Haunting Bombay: A Novel368
Haunting Bombay: A Novel368
After her mother’s death crossing the border from Pakistan to India during Partition, baby Pinky was taken in by her grandmother, Maji, the matriarch of the powerful Mittal family. Now thirteen years old, Pinky lives with her grandmother and her uncle’s family in a bungalow on the Malabar Heights in Bombay. While she has never really been accepted by her uncle’s family, she has always had Maji’s love.
One day, as monsoons engulf the city, Pinky opens a mysteriously bolted door, unleashing the ghosts of an infant who drowned shortly before Pinky’s arrival and of the nursemaid who cared for the child. Now, three generations of the Mittal family must struggle to come to terms with their secrets amidst hidden shame, forbidden love, and a call for absolute sacrifice.
“In her stunning debut novel Shilpa Agarwal takes on the ghosts that bedevil young Pinky Mittal’s extended family and dispatches them with rambunctious wit and affection. The result is like finely wrought mirror work, a glittering tapestry of vibrant contradictions, characters, and mysteries. Haunting Bombay flirts deliciously with the true spirit of India.” —Aimee Liu, author of Flash House
“Will definitely appeal to fans of Monica Ali and Jhumpa Lahiri. . . . Fresh, original.” —Library Journal
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THE SEA INSIDE
The girl moved like water itself, unthinkingly toward the darkening horizon. She was only sixteen, or maybe seventeen. A brilliant red sari clung to her body. Tangled hair lashed at her face.
Now, as the thickening dusk closed in upon her, the girl stood on the outskirts of the village, little more than a cluster of thatched huts huddled at the water's edge. A solitary coconut tree rose to the sky, straining against the heavy winds. Somewhere a dog barked incessantly. She took a step back, waiting for the moon to slip behind scattered clouds. The mirrorwork on her sari cast pale, misshapen circles of light upon the ground. She tried to touch them with her left foot, the dancing lights illuminating her toes, the middle one adorned with a silver ring, the stub of a sixth gracelessly curled under. She pressed onward, fighting a feeling that she was being repelled by some invisible energy, a collective fear.
Her destination was not the village itself but a solitary hut on its outskirts. Unlike the others, this one was badly weathered, its coconut-frond roof rotted, its interior pitch black. The wind stung, as if in warning, pulling her back, back. She did not stop until she reached the decayed bamboo mat tied to the doorway, dimly remembering weaving it as a young child. Here it was, proof that she had once inhabited this place at the world's rim, before she had begun to bleed, before the women had gathered, their salty voices crooning the ancient tale of the menstruating girl who caused the waves to turn blood-red and sea snakes to infest the waters. She should not be here. She knew this. Yet she pulled the mat away and stepped in.
The first thing she saw was the glint of the moonlight on bangles. A figure squatted in the corner of the hut, rocking back and forth on her haunches.
"You've come back," a voice said.
The girl nodded, wanting nothing more than to weep. But this was not a time to be weak. She wanted something from this woman, this blind midwife who had powers, unspoken powers. "Help me."
The tinkling bangles fell silent.
"You must," the girl pleaded, eyes shining with loss, "you were the one who cursed me!"
The midwife cackled.
The girl dropped her face, remembering the taunts, the bits and pieces she gleaned from the other children when they dared speak about her ill-fated birth.
It had been Nariyal Poornima, the day that the fishermen returned to sea after the long rainy months during which no fishing was done. Monsoon season was the breeding time for the fish, and the men had stayed away while the ocean's bounty was reproducing under the turbulent waters. Women, too, emerged that early morning, walking in the opposite direction, toward the shrine, to offer prayers to Ekuira, deity of the seas, patron of the Koli fisherpeople.
"Your Ma walked slowly," the midwife offered in a glutinous voice, "her belly pushing out so far that we thought there were two inside. She went to pray."
The girl knew of the small shamiana that rose from the treacherous rocks, its thick cloth canopy decorated in colorful patchwork. She was never allowed to go near but once visited it in secret, a single velvety marigold clutched in her small fingers to offer at the small stone shrine devoted to Ekuira, the orange-faced goddess with eight-arms, born from the body of Lord Brahma, Creator of the Universe. O most compassionate Goddess, she had recited a prayer of fisherwomen for their husbands, your oceans are so vast, and his boat so insignificant.
"Afterwards, your Ma cracked a coconut at the goddess's feet."
The girl braced herself, knowing what came next, that her mother's birth-water had broken open, defiling the shrine. The other fisherwomen had dragged her away, spitting accusations. When her father's boat failed to return that evening, no one had been surprised.
The midwife cackled once more, then as if suddenly tired of the old story, she pulled out a small, rusted lantern and lit it. Her face — dried and weathered as salted shrimp — cast eerie silhouettes upon the wall. "You've been banished again," she stated.
Had I been there just this morning? the girl wondered, remembering the warmth of the body next to her, the scarlet-tinged light filtering through the colored glass-work of the wall. "I must go back," she whispered, unable to keep the desperation from her voice.
"Once you've been banished, you can never go back, not in life, not in death," the old woman muttered. Her unseeing eyes bored into the girl's face. "They will have done a purification ceremony, just as we did the day you left, to block your spirit from entering. That's why you can't go beyond my hut into our fishing village. That's why you can never return there."
"There must be some way," the girl implored, her eyes wild. It had been home, that bungalow. She was only a servant there, true, but for a little while, she had been much more. She pulled out the merciful stash of money that Maji, the bungalow's matriarch, had given her and placed it in the midwife's gnarled hands.
The old woman seized the cash and bit into the wad with broken, blackened teeth. A line of saliva dripped down her chin. "There is one way," she said slowly, her tobacco-stained mouth curling into a smile, "but it involves an exceptional sacrifice. You must be strong, unwavering."
"I will!" The girl gritted her teeth as if to underscore her determination. She was nothing, nothing if she could not be there.
"I was right to banish you. Someone else has died."
"An accident, a baby —"
"I thought you had learned the ways of birthing," the old woman sneered, "always lurking nearby so others couldn't see you."
"I delivered the baby safely, there wasn't time for the lady to go to the nursing home. It came too fast. Maji ordered the boiling water and sheets. I told her that I knew the way so she let me deliver it while the others waited outside. I did it exactly as I had seen ... and then —" Her voice broke.
"You were away when the baby drowned."
The girl nodded.
"Just like with your father. An accident perhaps. Perhaps not. There will be other deaths, other fatal accidents."
The midwife hooted once more, her tongue lolling to one side. "You defiled the Goddess, your birth-water and blood raining down upon her altar. You were exiled when you began to bleed. You are dangerous — unknowingly, unconsciously — during your six days of bleeding. You draw dark powers from impure blood, blood of any kind from that region — birth blood, menstrual blood, virgin blood."
The girl felt the stickiness between her legs, she had begun her cycle that very morning, an alarmingly heavy one.
The old woman began to mutter, "Exiled at thirteen, thirteen-year exile." She lifted a mat on the earthen floor and stuck her arm down into a hole. One by one, she pulled out tiny packets wrapped in old newspaper and lay them in front of her. From somewhere inside her ragged sari, she pulled out a small coconut: raw, smooth, green.
"Why go back?" she asked. "What do you desire there?" The girl looked away, remembering the feeling of tresses entangled in the thick of the night, skin so fragrant she had only to be in the same room to be intoxicated by it. A forbidden touch in a scarlet-tinged room.
The midwife crowed horrifically as if she had read her mind, and then, regaining her composure, opened the newspaper packets. In each lay a powder, some velvety yellow, others a gritty brown, blue, black. She began mixing them together, all the while chanting in low tones. The dog's barking drew closer and with it came the snapping of footfalls upon dried palm fronds. The girl glanced over her shoulder, regretting that she had not pulled the mat back over the doorway. Moving quickly now, the old woman cracked the coconut open with a sickle-shaped koyta and poured in the powder mixture, stirring it into the coconut milk. The concoction smoked, filling the air with a foul, polluted smell.
The girl drew back, horrified.
"Exiled at thirteen, thirteen-year exile," the midwife muttered again. And then her blind gaze fell upon the girl.
"For thirteen years you cannot go back."
"The fulfillment of your desires carries a price, an unfathomable price."
"I've lost too much already," the girl whispered as the smoke coiled around her. "I won't lose this."
"Think of that then," the midwife commanded, holding the reddish, snaking liquid to the girl's lips. "You must think of that as you drink. What you desire will become your truth."
The girl hesitated, touching the mole upon her cheek for luck.
"Fast now, fast, someone is near!"
And the girl once again remembered the feel of warm skin, the sweet breath of laughter. And the loss was so deep, so intense that she felt a deep hatred boil up inside her chest for those who had cast her out that morning, severing her from the only place she regarded as home.
As the first drops of the elixir touched her tongue, her desire was not love.
We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell.
— Jawaharlal Nehru Speech On the Granting of Indian Independence August 14, 1947
Hich: A person who is nowhere, a thing which has no place, no identity or personality of its own, from 'hichgah' — nowhere.
— From the Old Pahlavi Persian Zia Jaffrey, The Invisibles
Pinky Mittal's earliest memory was of glistening water. It splashed and crashed along with the sounds of wheels straining to push forward, the crack of a switch upon a bullock's bleeding back, shouts of men, whimperings of hungry children. There was a buzzing, a screeching, like the sound of a kettle of vultures, their formation like blackened bubbles rising from the river.
In this memory, so primal that it came to her only as a dream, Pinky stared at a woman in a sari, golden yellow like the champa flower. The woman looked to the barren sky as if beseeching the gods, and then — slowly, very slowly — began to fall into the current. She was carried swiftly downward, the sari palloo trailing behind her like the fluttering of a dying bird. Pinky cried out, the sound coming out as a baby's inconsolable wail, but the golden woman sank without a sound.
And then came comprehension.
It was her mother.
Pinky woke with a start in the strangely stifling room. Sweat poured from her skin and pooled in every crevice of her body, between her fingers, behind her knees, into her eyes. She opened them, feeling the sting of salt, the blurriness of tears, and instinctively reached up, grasping for something solid in her dream-induced haze, and knocked over a covered steel cup by her bed. It clattered to its side, spilling water across the polished wood floor.
She lifted herself up on to her elbows, taking a moment for the recurring nightmare to fade away, and the familiarity of the room to offer comfort. From her vantage point, upon a mattress positioned at the side of her grandmother's bed, Pinky could make out the hulking outline of the cabinets lining one wall, each painted with fanciful, ocher-colored chinoiserie murals. As a child, she had spent hours tracing the long, tapering branches which occasionally meandered from one panel to the next. She had woven endless, circular stories about the exotic birds who inhabited the trees: the cruel, sharp-beaked crimson one with the white-tipped feathers, the quiet russet one who pecked amongst the thatches of long grass, the little baby one who chirped longingly from her tiny nest. On one rectangular panel, the painted branches ended in a cluster of vermilion-colored berries that Pinky had long ago ordained with magical powers.
She drew out each story, peppering it with obstacles and twists, as if to delay the final moment, to savor the thrill when the sole, gossamer-winged butterfly on the panel swooped down and saved the berries from the cruel bird. And then, spanning the breadth of the six murals, she distributed the berries in a queenly way. And by magic, the one-legged bird grew another leg and the blue bird with faded feathers received shiny new ones. Pinky always saved the final berry for the sad, little baby bird who had lost its family. Eat it, she whispered to the baby bird, it will bring them back.
Rubbing her eyes, she stretched as if to push the last sticky dream remnants away and then opened a small teak chest inlaid with intricate enamel work on the floor next to her. It contained her most precious possessions: fresh pencils that had arrived by ship, a box of sticky oil pastels, a tin of enameled jacks sent as a gift from a relative in Haridwar, a swatch of emerald silk, and a faded magazine photo. In lieu of actual photos of her dead mother, of which none remained, Pinky had torn out a picture of the actress Madhubala from an old copy of Filmindia. In it, Madhubala is looking out into the distance as if lost in thought, her face and hair framed by an ethereal glow. She is stunning, her lips parted slightly, a pearl choker at her neck. Over time, Pinky had forgotten that the photo was not really her mother. She knew very little about her, except for a few stories about her childhood and the fact that she drowned while crossing a river.
Pinky carefully returned the photo to the chest, pushing it against the wall next to a heavy dresser with a small brass mirror overturned on top. Just above her on the imposing Edwardian-style bed, her grandmother's enormous belly rose from a faded sheet like a snowcapped peak, her snores already at deafening levels. A mosquito coil burned in one corner, releasing a bittersweet smell, where a temperamental air-conditioning unit jutted out from the wall. Pinky clicked the knob and the machine sputtered to high, offering a blast of cooling air. It was early June, the hottest, most unbearable, most humid stretch of the year, and sleep without the AC was nearly impossible.
She sat on the bed, pulling her grandmother's warm hands, knotted and thick with bluish veins, into her own. They were life-giving hands, ones that had held her, clothed her, and fed her ever since she had been a motherless infant thirteen years ago. When Pinky was younger and still sleeping in the huge Edwardian bed, she used to hold on to one of Maji's hands through the night and perform a little ritual whenever she was afraid or sick. Turning it face up, Pinky ran her finger along the lines in the palm, starting with the thickest one that curved around the thumb. She meticulously touched a line for each of her years, as if to somehow map herself into the infinite universe within Maji's hand. She incanted a small prayer: I am in you. Even at thirteen, Pinky still continued with this small assertion of belonging.
After she had finished, she wiped up the spilled water and retrieved the steel cup. Peering down the dark east hallway that ran from a locked teak door on the front verandah and across the entire length of the bungalow, she could barely make out a dim glow from a large window overlooking the back garden. A parallel hallway ran down the other, west side of the bungalow, dividing it into roughly three sections with bedrooms, bathrooms, and the kitchen in either wing, and the front parlor, the dining hall, and living room in the center. The one-story bungalow had been built over a hundred years earlier by a high-ranking East India Company officer as an architectural symbol of the British Raj. His wife, longing for the tidy coolness of Home, however, had irritably christened the bungalow The Jungle. Pinky loved its elegant symmetry and grand teak doors, its Moghul-inspired archways, and the lush, tropical garden in back with its grove of mango trees.
During the season, the trees dripped with the fleshy, golden fruit and Maji gave away all they did not need, sending baskets to friends and relatives throughout Bombay. Mango-picking day was a festive day in the bungalow, a holiday unto themselves. The gardener arrived at the crack of dawn with extra workers and they collected huge basketfuls of the fruit, while Pinky and her cousins sat under the trees, biting into the sweet flavor, their faces smeared bright orange. They are Lord Ganesh's favorite, too, Maji always told them as she clipped a handful of auspicious mango leaves to hang on the front verandah. Later in the day, she supervised the distribution of the mangos in the ornate dining hall while her daughter-in-law, Savita, sauntered around the long, polished dining table, squeezing and prodding the fruit to ensure that the best ones were earmarked for her relations.
Pinky stepped into the stifling hall, deprived of the artificially cooled air that the bedrooms and the front parlor typically enjoyed. The wooden floorboards, which normally creaked and sighed with the slightest pressure, absorbed the lightness of her feet. Pinky knew these floors, knew where they gave way and where they were supported. She walked across them with unthinking familiarity.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Haunting Bombay"
Copyright © 2009 Shilpa Agarwal.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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