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Anita Desai: Baumgartner’s Bombay

Like some of her other work, this novel is about people not fitting in, feeling foreign. Hugo Baumgartner is a Jew in Germany in the 1930s. His father has a successful furniture business but, gradually, the business fails as non-Jews don’t come to the store and Jews cannot afford to. He also, of course, gradually sees the treatment of Jews in Germany by the Aryans. His father’s store is attacked and his father is arrested and taken to Dachau. Though he does get out, he is a shattered man and kills himself. Hugo works for his father’s business partner but soon realises that it might be best for him to leave. The business partner buys his wood from Calcutta and Hugo is sent there. His mother, insistent that things will get better, refuses to come. He never sees her again. In Calcutta, he does well but, when war comes, he is arrested as an alien and is kept in a prison camp near the Himalayas for the duration. Even here he is an outsider. The camp is divided into two groups – the Jews and the Nazis. The British camp commander does not seem to be interested in what goes on in the camp and lets the Germans run it. Inevitably the Nazis take over. It all comes to a head when some of the Jews refuse to make the Nazi salute and the British have to intervene, separating the two groups. Some of the prisoners escape (clearly based on Heinrich Harrer and his companions.)

After the war, Baumgartner returns to Calcutta but things have changed. His former business partners are Muslims and they leave for Dacca (Dhaka) because of attacks by the Hindus. Fortunately one of them is able to give him an introduction to a colleague in Bombay and Baumgartner is able to resume his career in Bombay. He makes friends with Lotte, a fellow German and a former exotic dancer he had known before the war and who had avoided the camps by making a false marriage to an Indian. He makes some money on the horses and even buys a horse. But when his partner dies, the partner’s son quickly pushes him out and he is forced to retire. Both the beginning of the book and the end are about his retirement. His life is dull. Looking for someone to love, he takes to helping stray cats, always looking for food for them. Though he keeps in touch with Lotte and talks to Farrokh, owner of the nearby Café de Paris, he is essentially lonely and keeps himself to himself, seeing the misery and poverty around him but trying to keep apart from it. As, for example with Fire on the Mountain, there is a violent intrusion and it all ends badly. But even in death, like Ila Das in Fire on the Mountain, he is alone.

Publishing history

First published in 1987 by Heinemann