All we want as humans is to belong. Race, religion, gender, nationality or ideology – everyone wants something to tie their identities to. This yearning for identity is all the more pronounced when you are markedly an “outsider”.
Baumgartner’s Bombay is an exploration of a man who is just such an outsider, a man whose identity always sets him apart from the places and circumstances he is thrust into. This is a tragic novel, and the beginning tells us how it ends. It is what happens in between that must engage us.
A German Jew, he is first forced to leave his country of birth during the Nazi regime, when his Aryan step-father manipulates him into leaving for India to work in a timber business.
India doesn’t welcome him well. He’s short-changed and cheated when he lands in Mumbai, but quickly finds himself stabilized, sent as he is to Calcutta. Even this early into India, he is painfully aware that he doesn’t belong, as he is neither Indian nor a British national. Despite being a Jew, a refugee running away from the German regime, to everyone around, he is still German, an enemy of the British.
This identity-within-identity is a fact that only he understands and none else. It doesn’t help him when he is captured by British forces as an alien and sent to an internment camp near the Himalayas. There, he shrinks into himself all the more when he encounters more and more Germans of the Nazi persuasion. He tries continuing to write to his mother back in Germany, but for various reasons his correspondence with the outside world doesn’t bring him any answers as to how his mother is doing.
After the World War, when the camp inmates are let out, he goes back to Calcutta, which is a blackened, haunted shell in the aftermath of the Japanese bombing. He also realizes his mother probably died in Germany. Calcutta is also where he discovers “wars within wars” – the Hindu-Muslim riots, and the stunning fact that the rebel Indian National Army was trying to side with the Japanese to kick the Britishers out of India. This is where both Baumgartner and the reader realize that he, Baumgartner, is a victim of just such a war-within-a-war.
He goes back to Mumbai to revive his fortunes, and life prospers for a bit. In Mumbai, he has an actual friend – an ageing cabaret dancer called Lola, who he had met first in Calcutta – perhaps the only person, after his mother who genuinely cares about him?
The frustrating thing about Baumgartner is that he is constantly a passive victim of his circumstances. Things happen to him; he is constantly thrown about from one terrible situation into another. And I’m not talking about being a Jewish refugee or being captured by the internment camp – it’s what he does (or rather, does not do) with his life after. The Marwari businessman conveniently drives his life, and beyond him, Baumgartner seems to have no agency of his own. Suketu Mehta’s preface to the book has a different take to this – he says Baumgartner loses his will to live after he is unable to rescue his mother from the Nazis, and hence this book is a classic study of survivor guilt. And I thought this was a brilliant point to make.
Although you do wish Baumgartner was less sad, in both senses of the word.
The drugged hippie he meets in the café is a character that I am yet to understand fully. Was he some kind of metaphor? Why was he given the responsibility of multiplying the tragedy of this novel?
Suketu Mehta and the blurbs do say this book needs repeated reading in order to absorb what Anita Desai is trying to convey. The language flows great, although there are a lot of India scenes described from a Westerner’s point of view. It’s an Indian who wrote this, and yet, we have to suffer the Western characters’ depictions and interpretations of the sights, sounds and smells (all of them seemingly ugly and oppressive) of the country. But then, this was India of the famine, India of the riots, India just as she was being born anew.
It’s an intense book with tragic layers; tragedy that is not hard-hitting as much as it is a series of gentle nudges down the lanes of despair, much like the lane that Baumgartner’s balcony overlooks, where you find yourself towards the last few pages in the book.