when my child napped, when I didn't feel utterly exhausted by sleepless nights and changing diapers and newborn colic. After my children began to sleep through the night, I began to write early in the mornings before dawn because that was the only time of day I could lose myself in my writing without fear of distraction. That time of day also lent itself to expanding my imagination especially in the supernatural realm - it was pitch black outside and eerily quiet in my office except for the clicking of my fingers on the keyboard. The most important thing for me was having a disciplined schedule, writing every day even if I didn't feel like it.
Q: The supernatural nature of your book lends itself to film. Have you thought about HAUNTING BOMBAY, the movie?
Shilpa: Yes, I'm very interested in developing a screenplay. One friend described the 'movie version' of my book as a "cross between Mira Nair and M. Night"!
Q: Are you working on your next book?
Shilpa: Yes I am. I am intrigued by the idea of crossings and in HAUNTING BOMBAY, I explore the crossing of the centers of powers with the peripheries and the intersection of the living and the dead. My second book also brings in mystical and magical elements but explores the crossing ofthe realms of heaven and earth.
Readers can reach the author via www.hauntingbombay.com, hauntingbombay.com/facebook and twitter.com/authorshilpa