Yesterday I reviewed Shilpa Agarwal’s debut novel “Haunting Bombay” as part of a TLC Book Tour. Today Shilpa has been gracious enough to share with us how exactly “Haunting Bombay” came to be.
At a recent book event, someone asked me if I would have started my novel knowing that it would take ten years before it was published. “No way!” I replied and we had a good laugh, but later I thought about that question and what it meant. I don’t remember the first day I began writing my novel or even when I realized that I was writing a novel. At that time, I was busy teaching undergraduates at UCLA and my path was a strictly academic one. And then a thought came into my head and I had to write it down: The bluish hue that clung to her body at birth had not yet left her when she died.
For a long while I stared at those words trying to make sense of them. As I continued to write, that starting line became the crux of my novel. I realized I was writing a story set in 1960’s Bombay about a newborn child who drowns in wealthy Indian family. The family, in their grief, locks away their memories of the tragedy but it continues to edge their consciousness as fear and loss.
I knew that the story opened on the day the child drowns. And I knew the ending – the what, where, why of how it happened. The rest came organically through the years of writing and rewriting, adding in plot elements, weaving in themes, allowing characters to fully develop and come into their own.
I let my instinct guide my writing as the story spun out in ways I had never imagined, taking me into Bombay’s slums, the red-light district, the tea-houses, and the illegal drinking dens. I began to feel a deep compassion for my characters, many who are inspired by my own family, allowing each to be guided by their conscious and unconscious desires. And though the story has its eerie supernatural moments, I saw a lot of humor within the household’s interactions and the characters’ idiosyncrasies.
Within the meticulous process of crafting the narrative, I wandered down many darkened alleys before I found my way. A particularly long one occupied more than a hundred pages in my manuscript and two years of research and writing before I had an epiphany that it all had to be cut out. My ego said to me Oh no but all that time, all that writing! My heart, however was saying, Yes, this is painful but let it go. It was only when I cut these pages out that I could see the story unfolding to its rightful conclusion and the entire arc finally fell into place. So much of writing, I realized is a practice of patience and letting go.
A decade ago, had I known it would take me so long to write and publish my first book I think I would have still embarked on the journey. I dared not call myself a writer back then but now I know that’s who I am. Writing is my path because even with all its obstacles and challenges, the many years of research and the endless process of rewriting, it brings me tremendous joy. I am knee-deep in my second book right now, and am pretty sure this one won’t take me ten years.
For more on Haunting Bombay, please visit www.hauntingbombay.com
Thank you Jen for the opportunity to write this guest post.