july 2009: shilpa agarwal

India-born author Shilpa Agarwal has received rave reviews for her debut novel Haunting Bombay. Excerpts from the interview by Shalini Saksena...

Read book review here

Author website

Q) Tell us something about yourself? How did you come to writing a novel?
A) I was born in Mumbai and grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I had initially studied pre-medicine as an undergraduate, but then decided to study literature as a graduate student. I was studying postcolonial literature and themes of voice and nationhood. I wanted to bring those themes to play in a novel, to look at moments of alienation and awakening, especially during geographic and metaphoric crossings: East meets West, centers meet the peripheries, the living meet the dead.

Q) Was it easy to write the novel since you have done specialization in Asian and African literatures and Women's Studies?
A) My academic studies helped shape the subtext in my novel. In studying literatures of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East as well as women’s literature, I was exposed to concepts of gender, race, class, and family in many other cultures.

Q) What made you choose a topic like superstition to be the plot of your book?
A) Haunting Bombay is a literary ghost story set in 1960’s India that tells the tale of three generations of the wealthy Mittal family who have buried a tragic history and the ghosts of the past who rise up to haunt them. It is about a family’s darkest fears and desires, about the struggle to belong, and the ultimate power of voice and truth. The ghosts are metaphors for the dispossessed – those who have little or no power in a family, community, or nation.

Q) Do you think that the 21st Century generation believes in superstitions? How does the younger generation identify with the book?
A) Haunting Bombay has been very well received in general, and it was recently featured as a popular read on Amazon Kindle, which is the electronic version of the book that many younger generation like to use.

Q) Why call it Haunting Bombay?
A) The story is set in 1960’s Mumbai when the city was still Bombay. It is about the moments in our past that continue to haunt our present-day lives.

Q) You have spoken on topics like politics. Does it help you as a writer or is it more of a hindrance?
A) Haunting Bombay is not an overtly political book, but the sub-textual layers are informed by India’s geo-political background. At the moment of India’s Independence in 1947, Late Prime Minister Jawaharlal 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.

Q) What in your opinion is the scope of Indian English literature?
A) Indian writers have been writing in English for a long time, and global readers are increasingly interested in and exposed to Indian culture.

Q) Is it difficult to make a mark as a woman writer?
A) I have always just thought of myself as writer. I think readers want a good story regardless of the gender of the author.

Q) Are you working on any other novel at present? If yes, what is it about?
A) Yes I am. While my first book explores the crossings of centers and peripheries as well as the intersection of the living and the dead, my second explores the crossing of the realms of heaven and earth.


Q) Who are your favourite authors? Why?
A) My writing has been influenced post-colonial writers who trace the impact of colonialism on a culture or nation, and writers who undrape the inner workings of power and gender in a society. I have many favorite authors! Here are three:
*Isabelle Allende, who weaves family stories with magic realism and the mysticism of South America.
*Toni Morrison, who brings the weight of history and the past into her writing but also incorporates supernatural elements.
*Nawal El Saadawi, who writes powerfully about women pushing up against the rigid confines of Egyptian society.

Q)There has been a great response to your book in the US, agreeing on all the genius (and lexical beauty!) of the book, don't you think it reinforces the belief of "Superstitious India". Is this newfound curiosity for India a 26/11 bomb blast effect.
A) All societies have their ghost stories and superstitions, and there is such a rich tradition of the supernatural in India. When I started writing the book almost ten years ago, I discovered fairy legends, mystical traditions, references to ghosts in the Vedas, and a 115-year old English translation of Sanskrit Vampire stories which I have woven into my novel. Even as I bring these aspects into the story, the affluent Mittal family in the center of my novel is very modern, and its matriarch staunchly rejects anything to do with superstitions. So there is a little bit of a tugging between the forces of modernity and supernatural in my story.

Q) How is the experience of revisiting Bombay through the route of words? Is it a way to stay connected or to detach?
A) I spent many childhood summers in Bombay. I even studied one semester in the city when I was in college so I feel very connected to it. It is the city of my roots and over the past decade, I have immersed myself in 1960’s Bombay through family memories, newspaper articles and magazines, historical books, music, and movies such as Mughal-e-Azam that brought that time and place to life for me.

Q) A few words for your readers...
A) Haunting Bombay takes place in a bungalow on Malabar Hill, the old elite colonial enclave. It opens on a day that a granddaughter in the wealthy Mittal family is being bathed by her ayah. The ayah is called away and when she returns, she finds that the child has drowned. She of course is immediately banished from the bungalow, but the family’s lives, including the servants, spin out from that unalterable moment in time.

I began to wonder what the child and the ayah would have said about what happened that drowning day. What if we could hear their versions of the truth? In the story, my thirteen year-old protagonist, Pinky Mittal, who has been adopted into the family, must find the courage to seek the truth which is oftentimes repressed by those in power. Pinky becomes haunted by the ghost of the dead child who is communicating outside the mode of human language. My story 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. Her journey is one of finding the truth of what happened but also finding the courage to face that truth because oftentimes truth itself can be terrifying.





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