By Thrity Umrigar
Picador, 271 pp., $24
Bombay, on the west coast of India, population today: 10 million and climbing. Bombay: once a string of islands, then an island city, then a port city, then Gateway of India -- a trading, cosmopolitan, westernized city, but home too, after the rise of Islam, to emigrants from the east, from Persia, Zoroastrians (Parsis) who formed their own island population among the citys Hindus and Muslims, Christians and Jews. Parsis: industrious, middle-class, dedicated to self-betterment, to education, to economic and social advancement, possibly a little smug, possibly a little superior in their attitudes, no obvious enemies of the Raj, no necessary champions of Indian independence but maintaining an ancient dedication to one God.
And what of Bombay in the eyes of the Parsi families who inhabit a single apartment building called Wadia Baug and as Thrity Umrigar observes them in her remarkable debut novel, Bombay Time? To Rusi Bilimoria, the Bombay of his youth, the Bombay where marine bands played and fountains actually worked, had given way to a fetid, crowded, overpowering city that insulted his senses -- a time bomb of a city, he calls it, a city with streets prowled by shadowy, vicious creatures, invisible outsiders, vultures, them. And to his mother Khorshed, it isnt just Bombay: Simply put,the country had gone to hell after the British left.
This is the subtext, not the substance (until its very late pages), of Bombay Time. And simply put, Umrigar writes not sociologically but individually of disappointment and loss, of envy and regret, of dreams deferred when those dreams are not, as is more often the case, dashed, and she writes of all these within the framework of a single evening: a wedding reception held in honor of a Harvard-educated son and his bride as hosted by an Oxford-educated father and highly successful lawyer named Jimmy Kanga. Among Kangas guests are the boyhood friends and neighbors he knew growing up in Wadia Baug. Its their stories, told in flashback, that form the novels wide basis.
Consider one Soli Contractor, neighborhood clown, who this night is seeking Rusis advice on a letter he received from his lost love, Mariam, a Jew girl who broke his heart when she and her family moved to Israel after World War II and after she had opened his heart to something in himself finer than hed ever imagined.
Or consider one Tehmi Engineer, whose dual tragedies -- a fathers death, a husbands death -- and the mysterious illness that followed have forced her into virtual exile until this night.
Or Adi Patel, neighborhood drunk, who at age 19 raped then ended up haunted by the daughter of one of his landowning fathers laborers. Adi, a drunk this night too.
Or the widow Dosa Popat, neighborhood midwife of medicine and gossip, who aimed to become the first Parsi woman doctor but who saw that ambition crushed by an arranged marriage then crushed the ambitions of her son. This to save that son the disappointment of possible failure. Or to feed her gargantuan envy?
The book belongs mostly, however, to Rusi Bilimoria and his wife Coomi. He, in his youth, bragged of his guaranteed, future success in business; she, in hers, fell for him and that guarantee. But since that time, what? Mild to uneven profits from Rusis paper factory. Savage words followed by tender ones and beggings for forgiveness from Coomi, words never entirely out of earshot of Rusis live-in mother Khorshed and words, for good or ill, never less than fleeting. The sole bright spot here? Daughter Binny, whom the couple do agree they did right to prepare for a life in England rather than a life in this wretched country India. Umrigar performs the dissection of this marriage beautifully, but its Rusi and Coomi who do the hurting mutually. Until, that is, a gift from the shadows, a hurled rock, brings what was past tense in Bombay Time violently into the present and the wedding guests out of their remembering.
Not for nothing has Jimmy Kanga hired a sentry to guard his party from the crowd thats begun to collect outside the reception hall, there to wait for the guests to clear and the Dumpster to fill. And not for nothing has Rusi Bilimorias life, despite its grave disappointments, prepared him for the compassion he shows this evening. As for the others, let them, these Parsis, as Umrigar writes, choose memory over imagination.
For his part, Rusi had already learned to navigate between contentment and complacency, between caution and fear, between the known safety of Wadia Baug and the unknowable world outside its walls. Just as his ancestors had occupied the safe small strip of space between Hindu and Muslim, between Indian and English, between East and West, he had to live in the no-mans-land between the rage of the stone thrower and the terror of the stoned. But where to begin, he didnt have a clue. He, more than most, knows to just begin.