For as long as I can remember, I have looked up to Anita Desai as the foremost contemporary Indian writer. The first book I read of hers, Clear Light of Day, was a part of my undergraduate syllabus. I fell in love with her instantly. Her writing vividly brought to life an era I was not alive but felt deep affection for. It was a time of great hope – when India was still finding a footing in the world as its people adjusted to these shifting realities and identities. As conflicting forces rock the world outside, Desai’s stories become the window to its effects on the common man and his family.

A firang in Bombay

In her novel, Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988), the man of interest is Hugo Baumgartner, a firang. Not just a white man, but a Jew who has fled from persecution in Nazi Germany. Desai describes him as a man who has “always, somehow escaped the mainstream.” But his Bombay neighbours don’t have such a generous view of him. To them, he is the “Madman of the Cats” or the “Billewallah Pagal” thanks to his army of gangly cats that have taken shelter inside his dilapidated flat. It’s hard to say what “Bommgarter” does for a living but he has somehow managed to win the sympathies of those who matter, including Farrokh, owner of Cafe de Paris who tosses out leftovers to Baumgartner to feed his cats and supplies sweet milk tea and other savouries to fill his stomach.

There’s another firang who lives nearby – Lotte, a Calcutta-based Marwari businessman’s German lover. Full of theatrics and slight distaste for Bombay’s heat, humidity, and poverty, he finds a friend in her. Together they think about what they’ve left behind. While Lotte still dreams about the comforts of home, Baumgartner knows this is as good as it gets. The Europe they had known no longer exists. The Holocaust lurks in the background as Baumgartner recalls growing up in Germany in the prime of Hitler’s career – the humiliating poverty there and being hunted down for his faith. When he expresses his desire to flee to India, his mother exclaims, “...But whoever goes to India? If you are not a sailor?” But Hugo knows he does not belong in Berlin.

He does not belong to the detention camps in Calcutta either. His first stop in India, Calcutta’s heartless ways come as a shock to me. The city is buckling under civil unrest and riots threaten to flare up any minute – and they do, routinely and violently. The massacre that he had hoped to escape in Europe greets him here as Hindus and Muslims bayed for each other’s blood. He becomes friends with Habibullah, a Muslim man who promises him a job but mysteriously disappears once the riots break out. Utterly disillusioned, it is suggested to Baumgartner that Bombay is where India’s riches are and it is there that he should try to make a fortune.

Vive la Bombay

In Bombay, his life in Nazi Germany feels almost “absurd” to him. And why not? After all, it is a completely different world. The anticipation of independence is at an all-time high and the promise of the tide turning hangs heavy in the air. Despite his tattered clothes and battered appearance, Baumgartner draws curious looks and is almost always respectfully addressed as “sahib”. He thinks of Indians as a “mass” realising little that the converse was true too. The slightly brown tint of his skin that made him stand out in Germany made no difference to the Hiramanis, Taraporevalas, Barodekars, Coelho, da Silvas, and Patels of Bombay – he was a firang and to be trusted cautiously.

So when a German druggie is found passed out at Farrokh’s establishment, Baumgartner is tasked with taking him away and cleaning him up. A man of fiery temper, he’s thoroughly displeased by Baumgartner’s living conditions but the silver trophies that Baumgartner had bagged during his days of betting on racing horses more than make up for his initial displeasure.

Desai switches between three languages here – namely, German (she was born to a German mother), Bombay English, and the Queen’s English and together they bring to life Baumgartner’s Bombay – the Bombay of the ultimate outsider.

After liberalisation, Bombay became the city where one went to make riches in the crudest sense of the word. When just a few years ago, people migrated to the city to experience a more cosmopolitan way of life. Chimanlal telling Baumgartner to leave for Bombay is not just advice for financial well-being, but to make a home in the city that belongs to everyone. Baumgartner falters and fumbles as he makes friends with the city’s people and animals, prompting us to think about how a nobody alters the city’s identity, its longtime residents, as well as themselves.

A German refugee, he’s not at home at any address in the city, he speaks a mix of tongues, and his white skin is both a bane and a boon depending on the situation he finds himself in. He is slightly better off than the local destitute because of the friends he has made along the way.

Anita Desai relishes the madness that is Bombay. She sees method in its chaos and squalor, joy in its milieu and confusion, and has a steadfast belief in its people’s goodness. The subjective knowledge and personal memory of each city are both unreliable and invaluable. The tragedies and victories of Bombay are as much as the Hiramanis and Taraporevala as they are his – the city belongs to Baumgartner even on the days he thinks he does not belong to it.

Baumgartner’s Bombay, Anita Desai, Penguin India.