It would have been more appropriate to title the novel as ‘Firanghi’s Bombay’ (Firanghi stands for the Outsider in Urdu) for that defined Hugo Baumgartner’s persona to perfection – ‘accepting but not accepted; that was the story of his life, the one thread that ran through it all’.
Anita Desai’s key themes play out well here – we deal with the detritus of human life, Hugo’s life as a German Jew oozes solitude all along and there is little ray of sunshine throughout the narrative. The usual tropes missing in the piece due to its structure – feminism and pivotal female leads. Anita Desai also draws on the German lineage to give us insights into Hugo’s childhood and tryst with the Nazi onslaught.
The book is a tough read to finish at one go – I had to keep my focus to run through it given that I had picked it up for a day’s read at a school library during my recent trip. It primarily deals with decay – physical and psychical – that marks Hugo’s golden years. An unusual hobby i.e. to take care of stray cats should provide some solace but it is just a bizarre twist in the story and people openly wonder about the ‘Billiwalla Paagal’ (Madman fond of cats).
Hugo’s childhood has some moments of fun – his father humors him and his mother protects him. Growing as a young German Jew in a protected environment with his father’s flourishing furniture business there is little to worry in life. Hugo is a misfit at school and socially inept. He finds solace at home where the genteel way of life is pleasant and predictable. Anita Desai narrates quite a few strands of German rhymes and poetry that we are not quite in a position to fully appreciate. Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’ finds a way into their lives though Hugo’s mother regards India to be a ‘dangerous land in the East’.
Things take a turn for worse as Hitler captures power and the persecution of Jews impacts their lives. His father commits suicide after a trip to Dachau and his mother is not able to handle the daily affairs of their lives. Hugo is forced to leave Germany and seek his fortune in India – the land that provided the rare timber that fuelled his father’s furniture business.
Hugo arrives in India and moves to Calcutta. He starts to earnestly work on learning the tricks of the trade and is anxious to ensure a safe passage for his mother. As a diversion he gets introduced to the night-life in the city and meets a German show-girl Lotte who will become his sole long-term friend.
World War II disrupts his life as he is a German citizen in India – a colony of the British. He is placed in prison and spends the war-time years trying to hold onto his sanity. He considers it to be a cruel hand of fate that as a German Jew he was persecuted in his homeland and yet his German identity has now again left him incarcerated in India though the British are sympathetic to the Jewish cause and fighting against Hitler.
The inmates adapt to their fate and seek company of the fellow-men to pour their anxieties. Hugo watched and marvelled at this gift for passing on or even shedding whatever was burdensome. He shed nothing – like a mournful turtle – he carried everything with him. Perhaps it was the only way he knew to remain himself. The writer provides us a definitive insight into Hugo’s psyche and why he continues to remain an ‘outsider’ throughout his life.
Hugo is finally released from custody when the British win the war. He continues to remain in Calcutta and becomes a mute witness to the turbulent period that led to the partition of India. Eventually he is forced to move to Bombay to start life anew.
In Bombay he finally establishes a professional relationship with Chimanlal – an upper caster Hindu businessman with a wide variety of interests. Hugo seems to do well for himself though he continue to stay in a shabby apartment behind the ‘Taj Mahal’ hotel. Chimanlal and his devoted family make an interesting sidelight in the tale. Chimanlal has the affectionate authoritarianism of a genial tyrant who cannot conceive of not being loved and honoured. Anita Desai uses this opportunity to provide us a brief cultural vignette of a traditional Indian marriage. In a reassuring manner she returns to the world of familiar tropes on feminism from an Indian perspective.
Hugo is left bewildered by the Indian way of life. In particular he finds it difficult to adapt to the Indian cuisine – cooking concoctions in oil. So he doesn’t quite form a social connection with Chimanlal’s family. He eventually does meet Lotte who has had a turbulent relationship with a Marwari businessman and is not at her wit’s end as he has died and his family has disowned her.
Still not a glimmer of sunshine in Hugo’s life – he gets occupied with stray cats, loses a sense of personal hygiene and the focus on being a good businessman. A cosmopolitan city like Bombay should afford a Westerner enough opportunities to make a life for himself. Unfortunately it never happens though Hugo seems to spend decades in the magical city. Eventually he is reduced to being called the ‘billiwalla paagal’. Such a sad waste of life’s potential but Desai makes it seem inevitable that Hugo was never destined to find happiness and companionship in his life.
Hugo’s nemesis – Kurt – is a German youth who arrived on the Indian shores as a hippie. He then led a crazy life across cities fuelling his drug habit and gory company of Tantrics and priests who man the cremation at the burning ghats. He is antisocial and violent and Hugo has no ability to communicate with him and reform him. We know from the very outset that this relationship is doomed to result in a tragedy. The brief encounter leads to an attempted robbery and Hugo meets a violent end. It is left for Lotte to mourn for him – a man who would be regarded to be ‘flotsam-jetsam’ of man’s sordid tale of existence.