Baumgartner’s Bombay by Anita Desai

I am a devout Hindu and as is our belief and custom, it was ingrained in my conscience from the very childhood that whatever happens in our life, good or bad is the result of our own karmas. I firmly believe in the as you sow, so you reap theory.

And, Baumgartner’s Bombay by Anita Desai, reaffirmed my belief in the past karmas, as there could be no other explanation for monotonously tragic life of the Hero of this novel. His entire life is a never healing wound, with each event rubbing even more salt to the already wealed life of this man.

The novel traces the life of Hugo Baumgartner, a Jew, born in Germany, during Hitler’s reign. He loses his father in a tragic accident, suffers due to the callous attitude of the despot towards Jews, destroying their furniture business and rendering them penniless. He is left alone with his mother, dependent on insensitive relatives to carry on his linearly grim journey. And, as often happens, the difficult circumstances make him grow sooner than expected.

Anxious to build a safe haven for himself and his poor mother, he decides to try his luck in India. The warm people and numerous opportunities offered in a developing country, does give him some joyous moments, including a little bit of romance in the night clubs of

However, happiness is usually short-lived in Anita Desai’s novels, and particularly in this melancholic saga, the joyous moments end, even before Baumgartner could savor them properly.

The scene shifts to the Second World War and the crucial part played by Germany, ensures that our Hero gets involuntarily entangled in the futile war and pays a hefty price of being a German, stranded in a colony, being governed by the enemy country. He is arrested on the charges of felony and is sentenced to severe jail term, along with the dedicated Nazis, by insensitive Anglo authorities.

The prison gives him an opportunity to connect with some intelligent, worldly wise men, and Desai has deftly portrayed the shyness of introvert Hugo in her indomitable narrative. I simply loved the scene, where Hugo struggles to strike a relationship with a fellow prisoner, fighting off his own insecurities and complexes and trying to understand the finer nuances of social life.

At the end of the war, Hugo moves to Bombay, and this is where the novel begins, showing him to juggle with the dual role of a foreigner, fairer in complexion and superior in looks from the native Indians and yet, in sharp contrast to his handsome features, poorer than most of the destitutes, trying hard to live with some dignity and lots of love for his cats.

His unusual looks and over sensitivity towards miserable street cats earns him a reputation of a crazy man, who has lost his mental balance and is yet trying hard to live in a civilized society, defying all the rules and following his own path, eluding the cruel clutches of destiny and braving the sarcastic jeers of his neighbors.

Will Baumgartner ever be able to carve out a comfortable life for himself or will he just remain a puppet in the hands of evil inspired luck, forms the crux of the novel.

A turning point comes in the story, when circumstances forces Hugo to invite Kurt, a fellow German (a disillusioned, dope addict Nazi), to his home. Is Kurt going to be a catalyst in bringing joy in the lonely life of Hugo or is he going to be a fatal mistake, is a question that troubled me during the entire book, and the mystery is solved only at the end, shocking me and forcing me to reconsider the immeasurable depths of human mind and its unusual response to emotions.

As is the norm in Anita Desai’s novels, the tragedy is inescapable and the protagonist is fated from the very beginning to suffer all his miseries, and yet in her true sartorial style, she creates a lovable man in the form of Hugo, forcing the reader to sympathize with him and silently pray for some solace for the pure soul.

Though, the novel is quite predictable and at times, irritating, for the chaos created by confusing time and space, as the story runs in intermittent flashbacks, running from Germany to Calcutta to Bombay, in a haphazard fashion.

However, all said and done, the story did manage to touch a chord in my heart and miseries of Baumgartner’s woes remain fresh in my mind, even after a year.

A good novel if you love reading tragedies!


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