Baumgartner’s Bombay Summary

Anita Desai

Baumgartner’s Bombay

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Baumgartner’s Bombay Summary

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Baumgartner’s Bombay is the tenth novel written by Indian writer Anita Desai. It tells the story of a German Jew named Hugo Baumgartner who flees the Holocaust to Bombay. Published by Random House in 1988, the book covers a diverse geological and cultural landscape, featuring Berlin, Venice, Bombay, and Calcutta. Desai is a Man Booker Prize-nominated author for her earlier novels Clear Light of Day, In Custody, and Fasting, Feasting.

Although written in English, Desai sprinkles Indian languages along with German and Hebrew into the narrative through quotations, nursery rhymes, and dialog, complementing the transnational setting of the novel.

The story begins with Hugo’s murder in Bombay as an old man and quickly retreats to both the distant and recent past. In Bombay, Hugo spent his time wandering the streets and looking for table scraps at area tea shops and restaurants. The cooks at his frequent stops knew to leave him bags of scrap food to take to the many cats in his impoverished home behind the Taj Hotel. They fondly called him “The Madman of the Cats.”  Hugo’s best friend was an Indian businessman named Chimanlal who cared for Hugo genuinely and served as his patron. Chimanlal and Hugo bought a racehorse together and went to the track where they won several trophies. These trophies ended up being the cause of Hugo’s murder by a drug-addicted German hippie who wanted them for money.

At the time of Hugo’s death, Chimanlal had already passed away—a great loss for Hugo. Chimanlal’s son cut Hugo off from his family out of jealousy of his father’s love for him, and Hugo was cast out alone with no friends. One German woman named Lotte was the only exception. She, another foreigner in Bombay, was a friend and sometime lover.

The many flashbacks in the spiderweb of Desai’s plot reveal that Hugo grew up in an affluent family until the rise of Hitler. His father’s successful furniture store was boycotted at that time, causing him to fall from grace. The family situation worsened when his father was temporarily detained in Dachau, and then worsened further when he ultimately committed suicide. His mother stayed in Germany despite her husband’s death, but Hugo fled—first to Bombay via Venice, then to Calcutta.

In Calcutta, he planned to work in the timber industry, but his attempt to start a new life was foiled by the Indian authorities. Due to the paleness of his complexion, he was imprisoned alongside the Nazis, declared a criminal instead of a refugee. There is irony in the fact that Hugo was too dark-skinned for Nazi Germany, yet too pale to find a safe haven in India. In the detention center, he was also segregated from the detained Nazis because of his Jewish heritage.

Throughout the novel, Hugo is always an outsider, even when imprisoned. A civil war eventually broke out between Muslims and Hindus in Calcutta, causing Hugo to escape once again, this time to Bombay where he began his hermit-like life with his cats. When Hugo is murdered at the end of the novel, the only person who mourns him is Lotte.
The themes of suffering, exclusion, alienation, and isolation permeate the novel. Hugo’s character is represented as a kind of “everyman” for human suffering. With every path he takes, a door closes on him. First, he flees persecution in Berlin, then in Calcutta, only to find there is no real place for him when he settles in Bombay.

The title, Baumgartner’s Bombay, is ironic in that it implies that there is a piece of Bombay that belonged to Hugo. However, as much as he made it his home at the end of his life, he was not safe there. Critics have compared Hugo to a figure of Greek tragedy who wanders and evades his destiny until the final act.

Desai is the daughter of a German mother and a Bengali father. Born in Mussoorie, India, her comfort in the English language sprung from her learning to read and write in English at school.  Her first story was published when she was 9-years-old. She went on to study English Literature at the University of Delhi and is currently a professor of humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is also a children’s book author and in 1983 won the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize.

Desai and her husband have four children, including Kiran Desai, winner of the Man Booker Prize for the novel The Inheritance of Loss. The Economic Times of India listed Kiran Desai in the top 20 most influential Indian women in 2015. Comparing the works of Anita and Kiran Desai is a popular topic of comparative literature papers for college students analyzing the works of Indian authors because of their in-depth takes on Indian heritage and the experience of immigrants and intercultural experience.