An exquisite gem of a novel. The unnamed narrator, a well off resident of Bombay, has lost his arm, but can't remember how. He sets off on a search for his missing limb, following seemingly random advice from a series of beggars and shopkeepers. A leper gives him a finger that fell off, which the narrator treasures as a talisman to aid him in his quest and carries with him for much of the book. He travels through a number of seedy Bombay locales such as a little café that caters to delinquent students and a theatre playing an indistinguishable Indian movie, and winds up in a subterranean room where Baba Rakhu operates a business stealing limbs at night from apparently undeserving persons and selling them to those in need..
The mood is at times dreamlike, at times entirely matter of fact. The narrator is given vague prophesies. He is asked riddles he cannot answer. He meets Gura the floating beggar, visits his favorite Maliaka at the brothel whom he fantasizes of marrying, sees dancing cockroaches, black and brown, and dreams he is the Emperor Akbar. He meets -- and joins -- two naked men, one blind the other a drunk, who are trying to defecate on a mound near a rail line. They wisecrack about the state of the world in exchanges reminiscent of Shakespeare, but they cannot complete their task until the train passes.
The narrator has some ugly secrets. He recalls and relives some disturbing events in his life, which, without giving away the plot, have a connection with his missing limb. He eventually returns to Baba Rakhu's store where he reconciles his life and missing limb.
The writing is elegant and beautiful. The dialogue quick and believable, although what is said often is bizarre. Aphorisms, seemingly genuine Hindi ones, are spoken, such as "Once your journey begins, you cannot end it." The images are haunting, such as Rakhu's store where limbs are carefully hung on the walls. "Bombay" says the narrator. "There is no other like it" says a little boy.
In recent years, I have been reading a number of Third World novels that have been highly recommended, such as Things Fall Apart or Season of Migration to the North. Those were certainly good. I picked up The Cripple and his Talismans at a used bookstore, having no idea what to expect. It is, by far, the best novel I have read in recent years. My only criticism, and it's only a suggestion, is that the book could have used a short glossary for the dozen or so Hindi words used.