A Matter of Geography, which was shortlisted in 2015 for the Tuscany Prize for unpublished manuscripts has now been published by Mosaic Press. The story is an impressive one dealing as it does with the religious divisions in India between Muslims and Hindus, the fallout of which affects peoples of other religions such as Christians and Jews. A Matter of Geography takes place in Bombay in 2008-2009 but flashes back in time as Peter, the storyteller here, recalls growing up in the large Billimoria Building with all sorts of families as well as religions. The Fernandes family lived next door and their daughter Anna was Peter’s favourite. However, religious violence and unrest in the city led to the Fernandes’s moving to Canada, separating the families and leaving a huge gap in Peter’s life. Now, after fifteen years, Anna is coming back to India for a visit, causing Peter to evoke the past by reading from a diary that Anna gave him just before she left.
Life in Bombay
This book is very insightful as to life in the city of Bombay (or Mumbai as it is now officially known), particularly when the sectarian violence begins to escalate. The author perhaps uses Peter to express the thoughts of many residents at the time:
“These name changers…Throwing out the name of Bombay in the need to supposedly throw out all that is British. It was, in essence, throwing out the very basis on which this city was built – tolerance. Rendered impotent by the democratic regimes they find themselves in, they set about raising enemies and bogeys among men of religious and ethnic differences, spurring hatred. History is rife with them, and it is on the histories of their own mind that they lean for validation as they change names and lay claims on land and buildings.”
It is a very tense time for the residents of the Billimoria Building, all living as closely as they do. Peter’s father, who is a police inspector, gets wind of a serious threat to a Muslim family in the building. Knowing that the police cannot do anything to protect this woman and her daughter-in-law, they and the Fernandes family devise a plan to get them to move in with a reclusive Jewish woman, Mrs Ezekiel. It is young Anna who approaches her and receives a positive response: yes, she will take the Farooquis in. It is what occurs at this point in the story that gives A Matter of Geography a dramatic shift. Everything changes, not only for the families involved but for life in the building as well. The final chapters deal with Anna’s return and what it means to Peter, whose love for her has remained obsessively strong all these years.
As already mentioned, this is a fascinating story of life in Bombay transpiring at a pivotal point in its history. In addition, the plan to save the Farooquis is quite dramatic, not only in its execution but also in the collateral damage it causes in the community’s existence. While the fifteen years of Peter and Anna’s separation is obscure as regards Anna’s life in Canada, A Matter of Geography is nevertheless a convincing story and is exceptionally authentic, set as it is in a troubled atmosphere of religious and ethnic intolerance.