Do not quote without author's permission.
Life is dialogical by its very nature. To live means to engage in
dialogue, to question, to listen, to answer, to agree, etc. ~
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
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).
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
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
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
"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
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
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)!
Bakhtin, M.M. Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity.
Art and Answerability: Early
Philosophical Essays. Trans. Vadim Liapunov. Eds. Michael Holquist
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,
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
-----. "Introduction: The Architectonics of Answerability."
Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays. Trans. Vadim Liapunov.
Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov. Austin: University of Texas Press,
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.