Can a story be about immigration if it doesn’t include a single scene set in the adopted country? This is a question that gets tested in Jasmine D’Costa’s first novel, which is set in Bombay. The initial, expected protagonist is Anna, returning to India from Canada after 15 years. But the story is in fact told through the eyes of Peter, a mathematics teacher, who has never forgotten his childhood friend and first love.
The novel alternates between Anna’s arrival back home in 2008 (just as anti-Christian violence flares throughout the country) and the narrative past, focusing on life in the Billimoria Building, a mostly Catholic enclave where neighbours live cheek by jowl and three families share one toilet. Peter recalls the months before Anna emigrated with her family by reading from the teenage journal she left him at the time of her departure, full of moments of innocence followed by a terrifying period of Hindu-Muslim rioting throughout Bombay in the early 1990s. While Peter and Anna both belong to families that feel their status as Catholics protects them, they get drawn into the chaos when Peter’s father finds out that a Muslim neighbour is under threat of death.
D’Costa is a little too overt with the signposting in the novel – we are reminded many times that something big will soon happen that will change the characters’ lives forever. She even winks at the reader, explaining why so much time is spent describing the cast of characters living in the Billimoria Building: they will all participate in the climax.
The book ends up being about Peter, who is confused by a world that does not operate according to the rules of logic. Anna feels like an afterthought. (Or, viewed another way, the novel is more of a starting off point: the character also appears in D’Costa’s 2009 collection of short stories, Curry Is Thicker Than Water, which could be considered an expansion and development of her presentation here). Her brief cameo as an adult in the novel renders all the build-up anticlimactic. Instead of an emotional payoff, the love story fizzles with a riff on the perils of being an immigrant in Canada. Otherwise, A Matter of Geography is at its most riveting as the riots come closer and closer to the Billimoria Building. But in its diffuse focus, it ends up feeling like too many books in one.