Love, death and adjectives in Mumbai

Two for one, three for two: no noun without an adjective, never a single adjective where two or more will do. Silence is “utter”, hatred “raw and naked”, puddles “brown, murky and stagnant”. The quirkiest of all appendages in this novel is the heroine’s nose: not only “long, straight” but also “impervious”.

That misplaced “v” embodies the ingredients Thrity Umrigar brings to what might have been a tried (or tired) intertwining of genres: a Mumbai novel, a Mumbai Parsi novel, a post-nationalist slum poverty novel and, perhaps most compelling, a maid-and-mistress story: think Douglas Sirk’s film Imitation of Life. The varied elements of this tale of affection and class conflict are carried off with a winning ease and enthusiasm that make it both engrossing and moving.

The narrative perspective is double. The story alternates between well-to-do Parsi mistress Sera (of the impervious nose) and feisty maid Bhima. They have become closer than maid and mistress usually do in India (though Sera won’t drink from a glass Bhima uses) because of Bhima’s granddaughter, Maya, whose benefactor Sera has become.

In good theatrical fashion, the family drama begins with a crisis. Maya is pregnant; Bhima sets out to collar the father and bully him into making an honest woman of her. She confronts the wrong boy, a Hindu supremacist. Sera gets into the act; Maya pays the consequences. When Bhima finds out, late in the proceedings, that the culprit was always closer to home than she had ever suspected, we suffer with her, no matter that we’ve guessed about the culprit at a fairly early stage.

The novel’s favoured present tense is interleaved with the memories of both protagonists, in which other presences are embedded: Sera’s ferocious mother-in-law, who castigated her for every transgression of Parsi ritual, her violent husband, whose death came as a relief, and the pregnant daughter and good-looking son-in-law around whom she structures her life. Ther are also Bhima’s daughter and son-in-law, who died of Aids, leaving her with an orphan to look after. Sera’s memory-narrative, less weighted with the effort to represent deprivation, works better. We experience, without being instructed, the dilemma of a small minority of privileged survivors so beset with the problems of cultural difference that their bones are literally disintegrating.

But the fate of the Parsi community is not at the novel’s core. Umrigar’s preoccupations are the classic and abiding tropes of domestic middlebrow fiction: love and families, marriage, childbirth, betrayal, lack and loss. It’s to her credit that, while she may be most at her ease in her comic and occasionally harsh depictions of her own community, her sympathy is, in the end, with the unprotected. The story ends on Bhima’s side. As brave as her creator’s multiple adjectives, she is full of love for the world’s fleeting beauties as she stands by the sea, alone, with a bunch of gas balloons in her hand, and lets go, with them, of life’s uncertainties.

Aamer Hussein’s ‘This Other Salt’ is published by Saqi