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'Bombay Ice' by Leslie Forbes

Author loses balance while juggling a literal and a literary India

Sunday, January 17, 1999

By Michael Helfand


Bombay Ice

By Leslie Forbes

Farrar, Straus & Giroux


Rosalind Benegal, a free-lance video journalist and the illegitimate child of a British woman and a Indian man, returns to India when her half-sister Miranda says she is feeling threatened by her husband, the critically acclaimed film director Prosper Sharma. So begins a book that is a nominally a mystery, but certainly presents itself as much more.

Leslie Forbes, a Canadian journalist with a number of travel books to her credit, has, as the names of these characters suggest, brushed up her Shakespeare to write this, her first novel. She’s also brushed up on the Indian film industry, the process of gilding, on monsoons and their effects, on the history of India, its colonization and development by the British and, of course, on the extraordinarily complex society that is post-colonial India.

But back to the story. Rosalind (called Roz) is a tough-talking, sophisticated young woman raised in England who has real identity problems. Although she looks English and has never been close to Miranda or their father, she drops everything at home hoping to get closer to her sister and to understand more about her Indian origins.

When Roz arrives, Miranda won’t acknowledge her earlier fears, but Roz finds that there are some very good reasons to suspect Prosper.

For one, his previous wife, an aging film star, fell to her death from a tall building. Although the death was ruled accidental, Roz turns up some suppressed evidence that suggests murder. Also, a recent murder of a hijra (a male homosexual transvestite) who was close to Prosper’s film company, leads Roz to see Prosper and his associates connected to a criminal underworld, to artists and artisans engaged in smuggling, to corrupt government officials, foreign capitalists and real estate speculators.

After some initial discoveries, Roz and some individuals who have helped her become targets for thugs and murderers. She is stalked on Indian mountain tops, in the slums of Bombay and in Prosper’s film studios. We have, in short, all the makings of a first-rate thriller.

But Forbes has much more in mind for this book.

That “more” is an attempt to move the book from entertainment to serious literature by lacing it with symbols and adding large chunks of information about Indian history, politics, cultures and subcultures, arts, crafts and weather.

Take ice, for example. We learn that centuries ago it was brought down from the mountains as a luxury for Indian aristocracy. We learn that New England merchants made fortunes shipping it to India, that ice has been used to seed clouds and cause monsoons to develop, that ice made from unboiled water often causes people to be sick. And, of course, to ice someone is to commit murder.

There are symbolic meanings here, about the origins of India’s corruption and colonial exploitation and about the particular crimes in this novel. Forbes uses Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” the monsoons and other aspects of Indian culture in similar ways.

Excepting “Moby-Dick,” I have never read a book with so much arcane information. Much of it is quite interesting, but it slows the narrative pace considerably. I found myself lost in admiration for the writer’s learning and losing interest in the story. And, after all is read and done, the literary layering seems more pretentious than prescient.

On the other hand, this book provides a graphic and detailed guide to an India you won’t find in Fodor’s.

Michael Helfand is professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

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