Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Giving Voice to the Past: A Guest Post by Shilpa Agarwal

October seems to be the perfect month for a ghost story. Set that ghost story in Bombay during the 1960's, add to it family secrets and a mystery and you have an irresistible novel. I am excited to have the author of Haunting Bombay with us today. Please join me in welcoming Shilpa Agarwal!

Be sure and come back tomorrow for my review of Haunting Bombay.

Thank you Wendy for inviting me to write a guest post on Musings of a Bookish Kitty. This past weekend I had the opportunity to speak at the Women & Words literary event here in LA with author Judith Freeman. Judith talked beautifully about her journey to writing and mentioned that many first novels, including her own, were autobiographical in nature.

This got me thinking about Haunting Bombay. In the almost ten years from conception to the publication of my book, I collected family stories, many which had never been spoken of before because they were simply too traumatic to recall.

My family survived the Partition of India in 1947 when India was sliced up into three countries – West Pakistan, India, and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Hindus living in the newly-created Pakistan regions fled to India and vice-versa for Muslims. Over a million people died during this exodus, considered one of the greatest mass migrations in human history.

My grandmother had an arranged marriage at age 15 and gave birth to my mother a year later. Then Partition hit and my grandmother found herself a refugee at age seventeen. She and the rest of my family left their ancestral home and made their way toward the border by train, pony carts, and on foot, staying at various refugee camps along the way. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for my young grandmother with a new infant, doubly vulnerable to the chaotic violence around them. She almost drowned twice but thankfully survived, and made it into India – though the wound of Partition remained with her all her life.

Pinky, the protagonist in Haunting Bombay is inspired by my mother – both are children of Partition who fall ill and whose parents struggle to rebuild their lives after so much loss. Like Pinky, my mother escaped this fate to be raised in Bombay by her affluent grandmother. The Bombay of my story is the city of my parents’ youth, when they were in their late teens and twenties. My mother grew up in a household very much like the one in my book – a hive of family activity, ancient traditions, social obligations, and humor.

Many of my characters have some basis in family members. I see my father in the character of seventeen-year-old Nimish, a young man who loves books and has a strong sense of duty to his family. I see my great-grandmother in the character of Maji, an obese and formidable woman who has a tender spot in her heart for her granddaughter.

And where do I see myself? This is a little more difficult! I was born in Bombay but grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania so my personal story might better be reflected in tales about the immigrant experience. But I do see myself very clearly in themes I chose to explore in Haunting Bombay – the desire to excavate a long-forgotten family story, the search for belonging in a world that isn’t always welcoming, and the power of voice.

I have always been intrigued by the question of who has the power to speak, whether in a family, a community, or a nation – and who is excluded. The supernatural spirits in Haunting Bombay serve as a metaphor for those who have been silenced. The granddaughter who drowns and her ill-fated ayah (nanny) have no power in the Mittal household. Yet they (and their tragedies) haunt the household’s present-day lives – forcing Pinky to unravel the family’s tangled memories, face these ghostly spirits, and discover the truth at last.

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You can learn more about Shilpa Agarwal and her book, Haunting Bombay, at her website.

TLC Tour stops for a list of Shilpa Agarwal's tour stops!

Many thanks to Shilpa Agarwal for taking the time to stop in and visit!


  1. Hi Wendy! Thanks for hosting the author. I really enjoyed reading your book review and now the guest post by Shilpa Agarwal.

    Hi Shilpa, this is a great post!

  2. See, this is why I so love guest posts usually over interviews. That provided so much insight to her heritage, the roots of the book and the author's personality. I was intrigued by the book when I saw your review, now I REALLY want to read it!

  3. I really like the sound of this one. Great guest post! Looking forward to your review.

  4. The second commenter, Sandy Nawrot, brought up something I'd never thought of. When you ask an author to do an interview, you kind of have to fish around in the dark for some gems. But when you ask an author to do a guest post, it's usually much more insightful than you could have gotten with an interview! Something for me to think about. :)

    Great guest post, Shilpa! It's really fascinating to see how much of an author's life shows up in their books, particularly their first one. Your grandmother's story is fascinating, and she must be an amazing woman!

  5. Great guest post! I just loved Haunting Bombay and it was really interesting to read this post and get a little more insight into the back. Thanks!

  6. what a riveting guest post. I love that stories can be autobiographical and not! This is a fascinating look behind Agarwal's process.

  7. I think it's wonderful that her characters are based somewhat on the relatives in her family. To me, that just lends a richness to the development of the characters.

  8. I loved reading this guest post! Haunting Bombay was a book that really impressed me, and I am thrilled to learn more about Shilpa Agarwal. Thanks, Wendy!

  9. This is such a wonderful post by Shilpa Agarwal. It's fascinating to hear the stories of her family members and the history of her family. How difficult it must have been for her to write this book considering that the stories about her family members hadn't been told yet and here she was focusing on them and then writing her book. I really want to read her book now. Hearing a little bit about her makes her book so all the more interesting.
    Thank you to Ms.Agarwal for sharing your family and thank you Wendy :o)

  10. Thank you for hosting Shilpa Agarwal's post. After reading it I can't imagine how I could pass up the chance to read the book. I love understanding how her experiences influenced her writing.

  11. This sounds really interesting. Thanks for hosting the author!

  12. Great guest post! I look forward to reading your review on Haunting Bombay tomorrow, Wendy. :)

  13. What a lovely guestpost. My fiance's grandparents also escaped from Pakistan to Mumbai and he tells stories of how they bought their money in tins and sacks. Its really sad.

  14. Wow! What a powerful guest post. I am interested in your review of the book.

  15. Wendy, thank you for hosting me on your site and for the wonderful review you posted today.

    In writing Haunting Bombay, I wanted to capture my family's history while honoring the fact that this was a very painful time in their lives. My grandparents were understandably reluctant to re-open these memories but once they did, they had so much to say. It was as if they too were releasing the ghosts of their past.

    I feel honored to be the custodian of my grandparents' stories as well as stories from my parents and other relatives. I believe that family stories bind us, like blood, to our ancestors and our descendants - and to each other as we share in the telling.

    Thank you to everyone who posted.

  16. Thank you all so much for visiting. Posts like this make a book even more special in the reading, I think.

    Thank you, Shilpa, for this post and for writing such a wonderful book. I look forward to reading your next book.


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