Barbara Burgess-Van Aken
Do not cite without permission of the author.
Thrity Umrigar tells two versions of an ancient legend about the Parsi diaspora.1 Arriving on the shores of Western India from Iran over a millennium ago, they were met by apprehensive Hindus. In an attempt to discourage the voyagers from settling in, the Hindu potentate sent the Parsis a bowl filled to the brim with milk, hoping that it would convey to the travelers, whose language was unknown, that there was no place for them in India. In the first version of the legend, the Parsis' leader slipped a gold ring into the bowl and sent it back as a way of signifying, “We bring value to your land.” Impressed with the content and the cleverness of the communication, the Hindu leader welcomed the Parsis. And indeed, true to the legend, Parsis have contributed to India , holding positions of respect, honor, and power over the centuries. But in a second version of the legend, the Parsi leader added sugar to the milk instead of a gold ring thereby signifying, “We will keep a low profile, but we will add sweetness to your world.” If we extend the metaphor, we can detect an unintended prophecy: Sugar in milk dissolves. When more milk is added, it dissipates. And dissipation is precisely what is happening to the Parsi population today.
Parsis follow the Zoroastrian faith and live primarily in Bombay . They take their dead to the Tower of Silence , allowing their bodies to return to the earth through the stomachs of vultures. Despite its survival in India for centuries, the Parsi culture is silencing itself. Without much resistance, the vultures of barrenness, intermarriage, and migration are decimating its families. After centuries of prosperity and social privilege (particularly during the period of the British Raj), the Parsi culture is now self-destructing in part because of the very practices that enabled it to thrive: apoliticalism and a conscious choice to adhere to the Zoroastrian prohibition against interfaith marriages. The story of the bowl of milk speaks to the critical question embedded in postcolonial literatures: When two or more cultures cohabitate, how does the minority culture assimilate without losing its essential identity?
Ironically, as the ranks of the Parsis shrink, the population of the rest of India soars. Currently, the Parsi population in Bombay is relatively affluent and numbers approximately 75,000. The average number of deaths each year exceeds the average number of births at a rate of 3:1 (Waldman 1). By contrast, the subcontinent of India , which is equal in area to more than the entire continent of Europe , has a total population exceeding one billion. Every year, in spite of widespread starvation and incidents of HIV/AIDS that have reached pandemic proportions, the census increases at exponentially staggering rates. Perhaps even more arresting is the percentage of people in India who have not worked a year or more: 62.5% (Census).
Another factor contributing to the shrinking Parsi population is equally ironic. Traditionally, Parsi's have been affluent because they cooperated with the British Raj and attained positions of influence. To prepare their children to hold future positions of influence, Parsis often sent their children to schools in England . This practice continues today, even though the majority of their well educated young people assimilate into Western culture instead of coming back to contribute to the culture of their parents. The ultimate paradox is that their affluence has become the source of their demise; assimilated Parsis have increasingly left their religion and their homeland to intermarry.
Perhaps because they have the perspective of living in the west, the Parsi diaspora writers, of which Thrity Umrigar is the newest member, are able to present issues related to the plight of the Parsis in a way that provides insight and compels empathy.2 All these writers reflect back on the country they left and portray a society on the path to extinction, knowing full well that they are part of the process. In the course of these narrations, they raise questions that lend themselves to postcolonial literary analysis, particularly in relation to the concept of hybridity . The term, coined by Homi Bhabha in “The Commitment to Theory,” refers to “what is neither the one nor the other” when two cultures live together; it is what emerges from a “Third Space” (2377). We see issues of hybridity played out in diaspora fiction through traditional binary conflicts: the memory of the past vs. the hope for the future, tradition vs. change; universal experience vs. unique experience; and community vs. alienation. In this essay I will explore how, as a discourse about hybridity, Umrigar's novel, Bombay Time, explains her culture's characteristic melancholy in terms of these binaries. In the course of this discussion, we will move toward the conclusion that acceptance of hybridity may be the only hope for the survival of the Parsi culture. But first, it will be helpful to situate Umrigar more clearly as a diaspora author.
Bombay Time is structured around the reminiscences of residents of Wadia Baug, a Parsi apartment community in a middle class region of Bombay . Similarly, Rohinton Mistry's 1987 collection of short stories, Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag is an assemblage of stories about characters who live in a comparable residential complex in Bombay . Both authors portray their native Parsi culture with affection and compassion. Both reveal their culture's ambivalence about the departure of the British Raj. Both help the reader to understand how traditional survival techniques are failing the Parsis as their children move away and fail to propagate. But for all these similarities, there is a fundamental difference between Umrigar and Mistry.
Umrigar has observed that readers who compare her work to Mistry's often describe Bombay Time as less depressing, even though both authors convey a sense of discontent in their characters. My reading of the two authors led me to a similar conclusion. Mistry's characters are often gritty and angry, sometimes even nasty. And the narrative events in his stories are far more dramatic, as exemplified by the fact that the first story in Swimming Lessons ends with a murder. Umrigar's characters, on the other hand, are rarely mean or violently angry (the exception is Nari), and we see no one committing crimes (although Adi's rape of Saraswasti would be considered a crime in most cultures). While Umrigar's characters are milder, they all project a strain of melancholy.
It is not my intention to conduct a comparative reading of Mistry and Umrigar. I mention Mistry only to suggest that the lingering sadness of both authors' characters reflects a pervasive characteristic of the culture that readers inevitably observe and wonder about. Typically, we feel melancholy for one of five reasons: a vague sense of loss; discontent resulting from a lack of fulfillment; a lack of vision or hope for the future; a sense of helplessness; and regret for taking (or not taking) an action. All of these reasons can translate from individual consciousness to cultural consciousness. And given the current plight of the Parsis, it is not surprising that every character has some degree of melancholy in the novel. An “anatomy” of the melancholy in Bombay Time will suggest that the discontent of this community is very much related to the culture's self-imposed insularity, which in postcolonial terms is tantamount to the rejection of hybridity.
No matter what our own ethnic background, we can read Bombay Time with interest and empathy because of its universal elements. Aspects of the Wadia Baug community are likely to remind us of neighborhoods we have lived in. Perhaps we know couples like Rusi and Coomi who have stayed in dead marriages for years; we probably have acquaintances who are frustrated, relentless gossips like Dosa Popat; we all know people like Tehmi who cannot move beyond their grief over the loss of a loved one; and hopeless alcoholics like Adi live in every culture. Although the “when's” and the “where's” are different, we have all experienced a sense of community—perhaps it was in our childhood neighborhood, in dormitory life, or in a work environment. We know community members experience joy and grief; we know they are bound by shared memories and mutual concern for the future; we know they struggle to adapt to a changing world; we know they get on each other's nerves but will stick their necks out to help each other. Because we have experienced community, Wadia Baug is a community with which we can easily identify.
But on the other hand, perhaps our ability to connect with the universal aspects of community is the very element that stirs our interest in how Wadia Baug is unique. The majority of Umrigar's readers are not Parsi, not even Indian, yet they can feel sympathy for the experiences of the characters in the narrative even if they don't lose their children to diaspora or don't know what it is like to be pawned off as a piece of chattel in an arranged marriage. Moreover, we are interested in the melancholy that hovers over the residents of Wadia Baug because our reactions to the story are indicative of what Hogan refers to as empathetic universalism. 3
Here we note a distinction between diaspora fiction and other postcolonial discourses. Melancholy is a passive emotion. If there is anger behind it, it lies beneath the surface of consciousness and consequently, is not the kind of emotion that drives political action or invective oratory. On the contrary, melancholy projects itself subtly. Accordingly, Umrigar projects the reasons for her characters' melancholy obliquely. We do not respond to the narrative events of the novel with indignation or outrage even though they portray injustices such as Dosa's forced marriage and Saraswasti's rape). Perhaps it is Umrigar's subtle approach that allows us to delve more deeply into the duality that is central to postcolonial literary analysis: the role of culture in the human quest for a sense of universal connection with the world at large vs. the desire for individual identity. In doing so, she has revealed the complexity of cultural cohabitation, the struggle of a minority culture to preserve its identity in a world that tugs at its boundaries from many directions. Through the voices and actions of Wadia Baug's residents, we get a taste of how and why the Parsi culture struggles for survival in the aftermath of centuries of British rule. By the end of the novel, we also get a taste of what it is like to live in a bubble of insularity in a host culture that is home to masses of desperately poor people.
In other postcolonial literatures, sadness and latent pain often relate to a culture's loss of a homeland, an unmet need to reclaim a history, or an unfulfilled desire to speak in a culture that won't respect or acknowledge marginalized voices. But the Parsis of Bombay have experienced none of these agonies. From the start, they enjoyed success and respect in India , both by the Hindus and the British. Umrigar herself denies that the Parsis are victims of double diaspora. And this, perhaps, is how she distinguishes herself among her contemporaries. She does not see today's Parsis as incomplete, longing for a homeland they need to return to. They are clearly Indian, and have been ever since they added sugar to the legendary bowl of milk. From this observation we can make several assumptions that could provide clues about the source of her characters' melancholy. First, if today's Parsis do not mourn the loss of a homeland and still retain their identity as a culture, then we know that they can survive hybridization. In fact, they have blended and survived in at least two hybridizations—their successful acculturation over a thousand years ago, and in more recent times, their position of distinction and privilege during the British Raj. In both instances they had to blend, and in both instances, their culture survived. They saved their memories and traditions, while adapting to the challenges of the future. The second assumption we can make, then, is that the sadness in Bombay Time does not derive from the aftermath of persecution or repressed anger toward an unjust domination. What then, could be at the heart of Parsi melancholy? Perhaps a closer look at the story of Wadia Baug told through the voices of its own community will suggest some answers.
Voices of Melancholy in Bombay Time
As the central, and perhaps most melancholy character of the novel, Rusi Bilimoria embodies universal personality traits at the same time that he reflects the dilemmas of the Parsi culture. As a young man Rusi dreamed of having many sons and becoming a magnate in the business world. Although he may have dreamed without borders, he was bound by the constraints of his community and his inability to move outside of it. As the novel opens, insularity has gained the better of him. We learn this as he ruminates to himself on his balcony overlooking the street scene below.
The older he got, the less Rusi wanted to leave his home, except to go to his factory. The Bombay of his youth—or at least the Bombay of his memory—had given way to a fetid, crowded, overpowering city that insulted his senses. Stepping into the city was like stepping into a dirty sock, sour, sweaty, and putrid. (8)
Rusi's youthful vision was to replicate the success of Parsis in ages past, but as the narrative begins, he has failed to do so and we encounter him disconnected from both his past and his future. Nor is he alone in this condition. As we progress through the novel, we realize that every character's past is marked by failed dreams, each relating to an internal conflict that Rusi also struggles with at some time in the narrative. Taken together, these dashed dreams weave a tapestry of the Parsi culture that enables us to understand its melancholy nature. It also helps us understand the significance of the action that Rusi finally takes at the end of the novel. To clarify how we come to this understanding, let us follow the threads of each character's story as they appear in the novel.
Dosa's story, which follows Rusi's, is closest to the voice Spivak refers to in her famous essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” when she defines subalterns as disenfranchised people with an ambiguous relationship to power (2194). As a precocious child, Dosa dreamed of becoming the first Parsi woman doctor. But her father, in blind adherence (represented as drunkenness) to the traditions of the culture, pawned her off in an arranged marriage to the son of his best friend. At the point we meet her, she has acted out her anger about this repression in unhealthy ways, turning inward and negative, using her voice to hold her people back. Denied control over her own destiny, she seeks fulfillment in trying to control the destinies of others through the only means she has been allowed to learn—gossip and old fashioned remedies. In this way she inhibits the growth of her culture, contributing only to its dissipation, destroying the future of her own son and alienating herself from the possibility of positive change. As the only member of the Wadia Baug community who does not attend the wedding, she chooses not to speak of hope for the future.
By contrast, Jimmy Kanga, the alter ego of Rusi, is the voice of pride. His is the only success story in the novel—the story Rusi would have liked to be able to tell about his own life. As Jimmy reminisces at his son's wedding, he reflects on his relationship with Rusi, which dates back to childhood: “Jimmy felt a rush of compassion toward his neighbor, although he knew that Rusi believed that Jimmy had usurped his destiny, that Jimmy was somehow living Rusi's life”(66). Oxford educated, he has a prosperous law practice in Bombay . His son goes off to Harvard, but unlike Rusi's daughter who has abandoned the Parsi way of life for London , Jimmy's son has returned. His son's marriage, the narrative event that structures the novel, represents a slim ray of hope for the Parsi community's survival. It is significant that Jimmy is not just successful as an individual; he is successful as a Parsi, a conclusion that is confirmed by his commitment and loyalty to the community he grew up in. But there is a limit to Jimmy's success and the sense of fulfillment he derives from it. At one point in his life he tried to assimilate into a larger Indian community by moving to Cuffe Parade, a building towering above Bombay overlooking the sea that, symbolically, faces the west. Jimmy achieved the goal he thought he wanted, but it, too, became a failed dream when he realized, as a result of a conversation with a non-Parsi colleague in his office, that he could not connect with the world outside of his own culture: “After all, he was always telling his Parsi friends to think of themselves as Indians first, to divest themselves of their superiority and smugness. But driving home that evening, he forced himself to confront his own prejudices” (74-75). That day, Jimmy recognized that he practiced “religious insularity” and shared the beneficence of his success only with Parsi philanthropic causes. In his justification, however, we can see how he has contributed to the decline of his own culture:
Bombay was fast slipping into the gutter, and he could not pull it up by himself. What was wrong with trying to save just a tiny bit of it? And if he had to choose, why not save the ones he loved? And yet, if everyone felt that way, who would take care of those who needed the most help? By the time he got home, Jimmy had a ferocious headache. (75)
The result of this rumination was that Jimmy moved back to Wadia Baug. He was so content there that he tells us at the end of his reminiscence on the night of his son's wedding: “This was the happiest day of his life. He wished it would never end” (79). But moments later it would end. When the rock hurdles over the dividing wall, everybody learns that an insular response to the conditions of the world won't work forever. So unprepared for this eventuality is Jimmy that he doesn't know how to handle it. Bewildered and unable to act, he says to Rusi, “What just happened here?”
If Jimmy is the voice of Rusi's altar ego, Coomi's is a voice Rusi no longer hears. Perhaps he never heard it because even though they were both dreamers in their youth, Coomi never shared her dreams with Rusi or anyone: “But Coomi's dreams remained unspoken, even to her closest friends. When she was a young girl, she wanted to be a hero” and “all her dreams were about exploration and adventure” (86). We learn from Coomi's reflections that her voice went underground because as a child her dreams were ridiculed as unrealistic. When she met Rusi, she wanted to ride on the coat tails of his ambition, hoping to experience with Rusi what her father and brothers told her was impossible. But it didn't happen in her marriage either. Rusi loved her because she understood his dreams, but he never listened to her because his mother's voice was louder. From the outset of their marriage, Rusi expected Coomi to respect and honor the ways of his mother.
As a postcolonial metaphor, Coomi and Rusi's marital conflict reflects the conditions of the Parsi culture. Just as it was difficult for Coomi to adjust to her new life with Rusi and Khorshed, it has been a struggle for the Parsi culture to honor and preserve old ways in a world that thrusts change upon it. In the early years of her marriage, Coomi tried to speak to Rusi of hybridity. Hers was a voice that could have helped Rusi achieve his dreams. But his mother spoke to him with the voice of tradition. When, inevitably, Khorshed (loyal supporter of the British Raj) died, Rusi was devastated. He could not function without the grounding of the old ways, not knowing how to come out of his sadness and move forward with Coomi. Rebuffed, Coomi withdrew as well and by the time we meet them in the novel, they are languishing in a lack of connection, suspended somewhere between lost dreams and a melancholy present. Even the one dream they shared, hope for their daughter Binny, was not enough to sustain a connection and it is not surprising that in the end, their grown daughter is not present at the wedding.
Like Coomi's story, Soli's represents a failed dream that applies both individually and culturally. In his youth, Soli, through the universal medium of music, crossed Parsi boundaries and experienced another culture. The intensity of his love for Mariam blinded him to the differences in their traditions and customs. But Mariam was not blind to them, recognizing that she was bound by family loyalty and ethnic heritage. It is only years later, after she has secured that identity (and its future, as a result of having a son), that she can reach across those boundaries again by writing to Soli. Prior to this event, however, Soli's one youthful foray outside his culture failed. Afterward, he withdrew, never again to venture outside the Parsi universe. Just as he poured out his heart to Rusi when Mariam broke off the relationship years ago, Soli again opens his heart to Rusi at the wedding. He can't wait to tell Rusi that he has heard from Mariam and confesses his fear about reviving buried memories. With great empathy, Rusi remembers Soli, eyes bloodshot with tears the night Mariam deserted him:
He suddenly saw another, younger face transposed over Soli's old wrinkled one. It was the face of a young man with disheveled hair and bloodshot eyes. A face from that night, so many years ago. They had all been so damn young then, he even younger than Soli. Still, he had been able to help his friend that night. Involuntarily, he sighed. So much pain in this world, he thought. So much damn pain. (124)
Through Soli we see the depth of repressed emotion that Rusi carries within himself. When Soli cried uncontrollably over the loss of Miriam, he went to Rusi because he knew Rusi could sympathize with him. At the wedding, Rusi recognizes in Soli what happens when we miss opportunities. Seeing that Soli has a chance to go back and fix a long festering hurt, he encourages Soli to write to Mariam: “ Bossie, not too many of us get a chance to enter the past. Yes, you cannot change the past, I agree. But at least you have a chance to understand it. Take it”(130). In a way, this advice foreshadows the opportunity Rusi will get later in the evening to wake up dead feelings as well. He hears Soli's voice and recognizes that feeling pain is better than not feeling at all.
Unlike Soli and Rusi, Tehmi Engineer never buried her pain. Her voice tells the story of a conscious refusal to accept change because of an inability to envision a future without her old ideal. Tehmi's chapter opens with a description of her discovery of a lump in her breast and leads into a reflection of how the dual tragedies of her life—the loss of her husband and the explosion at Bombay Chemicals—changed her life forty years earlier. Her husband Cyrus was the model Parsi. He loved and believed in every one of his people. In turn, they were mesmerized by his élan and rallied to his vitality. He even rejuvenated a sense of contentment in Tehmi's mother. Rusi and his friends “followed Cyrus around like groupies” (180). He was the only one who could talk Jimmy Kanga into finishing school. He organized a neighborhood cricket league, and cheered the elderly in the building. He didn't fear the future, but at the same time, he didn't want or need more than his Parsi community offered him, refusing to take his father's career advice. When Cyrus died, Tehmi recognized on some level that an era in Parsi history was dying too. With the taste of Cyrus's charred body in her mouth, she holds on to the pain of the loss in every waking moment of her life.
The cultural ideal that Cyrus represents blows up in the machinations of modernity, and as a result, Tehmi cannot see into the future. In this sense, Cyrus's character is mythical. Perhaps that is why Tehmi's story is the only one that incorporates magical realism. And while it may be magical, the realistic element of the trope assaults all our senses. We see the white tiger with a tear in its eye waving good-bye; we taste the gritty ashes of the corpse in her mouth, and we flinch at the mention of her hideous breath. She carries within her the putrefaction of a past that refuses to be buried as she prefers holding on to its decay to letting go and venturing forth into a new life. Her reclusiveness and rejection of an opportunity to marry again exemplifies what Hogan defines as the identity of despair (322). As she contemplates the possibility that she has cancer, she recalls seeing the scar of a friend who had a mastectomy, a woman who let part of her self-identity be cut away. Tehmi rejects that possibility—it opposes the code she has lived by since the loss of her light and hope, Cyrus:
The scar reminded her of why she had turned away from unpleasant things ever since Cyrus's death, why she had carefully built for herself a sanitary life, a life minus blood, urine, and pus, a life where children did not enter (because, after all, children get older and sometimes even die), where the tearings and brushings and bruisings of human intercourse were kept at arm's length. Of course, it made for a lonely life, but Tehmi felt she had ample justification for choosing a clean life. Once a woman has witnessed the human body distorted beyond recognition, once she has smelled the distinct, unmistakable smell of charred flesh from a body that used to smell of rose water and eau de cologne, then that woman has the right to turn away from all things ugly, Tehmi believed. And if that turning away required her to sacrifice most of humanity, so be it. (165)
In rejecting the possibility of cancer treatment, Tehmi's voice speaks out against hybridity in spite of the fact that by doing so, she eliminates all possibility of a future. So tenuous is her existence as a result of change, that it is only Dosa's gossip about her that verifies it. But unlike Dosamai, she goes to the wedding because she is part of an ideal that everyone believed in and that is still remembered. When she looks at the photo of “her” Cyrus in the album, she declares she is proud that she and Cyrus were associated with such a fine group of individuals. She can smile at the photo album because it is a collection of memories from the past, the place where Tehmi will remain for the rest of her days. Tehmi feels affection for Rusi, recalling how kind he was to her, even after her breath became odious. In turn, Rusi reflects on Tehmi at the wedding, feeling regret for the lonely existence she chose for herself and remembering how Cyrus was one of the few people from his youth who did not make fun of his dreams.
Adi Patel is not in the photo album. He is on the fringe of the community—the voice of alienation, the lost soul who has too little sense of himself to combat his father's friend , Nari, a voice of greed and corruption. Adi is not really the voice of a failed dream for he never had a dream to begin with. His vision and voice were stunted by the suicide of Saraswasti, an event he caused unwittingly by trying to erase his shame over raping her. After his act of atonement fails, Nari tells him, “Never interfere with the natural order of things” (217). Adi complies, but for a price. As he traps himself in shame over “the natural order of things” he mutes his own voice. Because he had no belief in himself, Adi failed to take his one chance for redemption—the Catholic Philomena. Believing that everything he touches will destruct, he now seeks the oblivion of the bottle. In this respect, Adi differs from the other characters in the novel. Their stories tell us about insularity; Adi's tells us about alienation, as he is the only character who rejects his heritage and disinherits himself. In this act, we see how alienation is the kiss of doom to a culture. It renders its people powerless against menacing societal forces in society, forces that the community of Wadia Baug will soon witness first hand.
It is against the backdrop of Adi's story that Rusi addresses his friends and community. Rusi's speech brings all the voices of melancholy together and results in the most important and dynamic dialogue that Rusi and Coomi have in the novel. Motivated by memories that the photo album triggers, Rusi speaks for the Wadia Baug community, encouraging Mehernosh to be happy for the sake of all of them. At this moment, he finally finds his own voice. Once again he empathizes with his fellow Wadia Baug residents and is moved to think that
…he wanted to save all of them, this entire collection of broken hearts and arthritic fingers and sagging skin that surrounded him, these men and women whom he loved and feared at the same time” (245).
As he toasts the bride and groom, the veil of melancholy lifts from him and he wants to share it.
He wanted to say so much more, wanted to describe to all of them this
wonderful feeling of connection that was sweeping over him. How, as he sat here, he felt hooked up to the universe, how his blood felt as if it could flow directly into the Arabian Sea and his heart felt like a continent waiting to be discovered.” (248)
Rusi's message is significant in light of a postcolonial interpretation in several ways. Most important, he tells Mehernosh to be happy, but he doesn't tell him how to be happy. He doesn't say, “Don't stray from tradition.” He just says, “Don't miss your opportunity to be happy.” With this unconditional utterance, we realize that not only has Rusi found his voice, but he has discovered the present tense. Significantly, when he asks the group, “Do you know what I'm saying?” it is Coomi, with her one word of response, “ Exactly ”, who speaks volumes to Rusi. In this shared communication, the couple now reflects an understanding of the issue of hybridity. As the rest of the community senses the wisdom and hope in this moment, they laugh through their melancholy: “Rusi's words had suddenly made them see Mehernosh in a different way. Whereas Mehernosh had always been part of their past, they suddenly saw him as their future, and this cheered them up” (250).
Appropriately, we have not heard the voices of the children of this community. Mehernosh and Binny have no stories yet; their future awaits them. Yet we know by the fact that Binny has joined the diaspora while Mehernosh has elected to stay in Bombay , hat their lives reflect the dialogue of hybridity. It remains to be seen if Mehernosh can maintain an identity for the Parsis culture, but clearly, at the end of the novel, all hopes are placed on him.
In the end, it doesn't matter whether Bombay Time is a story of cultural dilemma or of individuals because we can't have one without the other. What is important in Bombay Time is that the main characters, Rusi and Coomi, finally accept the present, not with despair, but with cautious optimism and clearer vision. They are going to need it; the state of the world demands it. We discover this in the conclusion of the narrative.
Initially , we do not think of Bombay Time as a political discourse. It is more a story of a culture that resists change. Each character in the book has avoided political involvement throughout his or her life. Nothing represents this societal attitude better than the episode in which Coomi meets Khorshed for the first time. In hearing the disastrous story of Khorshed's brother-in-law, a rare example of a Parsi who had ventured into the independence movement, Coomi comes to understand that her willingness to engage in Indian politics would not mesh with Rusi's dreams.
But poverty is a political issue. And in Bombay Time we see the poor looming about the Wadia Baug community from the very first pages of the novel. In fact, Umrigar foreshadows the importance that the poor will play in the narrative as early as the third sentence of the Prologue when she calls attention to the scarlet streaks of paan spit that color the city's walls and buildings. Paan, is a substance from the leaves of betel palms that Indians, particularly those of the poorer classes, chew and spit like tobacco. The spit leaves a red stain. Thus at the outset of the narrative Umrigar suggests that the poor are ever present. Like the stain of betel juice, they have an indelible presence in the fabric of Bombay life.4 However, the characters of the novel treat the frequent cameo appearances of the poor nonchalantly. In fact, as they finish their sumptuous wedding feast, they don't even notice the ripple of anticipation that travels through the hungry crowd awaiting their scraps outside the reception hall: “The reality of the hungry children a few feet away from them was the last thing they wanted to confront” (132).
Given the intermittent glimpses of the poor that we see in every chapter in the novel, it should not surprise us that someone would cast a rock of reality into the insular world of Wadia Baug. But the brilliance of the novel is that this ending does surprise us. We have done exactly what the characters of the novel do: we have blocked out the voices of the poor. The rock that catapults into the party is a jolt of dramatic action in a narrative that structurally has gone nowhere in the course of one day. As readers, our heads have been drawn ostrich-like into the sand by our absorption in the lives of the residents of Wadia Baag and for one day, we too have joined their insular community. It is only when the subaltern speaks with a stone that we look back and pay attention to all the warning signs that were pressing in on us as early as the Prologue. The arrival of the rock of reality, coming as it does immediately following Rusi's charge to Mehernosh to be happy is strategic. In case we didn't know, Mehernosh has his work cut out for him. If he is going to carry his culture forward, he needs to find a voice in the political discourse of the larger community, which is to say that he will need to develop ears that can hear when and how the subaltern speaks.
We will never know whether Rusi's revelation and resolve to be part of the world will lift the shroud of melancholy from his shoulders for long. But now that the voices of Wadia Baug have told their stories, we can at least understand that the melancholy of his community derives from sources within the Parsi culture itself: entrenched apolitical behavior, selective breeding, and voluntary exodus. And because we have universal empathy, we can understand the difficult choices that the Parsi culture must make. To borrow a phrase from Homi Bhabha, the culture is “standing on the borders of myth and modernity.” 5 The problem of how to hang on to their past while still adding value to an ever-expanding bowl of milk results in thorny dialogue. Those who revere the past see Parsi apolitical behavior and refusal to marry outside the culture as measures of self-preservation. But those who look to the future see these same practices as no longer useful and, more significantly, as behaviors that contribute to a process of cultural annihilation.6
As the day ends, the narrator informs us that the residents of Wadia Baug will do their best to forget what happened at the wedding: “They will choose memory over imagination. It is less dangerous that way” (271). These final lines give us little reason to hope that the dilemma of the culture will be solved by an acceptance of hybridity. And perhaps we should have known it from the start because, in two words, the title of the novel reveals to us entire the conundrum of the culture and forecasts the tenor of the novel that follows. The title's two words, Bombay and Time , signify the themes that unfold in the narrative. First of all, it is a story about the Parsis of Bombay whose time is limited. Within the word Bombay is the word bomb which, when placed with the word time , signals an impending destructive tragedy. Rusi himself ponders this connection early in the novel:
Rusi gazed up at the starless sky, as if searching for an answer. We are all living on top of a ticking bomb, the Bomb in Bombay , he thought. Waiting for it to detonate. Our lives spent waiting. I wait two hours for my wife to get dressed. Then I wait for a cabdriver who will agree to bring me here. The beggars outside are waiting for us to leave, so they can feast on our leftovers. Like the vultures wait, patiently, at the Tower of Silence to feast on our remains. And all of us here, we are waiting for something to happen. For someone to light the first match. For someone to set off the bomb. For something that will either save us or destroy us. (27)
The word time is also related to tense, and indeed, this novel is concerned with all three tenses: past, present and future. Although the narrative action takes place within one day of present time, that one day revives the past to help us understand the course of the future . By the end of the novel we know that Parsis in Bombay present who shun political involvement and interfaith marriage, are dominated by Bombay past . We also know that because of this, their time is limited, a fact that the title suggests by the presence of the word bomb in Bombay , that is linked to the word time . The image conveyed is that of a ticking time bomb, which in turn is reminiscent of a the common sociological term, “population bomb,” the source of poverty which encroaches on the Wadia Baug and signifies a very real threat of Bombay's present condition. Is the title a forecast of the Parsi future? Forgive the cliché, but only time will tell.
2 In a 1999 on-line article in Rediff On the NeT, Kamath includes authors Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Bapsi Sidhwa, Anita Desai, Bharti Mukherjee, Anjana Appachana, Kiran Desai Bharti Kirchner, Sujata Massey, Indira Ganesan, and Shauna Singh Baldwin in her article on Indian diaspora writers.
4 It is interesting that early in “Auspicious Occasion”, the first story of Rohinton Mistry's Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag, the protagonist, Rustomiji has his clothes stained and his day ruined when a street beggar spits paan at him.