Shilpa Agarwal is the author of Haunting Bombay, a literary ghost story set in 1960’s India that was awarded a First Words Literary Prize for South Asian Writers and published this April by Soho Press. It will be published internationally later this year. Shilpa’s writing is informed by glimpses into moments of alienation and awakening, especially during geographic and metaphoric crossings: east meets west, centers meet the peripheries, the living meet the dead. She writes to call up the haunting utterances of the excluded, to excavate fragmentary memories that edge consciousness, and to imagine a more nuanced narrative of history itself.
There has always been an interest in multicultural writing in the US, particularly Indian writing. What do you feel is the strength of your first book and what sets it apart?
Haunting Bombay is a literary ghost story unlike any other in the genre of the Indian novel. When I was researching ghost stories, I discovered fairy legends, mystical traditions, references to ghosts in the ancient religious texts, and a 115-year old English translation of Sanskrit Vampire stories which I’ve woven into my novel. There is such a rich tradition of the supernatural in India yet I didn’t find any other English-language Indian authors who were writing about it. Readers instead have connected my writing to the mystical and magical literary traditions of South American writers Isabelle Allende and Gabriel García Márquez, and the literary ghost story Beloved by Toni Morrison.
Tell us about your experience as an Indian-American in the United States? How did you find your voice as a writer? What compelled you to write in this genre?
I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh at a time when diversity was not celebrated as it is now. I had thought I was going to become a doctor like many of the adults in my community, and it wasn’t until college that I discovered books by international authors, many of them women, and fell in love with literature.
I have always been intrigued by stories that have been passed down through generations and which aspects are told, and which are deliberately forgotten. In Haunting Bombay, I tell the story of three generations of the wealthy Mittal family who have buried a tragic history and the ghosts of the past who ultimately rise up to haunt them.
I didn’t set out to write a ghost story but as I delved into the narrative, I wanted to hear the voices that had been lost or silenced through the chaos of loss, betrayal, and time. What if I could hear them whispering their version of the truth? So the ghosts became metaphors for the dispossessed, those who have little or no voice or power in a family, community, or nation.
How was the path to publishing for you? Can you give the readers a brief overview of your journey?
It took more than six years of writing and revisions to complete a solid first draft which I submitted to literary agencies in New York. I had a lot of interest and flew out there to meet with several agents. I underwent another round of revisions with my agent who gave me some insightful feedback then we submitted to publishing houses. Soho Press was a fantastic home for my book because they publish great literary fiction and an award-winning line of mystery/crime, and Haunting Bombay is a melding of these genres.
Tell us something about the character of Pinky in Haunting Bombay?
Haunting Bombay opens on the day a child drowns in the Mittal family but as it unfolds and the ghost of this dead child begins to haunt the household, the family’s tangled memories of that drowning day – of where and what they were doing when the child died – are revealed. The family and the servants all have secret desires and motivations, including my protagonist Pinky who is in love with the dashing, seventeen-year-old Nimish – her cousin-brother who lives in the same household. Pinky is the first to become haunted by the ghost and she is the one who is compelled to find out what happened that drowning day, despite all efforts to suppress and dismiss her investigations. Her journey is one of finding the truth but also finding the courage to face that truth because oftentimes truth itself can be terrifying.
What are you future plans?
I am currently working on my second book which is also set in India and weaves in mystical and magical elements. I am also considering writing a screenplay for Haunting Bombay.