Masala chai has become ubiquitous in coffee houses around the world. The fragrant blend of milk, tea, and Indian spices is also front and center in Haunting Bombay, the glorious debut novel by author Shilpa Agarwal. Chai is the family together-time, it’s the calmer during the storm (both literal and figurative), and the beverage of choice whether plotting schemes or cowering from ghosts.
Bombay is a both a rich tapestry of garish saris and exquisitely prepared meals set against the backdrop of an evolving Indian society, circa 1960, as well as a deftly plotted tale of the supernatural coupled with familial drama. For a debut novel, there is a cohesive narrative structure that is found usually in only seasoned writers.
The heart of Bombay’s plot is a ghost story. It’s the ghost that is the core of the family’s secrets, fears, and rationales for their behavior. In most stories the ghost is simply the secret that pulls apart the unconscious of its keepers. Here the ghost is literal, a swirling mass of white gaining strength from the element of water. The ghost’s appearance coincides with the arrival of the monsoon season. It’s here that Agarwal’s already richly detailed descriptions of India, take on the feel of the region as the rains come down. The pasty humidity clogs the air and weighs down the family’s house, while giving strength to the ghost’s mission.
The ghost had been kept locked in a bathroom until the precocious Pinky Mittal lets her adolescent curiosity get the better of her, freeing the spirit. This upsets Pinky’s already fragile existence in the household. Protected by the family matriarch Maji, who brought Pinky in the house as a little girl, the pre-teen is not always the most relatable or likeable character, giving her a three-dimensional quality. She is admired by her three cousins, looked on with disdain by her “step mother” Savita, and ignored by Maji’s son and Savita’s husband Jaginder, heir to a shipping company and a man whose personal demons consume him.