Life is dialogical by its very nature. To live means to engage
in dialogue, to question, to listen, to answer, to agree, etc.
~ Mikhail Bakhtin
One of the problems that contemporary literary theory
explores is the nature of the self. This is not a new problem; writers
and readers seem to have always been asking and answering variations
on the question: what does it mean to be human and to be me? In
Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Jonathan Culler
writes, "Literature has always been concerned with questions
about identity. . . . Narrative literature especially has followed
the fortunes of characters as they define themselves and are defined
by various combinations of their past, the choices they make, and
the social forces that act upon them" (112). One of the great
attractions of literature for me has been to learn about other people's
lives, even imaginary people's lives. From the suffering of Job
in the Old Testament and the heroism of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables,
the ethics of Dorothea in Middlemarch and the matriarchal
strength of Ursula Buendia in One Hundred Years of Solitude,
I think that I can learn what it means to be human, to be an individual,
even what it means to live a good life. From Bombay Time's
Rusi and Coomi and their neighbors in Wadia Baug, perhaps I can
learn, among other things, what it means be a member of a community
knit so closely together by a common ethnic and religious heritage
and a lifetime of shared experiences.
The work of twentieth-century theorists like Louis Althusser, Jacques
Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler, however, calls into question
such naïve reading by drawing attention to the various ways
in which society's power structures and language itself construct
the concept of the individual self. Despite the distinct orientations
of these theorists, they all tend to rely on the post-structuralist
binary self/other in which the self defines itself in terms of difference
and deferral. In other words, self equals not-other, and both self
and other exist in a dialectic power struggle. Jonathan Culler expands,
Work in theory emanating from different directions-Marxism, psychoanalysis,
cultural studies, feminism, gay and lesbian studies, and the study
of identity in colonial and post-colonial societies-has revealed
difficulties involving identity that seem structurally similar.
. . . The process of identity-formation not only foregrounds some
differences and neglects others; it takes an internal difference
or division and projects it as a difference between individuals
or groups. To 'be a man,' as we say, is to deny any 'effeminacy'
or weakness and to project it as a difference between men and women.
The novel Bombay Time seems ripe for any of these readings
especially because it focuses on character rather than plot. A psychoanalytic,
feminist, or post-colonial reading might highlight the struggles
between the self and other, masculine and feminine, or oppressor
and oppressed throughout the novel. On the other hand, much of the
story's appeal comes from its theme of community and the neighbors'
very real need for one another. Just as Tehmi appreciates Dosa's
gossip because "it was proof that she existed, that she surfaced
occasionally in the mind of the people living beside her" (164)
and just as Jimmy's realization that "in reality, [he and Zarin]
were married to an entire group of people, a neighborhood, a way
of life" (74) saved his marriage, so all of the characters
find meaning in their interactions with one another. If the novel
offers hope for the community of Wadia Baug at the end of the evening,
it seems to lie in the possibility not of overturning or deconstructing
the categories of self/other, male/female, Parsi/non-Parsi, rich/poor,
British/Indian but of truly communicating and creating meaning by
acknowledging both sides of the binaries and engaging in dialogue
In contrast to most major theorists of the late twentieth century,
the Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin developed a concept of the self
in which the self and other do not exist in a struggle for power
(Note 1). Perhaps best known in literary studies for his
concepts of heteroglossia and the many-voiced novel in The Problem
of Dostoevsky's Poetics and Discourse in the Novel, the
carnivalesque in Rabelais and His World, and as the inspiration
for Kristeva's term "intertextuality," Bakhtin has emerged
as a more complex figure as more of his writings have been translated
and distributed in English in the past twenty years. In Dialogism:
Bakhtin and His World, Michael Holquist, Bakhtin's biographer
and major editor in the United States, examines his entire oeuvre
synoptically and argues, "Dialogue is an obvious master key
to the assumptions that guided Bakhtin's work throughout his whole
career" (15). Dialogism, Holquist writes, can be understood
as a "theory of knowledge . . . that seek[s] to grasp human
behavior through the use humans make of knowledge" (15). It
is a fundamental principle of communication that undergirds Bakhtin's
writings on existence, selfhood, language, authorship, the genre
of the novel, history and poetics, etc. When Bakhtin and Holquist
speak of existence and selfhood as a form of dialogue, they mean
that just as every utterance derives its meaning in relation to
other utterances (it is a response to something that has already
been said and looks forward to an answer), so every self (which
like an utterance occupies a unique point in space/time and thus
a unique point-of-view) gains meaning and wholeness-achieves a degree
of "consummation," to use Bakhtin's term-only in relation
and in dialogue with other selves.
One of Bakhtin's earliest works, "Author and Hero in Aesthetic
Activity" is a monograph-length meditation on the challenges
that an author faces when seeking to create a believable, complete
character in a work of fiction. Two major philosophical subjects
of this study are architectonics, the study of "the way something
is put together" and aesthetics, the study of "how parts
are shaped into wholes" (Holquist, "Intro" x). Bakhtin's
study leads him to consider the problem of the self, for in many
ways an author's relationship with a character parallels the self's
relationship with others. Holquist explains that "Author and
Hero" forms part of "a general theory of human subjectivity,
in which various kinds of perception play a major role in order
better to distinguish the specificity of aesthetic perception"
("Intro" xix). Aesthetic perception involves consummation
or wholeness, a point-of-view that finishes off or completes. In
his introduction to Bakhtin's Art and Answerability, Holquist
Bakhtin differs from many other thinkers now in fashion in that
he does not begin by rejecting the intuitive sense of things held
by most of his readers, who will feel that they are individuals
precisely because-for better or worse-they are the keepers of their
own uniqueness . . . . [But] a first implication of recognizing
that we are all unique is the paradoxical result that we are therefore
fated to need the other if we are to consummate our selves. Far
from celebrating a solipsistic 'I,' Bakhtin posits uniqueness of
the self as precisely that condition in which the necessity of the
other is born. (xxv)
According to Bakhtin, I cannot understand my own uniqueness or the
value of my self outside of the context of my interaction with another
self who is not me. Both physically and metaphorically, I can only
see the horizon in front of me when I look out at the world around
me. I cannot see what is behind me; I cannot even see my own face
(unless I am standing in front of a mirror, and even then I see
only a reflection). I experience myself from within, and I have
no way of placing myself within a context or attributing meaning
to my own life. But when I look at you, I can see your whole body
and its background, and I can love you because I am transgredient
(Note 2) to you (Bakhtin, "Author" 22). In the
context of a suffering human being, Bakhtin writes:
The person suffering does not experience the fullness of his
own outward expressedness in being; he experiences this expressedness
only partially, and then in the language of his inner sensations
of himself. He does not see the agonizing tension of his own muscles
. . . he does not see the clear blue sky against the background
of which his suffering outward image is delineated for me. And even
if he were able to see all these features . . . he would lack the
appropriate emotional and volitional approach to these features.
My job as an other in dialogue is to project myself into his place
and then to return to myself to give "a word of consolation
or an act of assistance" (26). "Aesthetic activity proper
actually begins at the point when we return . . . to our
own place outside the suffering person, and start to form and consummate
the material we derived from projecting ourselves into the other
. . ." (26). Then we can use the information about the other
to complete his understanding of his own suffering. In other words,
A human being experiencing life in the category of his own I
is incapable of gathering himself by himself into an outward whole
that would even be relatively finished. . . In this sense, one can
speak of a human being's absolute need for the other, for the other's
seeing, remembering, gathering, and unifying self-activity.
One of the themes of Bombay Time is the characters' need
for the sort of self/other dialogue and consummation that Bakhtin
describes. The residents of Wadia Baug cannot experience their individual
lives as meaningful without the perspective of others. This theme
is realized through the narrative style, the pattern of Rusi and
Coomi's relationship, and the symbol of the photo album.
As chapter one opens, a third person narrator (Dorrit Cohn's psychonarrator)
sets the scene and presents Rusi's thoughts to us as he waits for
his wife Coomi to finish getting ready for his friend's son's wedding:
"Rusi Bilimoria glanced at his watch for the fifth time"
(7). Soon, however, the narrator's voice becomes harder to distinguish
from Rusi's thoughts. For example, the narrator tells us that "he
didn't even want to go to the wedding" (7) because he is tired
of dealing with his nosy neighbors and the dirty, busy city of Bombay.
When the text reads, "It would be the same crowd . . ."
I am not totally sure whose voice is speaking. Perhaps the narrative
style of Bombay Time is better classified as a mixture of
psychonarration and narrated monologue (Note 3). At this
point most of the story seems to be focalized by Rusi; although
we see Rusi in the third person, we see the rest of the story through
When Coomi ignores Rusi's impatience and continues to primp, Rusi
imagines what might happen if he just left and went to the wedding
by himself. He can't bring himself to do it, however, knowing that
by the next day, the entire apartment building would be gossiping
about his behavior. As he imagines what would happen if Coomi visited
her old friend Dosamai after being left at home, curious things
begin to happen to the narrative voice and focalization. Coomi would
be "telling her [Dosamai] about her shock and fright at finding
that Rusi had 'abandoned' her, had left for no reason at all, without
a warning or anything" (9). Abandoned is in quotes because
it is the word that Coomi would choose to describe Rusi's actions
and her own state as a victim of his unreasonableness. But the phrases
"shock and fright" and "no reason at all, without
a warning or anything" are not set off in quotes even
though they also seem to belong more to Coomi's point-of-view than
Next the narration switches from Rusi's imagination (the verbs in
his thoughts express probability through the modal would)
to the psychonarrator (who uses the past tense and knows that "Dosamai
had decided years ago that it was not in her best interest to encourage
harmony between Rusi and Coomi") and back again in the next
paragraph. Rusi constructs the women's whole conversation in his
head, from Dosamai's "fatalistic voice" to Coomi's "pained
expression." But the narrative voice changes again from Rusi's
would to the psychonarrator's past tense when the text reads,
"'Rusi always did like women,' Coomi had murmured" (11).
Soon Coomi becomes the focalizer for the narrative as she remembers
Rusi's ambition when they were first married, but her reverie ends
when Dosamai and the psychonarrator bring her back to the imagined
present. Then the narrative brings us back to Rusi's consciousness
when the narrator tells us that he wants only peace or approval
from his neighbors and Coomi "finally emerge[s] from her room"
This mixing of narrative voice and focalization marks the novel
as a whole, underscoring stylistically the theme of dialogue and
mediation (Note 4). Whether or not Coomi's memory of the
day at the beach during the first year of their marriage is mediated
through Rusi's consciousness remains a mystery. It is clear that
Rusi cannot understand his life without attempting to view himself
from the standpoint of his neighbors, the others in his life. On
the other hand, I do not think that at this point in the novel Rusi
is capable of these sorts of insights into his wife's buried love
for him. When Coomi thinks, "All of him is in those eyes, .
. . all his hurts, all his losses, his father's death, his fierce
ambition, his burning desire to be somebody. To do something large,"
she is enacting the vital service of the other-first empathizing
and then creating a whole picture of Rusi's life. She possesses
a viewpoint that Rusi necessarily lacks.
We learn that it is this empathetic and loving viewpoint that first
attracted Rusi to Coomi; he remembers, "Coomi was different.
He felt she understood him" (16). Now, after years of disappointment--failure
in business, unforgiven words spoken in anger, and the emigration
of their daughter to England--Rusi has concluded that he was wrong.
He and his wife just can't understand each other. So he withdraws
into himself and cultivates an attitude of indifference to her,
perhaps unaware that in doing so he is only subtracting from his
own existence. For according to Bakhtin,
Cutting oneself off, isolating oneself, closing oneself off,
those are the basic reasons for loss of self. . . . It turns out
that every internal experience occurs on the border, it comes across
another, and this essence resides in this intense encounter. . .
. The very being of man (both internal and external) is a profound
communication. To be means to communicate. (qtd. in Todorov
Throughout the beginning of the evening, Rusi repeatedly feels moved
to speak to his wife but chooses to remain silent. For example,
as they walk to the wedding, he knows that Coomi expects him to
comment on her appearance (and he really does think that she is
beautiful in her rose-colored sari), but he does not put forward
the effort. When he thinks of Binny in England, the narrator tells
us: "He longed to say something to his wife but was reluctant
to break the silence that had engulfed them since they had left
home" (21). Again when he hears the story of the attack on
Sheroo's niece and imagines his own rage if anyone were to attack
Coomi, "he had a passing urge to tell Coomi this," but
he doesn't (27). At the end of the first chapter, Rusi's desire
to separate himself from his friends and city has passed: "He
wanted to ask someone's forgiveness and he wanted to absolve someone
. . . He looked up at the moonless sky and felt a strong desire
to sing a mournful, plaintive song. A dirge that would carry all
the way back to the waiting sea. But he just sat there, saying nothing"
Eventually Rusi responds to this desire to speak. Perhaps he simply
does so because, as Dosa found as a young woman, "most people
long to talk about their lives" (35). Perhaps when Rusi gives
his speech to Mehernosh and takes on a new role as the go-between
for Wadia Baug and the outside world after the stone is thrown,
his character is not really changing from withdrawn to outgoing-after
all, Rusi's presence weaves through all of the other character's
memory chapters; like Tehmi's Cyrus, all his life Rusi has had a
gift for empathy and interaction with his neighbors.
When Jimmy and Zarin distribute the photo albums, however, something
new happens between Rusi and Coomi. Coomi sits very close to Rusi
in order to see the pictures, and the narrator tells us that "for
once, Rusi did not mind this enforced closeness with his wife. It
felt good actually, this warmth from Coomi's arm as it brushed against
his" (237). As the photos help Rusi to contemplate the past,
the narrator reveals, "for a moment, he felt the silence that
stretched long and thin between him and Coomi snap like a rubber
band against his heart" (239). This is an interesting metaphor
because it compares silence to a physical object. The silence feels
tight and drawn out like a rubber band. Sound, however, is a physical
force that travels in waves, and I usually imagine silence as the
absence of that energy. Another metaphor involving silence occurs
when Rusi drums up the courage to tell Mehernosh that the hopes
of the community lie in his ability to be happy. Coomi says, "I
know what you mean, exactly. Exactly," and her "words
[ring] out like a shot into the embarrassed silence" (249).
Metaphorically and perhaps even physically, those words act not
only on the silence between Rusi and Coomi, but also on them. When
Rusi looks at Coomi, he sees in her face an expression "that
used to make him feel omnipotent" (249). This is an example
of what Bakhtin is referring to when he says,
This love that shapes a human being from outside throughout his
life-his mother's love and the love of others around him-this love
gives body to his inner body, and, even though it does not provide
him with an intuitable image of his outer body's outer value, it
does make him the possessor of that body's potential value-a value
capable of being actualized only by another human being. (Author
An utterance, even a look, is a deed, an action that acts upon the
self and the other. In this sense, Coomi's support for Rusi gives
him real power.
"In the actual life of speech," writes Bakhtin, "every
concrete act of understanding is active: it assimilates the word
to be understood into its conceptual system filled with specific
objects and emotional expressions, and is indissolubly merged with
the response, with a motivated agreement or disagreement" ("Discourse"
1206). Bakhtin believes that listening and understanding involve
real work. As Holquist writes, "Dialogism conceives knowing
as the effort of understanding, as 'the active reception
of speech of the other" ("Intro" xlii). He connects
this idea with an interesting new book by James Lynch of the University
of Maryland's medical school that "provides evidence that calling
dialogue 'work' is not just a metaphor (or only a metaphor): in
a series of imaginative experiments, Lynch has shown a direct corollary
between blood pressure levels and the activities of talking and
listening" (xlii). Lynch shows that "talking alters a
'person's relationship to the social environment in a way quite
different from when one [is] silent in the same environment.' What
is significant about this apparent truism is that it indicates the
power of speech to effect a bond between entities that are separated
in every other way" (xliii). Spoken words can do physical work
on the interlocutors, just as Coomi's words affect Rusi and the
silence between them in Bombay Time. Holquist explains that
Bakhtin "goes much further than psychophysiologists in defining
the power of language to bridge gaps for . . . he sees talk as animating
simultaneity both within and between organisms" (xliii-iv).
If Bakhtin is right about the power of the word, and Lynch's experiments
seem to support his view, then Rusi's speech and Coomi's active
reception and understanding response enact a physical change. What
remains to be seen at the end of the novel is if that understanding
connection will last.
One of the implications of my self's limited point-of-view and need
for the other is that when I am self-conscious, I experience myself
in the category of the other. "A certain renewed effort,"
Bakhtin writes, "is required in order to visualize myself distinctly
en face and to break away completely from my inner self-sensation"
("Author" 30). But even then, my own view of myself lacks
a certain depth. According to Bakhtin,
"we shall be struck by the peculiar emptiness, ghostliness,
and an eerie, frightening solitariness of this outward image
of ourselves . . . [This] is explained by the fact that we lack
any emotional and volitional approach to this outward image that
could vivify it and include or incorporate it axiologically within
the outward unity of the plastic-pictorial world." (ibid.
A good example of this occurs during the wedding reception when
Coomi is indulging her obsession with taking mental photographs
to share with Binny or Dosamai. As she watches Rusi laugh at Bomi's
whispered joke, she clicks an imaginary photo to save for herself
as a remembrance of a younger, happier Rusi. When Rusi catches her
staring at him, "the laughter that had bubbled in him like
a spring froze . . . His face closed like a door" (119). Hurt
by Rusi's hardened gaze, Coomi "turned her camera on herself.
Click. She watched herself dissolve into nothingness" (119).
When Coomi takes these pictures, she is already feeling slightly
isolated from the group-"someone who stood slightly outside
the circle, watching, observing everything" (81). She is able
to capture Rusi in one of his best moments, but she cannot evaluate
Tehmi, the only other guest who notices Coomi's peculiar habit of
blinking memories, has a similar experience when she has "a
sudden clear picture of herself: an old snowy-haired woman standing
alone, holding an almost empty glass of whiskey and giggling to
herself. The picture made her giggle even more" (204). She
is able to laugh at the ridiculous way she looks to herself, but
her self-awareness only serves to highlight her isolation. The narrator
notes, "People were staring at her. But she was used to that"
Bakhtin writes that self-portraits have this same eerie look to
them: "It seems to me that a self-portrait can always be distinguished
from a portrait by the peculiarly ghostly character of the face:
the face does not, as it were, include within itself the full human
being" ("Author" 34). A portrait, on the other hand,
is painted by an other, an artist who can give the subject emotional
depth and value because he or she stands transgredient to the subject
(ibid. 34). When Jimmy and Zarin give their special guests a photo
album, they perform a similar function. Just as the album helps
to unify the novel structurally by reviewing the highlights from
each of the character's individual histories, so it also helps to
unite the old Wadia Baug crew by reminding them of their bond with
one another. "I'm proud of Cyrus being included in a group
of such fine people," Tehmi says (240). And what takes Rusi's
breath away as he views the picture of himself with Coomi on the
beach is not his own youthful image but "the love and tenderness
on Coomi's face" (243). Like the activity of the portrait artist,
the old photos and the neighbors' responses consummate their understanding
of their selves. As Soli says to Jimmy, "You have reminded
us of who we are and what we are to one another. You've given us
ourselves back, our youth and our promise. Our real selves back,
minus a few double chins and bald heads, you could say" (269).
Their magical evening is shattered, however, when the father waiting
in the group of hungry people outside of the gates throws a rock
through the window. All evening long and for the majority of their
lives, the middle-class Parsis of Wadia Baug had managed to ignore
the poor lurking on the borders of their more comfortable existence.
And even after the stone-thrower violently enters their lives, they
"determine to wake up tomorrow having put all of this badness
out of their minds" (271). But Rusi, who has perhaps realized
anew the necessity of living in dialogue, vows to remember the events
of the day and to remain open to the world outside: "Somehow,
he had to learn to navigate between contentment and complacency,
between caution and fear, between the known safety of Wadia Baug
and the unknowable world outside its walls" (270).
At the end of the novel, all of Wadia Baug's hopes for the future
are pinned on Mehernosh and his young bride. Perhaps this small
Parsi community should look instead to Rusi, who with new found
strength is resolving to live on the borders in dialogue: "Just
as his ancestors had occupied the safe small strip of space between
Hindu and Muslim, between Indian and English, between East and West,
he had to live in the no-man's-land between the rage of the stone
thrower and the terror of the stoned" (270). Perhaps there
is hope for Rusi in greater communication and mercy with Coomi and
the city of Bombay-in Bakhtin's meaning-giving dialogue between
self and other.
1. Perhaps it is more accurate when drawing on Bakhtin
to speak, as Todorov does, of I and Thou rather than self
2. Bakhtin used the word transgredient "in complementary
sense to 'ingredients,' to designate elements of consciousness that
are external to it but nonetheless absolutely necessary for its
completion, for its achievement of totalization" (Todorov 95).
3. Gerald Prince explains that narrated monologue is characterized
by "free indirect discourse in the context of third-person
narrative. With narrated monologue (as opposed to psychonarration),
the account of the character's discourse is mainly in words that
are recognizably the character's" (57). Focalization is a clumsy
word, but a handy concept for distinguishing "who speaks"
from "who sees" (Prince 32).
4. And exemplifying Bakhtin's idea that the novel as a genre "can
be defined as a diversity of social speech types (sometimes even
diversity of languages) and a diversity of individual voices, artistically
organized" ("Discourse" 1192)!
Bakhtin, M.M. Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity.
Art and Answerability: Early
Philosophical Essays. Trans. Vadim Liapunov. Eds. Michael Holquist
Liapunov. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. 4-256.
-----. "Discourse in the Novel." Translated by Caryl
Emerson and Michael Holquist. The
Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Vincent B. Leitch,
et al, eds.
New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2001. 1190-1220.
Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction.
New York: Oxford
University Press, 1997.
Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World. 2nd
ed. New York: Routledge,
-----. "Introduction: The Architectonics of Answerability."
Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays. Trans. Vadim Liapunov.
Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov. Austin: University of Texas
Prince, Gerald. A Dictionary of Narratology. Lincoln: University
of Nebraska Press,
Todorov, Tzvetan. Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle.
Trans. Wlad Godzich.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Umrigar, Thrity. Bombay Time. New York: Picador USA, 2001.