Bombay Time, Thrity Umrigar's debut novel, portrays the lives of longtime residents of an apartment building and is an examination of their bonds with each other as well as their love-hate relationship with the city of their birth.
All of the residents of Wadia Baug are Parsis, members of a small ethnic minority, whose relative affluence and Western orientation makes them stand out in a city of mass poverty. Now the son of Jimmy Kanga, the resident success, is getting married and all the neighbors are invited. As each of the guest's disparate, poignant stories unfold we follow the slow dissolution of Rusi and Coomi Bilimoria's marriage, the fatal betrayal suffered by Rusi's friend, Soli Contractor, the rise of Jimmy Kanga, and the sad case of the reclusive Tehmi Engineer. Above all, the novel gives us a sense of how this close knit Parsi community copes with individual struggles through humor, hope and courage.
Bombay Time, which the Hartford Courant called, “a dazzling debut,” is also an exploration of the inside-outsider status of the Parsis of India, political refugees from Persia who arrived in India a millennium ago and grew to be one of its most affluent communities.
R E V I E W S:
"Bombay throbs with life and death, crowded, hot, dirty, and volatile...[This novel] is a warmhearted look at human nature, with all its strengths and flaws exposed. . . . Umrigar proves a good storyteller who is especially adept at capturing relationships."
—The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[Umrigar] displays an impressive talent for conceiving multidimensional, sympathetic characters with life-like emotional quandaries and psychological stumbling blocks."
—The Washington Post Book World
"Engaging. . . . Umrigar is an accomplished, natural storyteller. . . . She also manages to work in a portrait of the decline of Bombay, delivering an impressive debut offering a glimpse into a cultural world-especially that of the Parsis, an ethnic minority-that most Westerners know only in its barest outlines."
“Struggling to survive in tumultuous postcolonial India, the Wadia Baug residents respond to poverty, violence, and shattered dreams with love, compassion, and loyalty. Bombay Time is sweet, frightening, poignant, and chaotic as Umrigar dramatizes the power of community in the face of an increasingly dangerous and chaotic world.”
"With the unflinching gaze of a Diane Arbus protege, Umrigar pulls each of [her characters] into and out of focus to reveal the definitive-at times profoundly intimate-events of their respective lives. . . . [A] dazzling debut."
—The Hartford Courant
Hartford Courant [read the full review...]
Wadia Baug would appear to be an ordinary middle-class apartment complex in present-day Bombay, with the usual suspects one might find in any neighborhood: the ever-watchful gossip, the clown, the chronically bickering couple, the enigmatic shut-in.
But as we meet each of them at a wedding reception, through the pages of this keenly observed first novel, we encounter far more than mere types. The Parsi families who reside in Wadia Baug and attend this celebration are among the first generation to experience post-colonial India. With the unflinching gaze of a Diane Arbus protege, Akron Beacon Journal reporter Thrity Umrigar pulls each of these guests into and out of focus to reveal the definitive -- at times profoundly intimate -- events of their respective lives.
There is Soli Contractor, a comical man, who has never recovered from the heartbreak he suffered more than 40 years ago, when his Jewish girlfriend, Mariam Rubin, left Bombay with her family for the new state of Israel. Recently, he has been losing sleep over receiving a letter from Mariam, whose imminent visit is drudging up Soli's most painful memories.
Tehmi Engineer is another member of the lonely hearts club, mourning her husband, Cyrus, for decades. Just three years into their marriage, the Bombay Chemical plant exploded, killing all of the employees, among them Tehmi's beloved. His death has quite literally left a bad taste in the young widow's mouth, the stench of which has kept her neighbors at a distance. The foul smell, Tehmi realized when coming into contact with her husband's remains, tasted ``of rotting, burning flesh. ... It was as if she had inhaled Cyrus ... taken him in through the pores of her skin and now he was lodged inside her, festering, smoldering.'' Because of this, she cleaves to her unique strain of halitosis as a means to keep Cyrus with her, always.
The host of the wedding party, Jimmy Kanga, is Wadia Baug's greatest success story. A happily married, highly respected Oxford-educated lawyer, Jimmy grew up a street-fighting orphan, ``punishing others for his parents' death.'' Rather than continue on a self-destructive path, Jimmy opted to channel his rageful energies into a booming legal career.
But Jimmy worries that his triumphs serve only to illuminate the failures of his dear old friend Rusi Bilimoria, an ambitious businessman whose lofty dreams are never fully realized.
He knew that Rusi believed that Jimmy had usurped his identity, that Jimmy was somehow living Rusi's life.'' A braggart in his youth,anybody who knew Rusi for five minutes knew he wanted to ... own a factory with a huge, well-manicured front lawn like the one he'd seen in a German magazine, have lots of children, and, someday, have his sons take over the family business.''
But his paper factory has struggled over the years, and his choice to devote himself more fully to his Anglophile mother, Khorshed, than to his wife, Coomi, has doomed his marriage from the start. He warns Coomi early on, ``If you ever have a disagreement with my mummy, I will take her side. ... Even if I think you are right, I will back her up. Out of respect for her age.'' Despite the many disappointments in his life, Rusi remains a cherished friend to everyone in the building, exclusively reserving his resentments for his wife, whom he has continued to shut out emotionally, even after Khorshed's death.
The one resident who does not attend the wedding is Dosamai, the apartment-complex gossip and confidante, bearing witness to everything that goes on in the building. An embittered older woman who was forced to sacrifice her plans of becoming a doctor when her father arranged a marriage to his best friend's son one fateful drunken night, Dosamai has traded her insatiable intellectual appetite for one of schadenfreude and social omniscience, and eagerly awaits the guests' return to learn of the evening's scandals.
Dosamai isn't the only person eager for the guests to leave. Outside the gates of the reception stands a crowd of starving people, hoping to eat the leftovers. One hungry man's patience wears thin after watching the partygoers continue drinking with no sign of letting up, and he breaks up their revelry with an act of violence that awakens the middle-class guests to the grim reality of the economic strife plaguing contemporary Bombay, and throws their own inner conflicts into stark relief.
But this inter-class confrontation also causes the residents of Wadia Baug to recognize their fierce bonds of friendship with one another, cultivated over decades, through episodes both sobering and joyful. Umrigar's use of catharsis to bring her characters to that point of recognition, as well as her astute insights into human relationships, make it practically impossible to resist comparisons to Ann Patchett's most recent novel, ``Bel Canto.'' Bombay Time is not as realized as the more seasoned writer's work, but this dazzling debut indicates that Umrigar may very well be on her way.