Thrity Umrigar's Bombay Time:
A Casebook
Twentieth-Century Literature Conference
Louisville, Kentucky
28 February 2004

Anne Ryan
Case Western Reserve University

Bombay Time: Hope in Dialogue


Do not cite without permission of the author.

Life is dialogical by its very nature. To live means to engage in dialogue, to question, to listen, to answer, to agree, etc. ~ Mikhail Bakhtin

One of the problems that contemporary literary theory explores is the nature of the self. This is not a new problem; writers and readers seem to have always been asking and answering variations on the question: what does it mean to be human and to be me? In Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Jonathan Culler writes, "Literature has always been concerned with questions about identity. . . . Narrative literature especially has followed the fortunes of characters as they define themselves and are defined by various combinations of their past, the choices they make, and the social forces that act upon them" (112). One of the great attractions of literature for me has been to learn about other people's lives, even imaginary people's lives. From the suffering of Job in the Old Testament and the heroism of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, the ethics of Dorothea in Middlemarch and the matriarchal strength of Ursula Buendia in One Hundred Years of Solitude, I think that I can learn what it means to be human, to be an individual, even what it means to live a good life. From Bombay Time's Rusi and Coomi and their neighbors in Wadia Baug, perhaps I can learn, among other things, what it means be a member of a community knit so closely together by a common ethnic and religious heritage and a lifetime of shared experiences.

The work of twentieth-century theorists like Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler, however, calls into question such naïve reading by drawing attention to the various ways in which society's power structures and language itself construct the concept of the individual self. Despite the distinct orientations of these theorists, they all tend to rely on the post-structuralist binary self/other in which the self defines itself in terms of difference and deferral. In other words, self equals not-other, and both self and other exist in a dialectic power struggle. Jonathan Culler expands,

Work in theory emanating from different directions-Marxism, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, feminism, gay and lesbian studies, and the study of identity in colonial and post-colonial societies-has revealed difficulties involving identity that seem structurally similar. . . . The process of identity-formation not only foregrounds some differences and neglects others; it takes an internal difference or division and projects it as a difference between individuals or groups. To 'be a man,' as we say, is to deny any 'effeminacy' or weakness and to project it as a difference between men and women. (118-9)

The novel Bombay Time seems ripe for any of these readings especially because it focuses on character rather than plot. A psychoanalytic, feminist, or post-colonial reading might highlight the struggles between the self and other, masculine and feminine, or oppressor and oppressed throughout the novel. On the other hand, much of the story's appeal comes from its theme of community and the neighbors' very real need for one another. Just as Tehmi appreciates Dosa's gossip because "it was proof that she existed, that she surfaced occasionally in the mind of the people living beside her" (164) and just as Jimmy's realization that "in reality, [he and Zarin] were married to an entire group of people, a neighborhood, a way of life" (74) saved his marriage, so all of the characters find meaning in their interactions with one another. If the novel offers hope for the community of Wadia Baug at the end of the evening, it seems to lie in the possibility not of overturning or deconstructing the categories of self/other, male/female, Parsi/non-Parsi, rich/poor, British/Indian but of truly communicating and creating meaning by acknowledging both sides of the binaries and engaging in dialogue between them.

In contrast to most major theorists of the late twentieth century, the Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin developed a concept of the self in which the self and other do not exist in a struggle for power (Note 1). Perhaps best known in literary studies for his concepts of heteroglossia and the many-voiced novel in The Problem of Dostoevsky's Poetics and Discourse in the Novel, the carnivalesque in Rabelais and His World, and as the inspiration for Kristeva's term "intertextuality," Bakhtin has emerged as a more complex figure as more of his writings have been translated and distributed in English in the past twenty years. In Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World, Michael Holquist, Bakhtin's biographer and major editor in the United States, examines his entire oeuvre synoptically and argues, "Dialogue is an obvious master key to the assumptions that guided Bakhtin's work throughout his whole career" (15). Dialogism, Holquist writes, can be understood as a "theory of knowledge . . . that seek[s] to grasp human behavior through the use humans make of knowledge" (15). It is a fundamental principle of communication that undergirds Bakhtin's writings on existence, selfhood, language, authorship, the genre of the novel, history and poetics, etc. When Bakhtin and Holquist speak of existence and selfhood as a form of dialogue, they mean that just as every utterance derives its meaning in relation to other utterances (it is a response to something that has already been said and looks forward to an answer), so every self (which like an utterance occupies a unique point in space/time and thus a unique point-of-view) gains meaning and wholeness-achieves a degree of "consummation," to use Bakhtin's term-only in relation and in dialogue with other selves.

One of Bakhtin's earliest works, "Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity" is a monograph-length meditation on the challenges that an author faces when seeking to create a believable, complete character in a work of fiction. Two major philosophical subjects of this study are architectonics, the study of "the way something is put together" and aesthetics, the study of "how parts are shaped into wholes" (Holquist, "Intro" x). Bakhtin's study leads him to consider the problem of the self, for in many ways an author's relationship with a character parallels the self's relationship with others. Holquist explains that "Author and Hero" forms part of "a general theory of human subjectivity, in which various kinds of perception play a major role in order better to distinguish the specificity of aesthetic perception" ("Intro" xix). Aesthetic perception involves consummation or wholeness, a point-of-view that finishes off or completes. In his introduction to Bakhtin's Art and Answerability, Holquist writes:

Bakhtin differs from many other thinkers now in fashion in that he does not begin by rejecting the intuitive sense of things held by most of his readers, who will feel that they are individuals precisely because-for better or worse-they are the keepers of their own uniqueness . . . . [But] a first implication of recognizing that we are all unique is the paradoxical result that we are therefore fated to need the other if we are to consummate our selves. Far from celebrating a solipsistic 'I,' Bakhtin posits uniqueness of the self as precisely that condition in which the necessity of the other is born. (xxv)

According to Bakhtin, I cannot understand my own uniqueness or the value of my self outside of the context of my interaction with another self who is not me. Both physically and metaphorically, I can only see the horizon in front of me when I look out at the world around me. I cannot see what is behind me; I cannot even see my own face (unless I am standing in front of a mirror, and even then I see only a reflection). I experience myself from within, and I have no way of placing myself within a context or attributing meaning to my own life. But when I look at you, I can see your whole body and its background, and I can love you because I am transgredient (Note 2) to you (Bakhtin, "Author" 22). In the context of a suffering human being, Bakhtin writes:

The person suffering does not experience the fullness of his own outward expressedness in being; he experiences this expressedness only partially, and then in the language of his inner sensations of himself. He does not see the agonizing tension of his own muscles . . . he does not see the clear blue sky against the background of which his suffering outward image is delineated for me. And even if he were able to see all these features . . . he would lack the appropriate emotional and volitional approach to these features. (ibid. 25)

My job as an other in dialogue is to project myself into his place and then to return to myself to give "a word of consolation or an act of assistance" (26). "Aesthetic activity proper actually begins at the point when we return . . . to our own place outside the suffering person, and start to form and consummate the material we derived from projecting ourselves into the other . . ." (26). Then we can use the information about the other to complete his understanding of his own suffering. In other words,

A human being experiencing life in the category of his own I is incapable of gathering himself by himself into an outward whole that would even be relatively finished. . . In this sense, one can speak of a human being's absolute need for the other, for the other's seeing, remembering, gathering, and unifying self-activity. (35-36)

One of the themes of Bombay Time is the characters' need for the sort of self/other dialogue and consummation that Bakhtin describes. The residents of Wadia Baug cannot experience their individual lives as meaningful without the perspective of others. This theme is realized through the narrative style, the pattern of Rusi and Coomi's relationship, and the symbol of the photo album.
As chapter one opens, a third person narrator (Dorrit Cohn's psychonarrator) sets the scene and presents Rusi's thoughts to us as he waits for his wife Coomi to finish getting ready for his friend's son's wedding: "Rusi Bilimoria glanced at his watch for the fifth time" (7). Soon, however, the narrator's voice becomes harder to distinguish from Rusi's thoughts. For example, the narrator tells us that "he didn't even want to go to the wedding" (7) because he is tired of dealing with his nosy neighbors and the dirty, busy city of Bombay. When the text reads, "It would be the same crowd . . ." I am not totally sure whose voice is speaking. Perhaps the narrative style of Bombay Time is better classified as a mixture of psychonarration and narrated monologue (Note 3). At this point most of the story seems to be focalized by Rusi; although we see Rusi in the third person, we see the rest of the story through his eyes.

When Coomi ignores Rusi's impatience and continues to primp, Rusi imagines what might happen if he just left and went to the wedding by himself. He can't bring himself to do it, however, knowing that by the next day, the entire apartment building would be gossiping about his behavior. As he imagines what would happen if Coomi visited her old friend Dosamai after being left at home, curious things begin to happen to the narrative voice and focalization. Coomi would be "telling her [Dosamai] about her shock and fright at finding that Rusi had 'abandoned' her, had left for no reason at all, without a warning or anything" (9). Abandoned is in quotes because it is the word that Coomi would choose to describe Rusi's actions and her own state as a victim of his unreasonableness. But the phrases "shock and fright" and "no reason at all, without a warning or anything" are not set off in quotes even though they also seem to belong more to Coomi's point-of-view than to Rusi's.

Next the narration switches from Rusi's imagination (the verbs in his thoughts express probability through the modal would) to the psychonarrator (who uses the past tense and knows that "Dosamai had decided years ago that it was not in her best interest to encourage harmony between Rusi and Coomi") and back again in the next paragraph. Rusi constructs the women's whole conversation in his head, from Dosamai's "fatalistic voice" to Coomi's "pained expression." But the narrative voice changes again from Rusi's would to the psychonarrator's past tense when the text reads, "'Rusi always did like women,' Coomi had murmured" (11). Soon Coomi becomes the focalizer for the narrative as she remembers Rusi's ambition when they were first married, but her reverie ends when Dosamai and the psychonarrator bring her back to the imagined present. Then the narrative brings us back to Rusi's consciousness when the narrator tells us that he wants only peace or approval from his neighbors and Coomi "finally emerge[s] from her room" (14).

This mixing of narrative voice and focalization marks the novel as a whole, underscoring stylistically the theme of dialogue and mediation (Note 4). Whether or not Coomi's memory of the day at the beach during the first year of their marriage is mediated through Rusi's consciousness remains a mystery. It is clear that Rusi cannot understand his life without attempting to view himself from the standpoint of his neighbors, the others in his life. On the other hand, I do not think that at this point in the novel Rusi is capable of these sorts of insights into his wife's buried love for him. When Coomi thinks, "All of him is in those eyes, . . . all his hurts, all his losses, his father's death, his fierce ambition, his burning desire to be somebody. To do something large," she is enacting the vital service of the other-first empathizing and then creating a whole picture of Rusi's life. She possesses a viewpoint that Rusi necessarily lacks.

We learn that it is this empathetic and loving viewpoint that first attracted Rusi to Coomi; he remembers, "Coomi was different. He felt she understood him" (16). Now, after years of disappointment--failure in business, unforgiven words spoken in anger, and the emigration of their daughter to England--Rusi has concluded that he was wrong. He and his wife just can't understand each other. So he withdraws into himself and cultivates an attitude of indifference to her, perhaps unaware that in doing so he is only subtracting from his own existence. For according to Bakhtin,

Cutting oneself off, isolating oneself, closing oneself off, those are the basic reasons for loss of self. . . . It turns out that every internal experience occurs on the border, it comes across another, and this essence resides in this intense encounter. . . . The very being of man (both internal and external) is a profound communication. To be means to communicate. (qtd. in Todorov 96)

Throughout the beginning of the evening, Rusi repeatedly feels moved to speak to his wife but chooses to remain silent. For example, as they walk to the wedding, he knows that Coomi expects him to comment on her appearance (and he really does think that she is beautiful in her rose-colored sari), but he does not put forward the effort. When he thinks of Binny in England, the narrator tells us: "He longed to say something to his wife but was reluctant to break the silence that had engulfed them since they had left home" (21). Again when he hears the story of the attack on Sheroo's niece and imagines his own rage if anyone were to attack Coomi, "he had a passing urge to tell Coomi this," but he doesn't (27). At the end of the first chapter, Rusi's desire to separate himself from his friends and city has passed: "He wanted to ask someone's forgiveness and he wanted to absolve someone . . . He looked up at the moonless sky and felt a strong desire to sing a mournful, plaintive song. A dirge that would carry all the way back to the waiting sea. But he just sat there, saying nothing" (27-28).

Eventually Rusi responds to this desire to speak. Perhaps he simply does so because, as Dosa found as a young woman, "most people long to talk about their lives" (35). Perhaps when Rusi gives his speech to Mehernosh and takes on a new role as the go-between for Wadia Baug and the outside world after the stone is thrown, his character is not really changing from withdrawn to outgoing-after all, Rusi's presence weaves through all of the other character's memory chapters; like Tehmi's Cyrus, all his life Rusi has had a gift for empathy and interaction with his neighbors.

When Jimmy and Zarin distribute the photo albums, however, something new happens between Rusi and Coomi. Coomi sits very close to Rusi in order to see the pictures, and the narrator tells us that "for once, Rusi did not mind this enforced closeness with his wife. It felt good actually, this warmth from Coomi's arm as it brushed against his" (237). As the photos help Rusi to contemplate the past, the narrator reveals, "for a moment, he felt the silence that stretched long and thin between him and Coomi snap like a rubber band against his heart" (239). This is an interesting metaphor because it compares silence to a physical object. The silence feels tight and drawn out like a rubber band. Sound, however, is a physical force that travels in waves, and I usually imagine silence as the absence of that energy. Another metaphor involving silence occurs when Rusi drums up the courage to tell Mehernosh that the hopes of the community lie in his ability to be happy. Coomi says, "I know what you mean, exactly. Exactly," and her "words [ring] out like a shot into the embarrassed silence" (249). Metaphorically and perhaps even physically, those words act not only on the silence between Rusi and Coomi, but also on them. When Rusi looks at Coomi, he sees in her face an expression "that used to make him feel omnipotent" (249). This is an example of what Bakhtin is referring to when he says,

This love that shapes a human being from outside throughout his life-his mother's love and the love of others around him-this love gives body to his inner body, and, even though it does not provide him with an intuitable image of his outer body's outer value, it does make him the possessor of that body's potential value-a value capable of being actualized only by another human being
. (Author 51)

An utterance, even a look, is a deed, an action that acts upon the self and the other. In this sense, Coomi's support for Rusi gives him real power.

"In the actual life of speech," writes Bakhtin, "every concrete act of understanding is active: it assimilates the word to be understood into its conceptual system filled with specific objects and emotional expressions, and is indissolubly merged with the response, with a motivated agreement or disagreement" ("Discourse" 1206). Bakhtin believes that listening and understanding involve real work. As Holquist writes, "Dialogism conceives knowing as the effort of understanding, as 'the active reception of speech of the other" ("Intro" xlii). He connects this idea with an interesting new book by James Lynch of the University of Maryland's medical school that "provides evidence that calling dialogue 'work' is not just a metaphor (or only a metaphor): in a series of imaginative experiments, Lynch has shown a direct corollary between blood pressure levels and the activities of talking and listening" (xlii). Lynch shows that "talking alters a 'person's relationship to the social environment in a way quite different from when one [is] silent in the same environment.' What is significant about this apparent truism is that it indicates the power of speech to effect a bond between entities that are separated in every other way" (xliii). Spoken words can do physical work on the interlocutors, just as Coomi's words affect Rusi and the silence between them in Bombay Time. Holquist explains that Bakhtin "goes much further than psychophysiologists in defining the power of language to bridge gaps for . . . he sees talk as animating simultaneity both within and between organisms" (xliii-iv). If Bakhtin is right about the power of the word, and Lynch's experiments seem to support his view, then Rusi's speech and Coomi's active reception and understanding response enact a physical change. What remains to be seen at the end of the novel is if that understanding connection will last.

One of the implications of my self's limited point-of-view and need for the other is that when I am self-conscious, I experience myself in the category of the other. "A certain renewed effort," Bakhtin writes, "is required in order to visualize myself distinctly en face and to break away completely from my inner self-sensation" ("Author" 30). But even then, my own view of myself lacks a certain depth. According to Bakhtin,

"we shall be struck by the peculiar emptiness, ghostliness, and an eerie, frightening solitariness of this outward image of ourselves . . . [This] is explained by the fact that we lack any emotional and volitional approach to this outward image that could vivify it and include or incorporate it axiologically within the outward unity of the plastic-pictorial world." (ibid. 30).

A good example of this occurs during the wedding reception when Coomi is indulging her obsession with taking mental photographs to share with Binny or Dosamai. As she watches Rusi laugh at Bomi's whispered joke, she clicks an imaginary photo to save for herself as a remembrance of a younger, happier Rusi. When Rusi catches her staring at him, "the laughter that had bubbled in him like a spring froze . . . His face closed like a door" (119). Hurt by Rusi's hardened gaze, Coomi "turned her camera on herself. Click. She watched herself dissolve into nothingness" (119). When Coomi takes these pictures, she is already feeling slightly isolated from the group-"someone who stood slightly outside the circle, watching, observing everything" (81). She is able to capture Rusi in one of his best moments, but she cannot evaluate herself.

Tehmi, the only other guest who notices Coomi's peculiar habit of blinking memories, has a similar experience when she has "a sudden clear picture of herself: an old snowy-haired woman standing alone, holding an almost empty glass of whiskey and giggling to herself. The picture made her giggle even more" (204). She is able to laugh at the ridiculous way she looks to herself, but her self-awareness only serves to highlight her isolation. The narrator notes, "People were staring at her. But she was used to that" (204).

Bakhtin writes that self-portraits have this same eerie look to them: "It seems to me that a self-portrait can always be distinguished from a portrait by the peculiarly ghostly character of the face: the face does not, as it were, include within itself the full human being" ("Author" 34). A portrait, on the other hand, is painted by an other, an artist who can give the subject emotional depth and value because he or she stands transgredient to the subject (ibid. 34). When Jimmy and Zarin give their special guests a photo album, they perform a similar function. Just as the album helps to unify the novel structurally by reviewing the highlights from each of the character's individual histories, so it also helps to unite the old Wadia Baug crew by reminding them of their bond with one another. "I'm proud of Cyrus being included in a group of such fine people," Tehmi says (240). And what takes Rusi's breath away as he views the picture of himself with Coomi on the beach is not his own youthful image but "the love and tenderness on Coomi's face" (243). Like the activity of the portrait artist, the old photos and the neighbors' responses consummate their understanding of their selves. As Soli says to Jimmy, "You have reminded us of who we are and what we are to one another. You've given us ourselves back, our youth and our promise. Our real selves back, minus a few double chins and bald heads, you could say" (269).

Their magical evening is shattered, however, when the father waiting in the group of hungry people outside of the gates throws a rock through the window. All evening long and for the majority of their lives, the middle-class Parsis of Wadia Baug had managed to ignore the poor lurking on the borders of their more comfortable existence. And even after the stone-thrower violently enters their lives, they "determine to wake up tomorrow having put all of this badness out of their minds" (271). But Rusi, who has perhaps realized anew the necessity of living in dialogue, vows to remember the events of the day and to remain open to the world outside: "Somehow, he had to learn to navigate between contentment and complacency, between caution and fear, between the known safety of Wadia Baug and the unknowable world outside its walls" (270).

At the end of the novel, all of Wadia Baug's hopes for the future are pinned on Mehernosh and his young bride. Perhaps this small Parsi community should look instead to Rusi, who with new found strength is resolving to live on the borders in dialogue: "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-man's-land between the rage of the stone thrower and the terror of the stoned" (270). Perhaps there is hope for Rusi in greater communication and mercy with Coomi and the city of Bombay-in Bakhtin's meaning-giving dialogue between self and other.


1. Perhaps it is more accurate when drawing on Bakhtin to speak, as Todorov does, of I and Thou rather than self and other.

2. Bakhtin used the word transgredient "in complementary sense to 'ingredients,' to designate elements of consciousness that are external to it but nonetheless absolutely necessary for its completion, for its achievement of totalization" (Todorov 95).

3. Gerald Prince explains that narrated monologue is characterized by "free indirect discourse in the context of third-person narrative. With narrated monologue (as opposed to psychonarration), the account of the character's discourse is mainly in words that are recognizably the character's" (57). Focalization is a clumsy word, but a handy concept for distinguishing "who speaks" from "who sees" (Prince 32).

4. And exemplifying Bakhtin's idea that the novel as a genre "can be defined as a diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages) and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized" ("Discourse" 1192)!

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M.M. Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity. Art and Answerability: Early
Philosophical Essays
. Trans. Vadim Liapunov. Eds. Michael Holquist and Vadim
Liapunov. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. 4-256.

-----. "Discourse in the Novel." Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. The
Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism
. Vincent B. Leitch, et al, eds.
New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2001. 1190-1220.

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1997.

Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge,

-----. "Introduction: The Architectonics of Answerability." Art and
Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays
. Trans. Vadim Liapunov. Eds.
Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Prince, Gerald. A Dictionary of Narratology. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,

Todorov, Tzvetan. Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle. Trans. Wlad Godzich.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Umrigar, Thrity. Bombay Time. New York: Picador USA, 2001.