Wednesday, October 17, 2012

India 20: Big Books about Mumbai


I began reading books about India five months ago, first some history, then some religion, then a couple of books on development.  What has gripped me most has been three books about Mumbai.  It emerges as at once thrilling, enterprising and vibrant and as sordid, corrupt and violent.  It has a grip on its inhabitant like few cities in the world.  Here are three powerful accounts of Mumbai:


“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” exposes two years in the perilous lives of slum dwellers in a place called Annawadi   It is written by a staff writer for The New Yorker and a Pulitzer Prize winner, Katherine Boo.  We follow with particular care two families as they try to stay alive by recycling what is thrown away at the nearby Mumbai Airport--which owns the land on which the slum sits and could evict them at any time.  Boys fight over a plastic bottle and risk injury for a little copper wire.  At one point a demented woman sets herself on fire.  As she dies she accuses her neighbors, with whom she has had a minor dispute over a common wall, of causing her death.  They are innocent but father and son are nonetheless thrown into the notorious Arthur Road jail.  Now the family is expected to bribe those in the justice system to get themselves exonerated.  The slum dwellers are victimized at every turn by the police, not protected by them and the education system is also corrupt.

I read Beautiful Forevers as an e-book which features short video stories shot by young people in the slum.  One is about Munja whose mother has paid someone in the education system for the right to open the slum's only school.  Since the mother has little education—and is trying to become the slum’s political boss through the Hindu nationalist party Shin Seva—teaching falls to the only woman in the slum who has been to college, her daughter Munja.  We see the eager children in her class, Munja preparing the family meals and Munja enjoying her one moment a day with her best friend, Meena, at the only public toilet in the slum.  But her mother has other plans for Munja—a job as an insurance agent—so the school is gradually shutting down. 

The first family takes a chance, bribes only a little and eventually father and son are released.  However they have lost the tiny franchise they had established to collect and sell trash and the 2008 financial collapse has gutted the world market for plastic, dropping their meager income by 40 percent.  There is no happy ending.

MAXIMUM CITY by Suketu Mehta

Mehta left Bombay in 1977 for Queens, ached to go home, and came back as a journalist of extraordinary courage and insight.  Here is what Salmen Rushdie wrote of the book: “Mehta writes about Bombay out of the unsparing ferocity of his love, which I share, for the old pre-Mumbai city that has now been almost completely destroyed by corruption, gangsterism and neo-fascist politics, its spirit sustained in tiny moments and images which Mehta seizes upon as proof of the survival of hope. The skill of the investigative reportage by which he persuades hoodlums and murderers to open up to him is quite amazing.  It is the best book yet written about that great ruined metropolis, my city as well as his, and it should be widely read.”

Jhumpa Lahiri says of it, “Mehta writes with a Victorian genius for character, detail and incident but his voice is utterly modern.”

Not only do hoodlums and murderers open up to him but a police chief who routinely tortures those he arrests; Bollywood film directors trying to avoid riots if they get the story wrong; sex workers; the odious politician and Muslim-baiter Bal Thackery; and a wealthy family of jewelers who renounce everything (although maybe they still have a safety fund) and become Jain ascetics who will live as beggars and walk from place to place for the rest of their lives.  The prison at Arthur Road appears in this book as well.

SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts

This is one wild ride of a book.  It is a work of fiction but based on the life of Roberts, a heroin addict and bank robber who escaped from an Australian prison, fled to Mumbai, lived in a slum as its only “doctor” and became part of the Muslim Mafia.  The figure in the book also fought with the Mujahadin against Russia in Afghanistan. It is a richly written adventure story, highly masculine and—at 930 pages—dense with the sounds, smells and misdeeds of Mumbai.

Life in the slum is particularly moving.  More than 25,000 live on 10 acres—the size of the place where I grew up.  Yet the slum welcomes an additional 5,000 homeless living openly “on the footpaths” when the he monsoons hit.  The kindness and generosity of the poor toward one another and the laughter and good spirit they exhibit is extraordinary and, like “Beautiful Forevers” humanizes life in the slums.  We understand why, when offered a high-rise apartment, many refuse.  Community means more than comfort.

One man could not have survived the life described in “Shantaram” so it was likely cobbled together from several lives. Our hero was also in Arthur Road Prison and beaten almost to death.  After Mumbai, Roberts was arrested in Germany for trafficking heroin and served out his sentence in Australia.  He now has a foundation providing health insurance for the poor in Mumbai, according to Wikipedia. 

I left my first copy in a Wyoming motel, bought an audio version to finish the book and then bought a paperback version in Kerala.  I’m on page 854 with 80 pages to go before I get to Mumbai!

There is a tiny slum in my neighborhood and a rag picker living on my block, making a living the same way as the residents of Annawadi.  But it is in Mumbai, it appears, that the rich and middle class live side by side with slums.  We shall see.

Can you understand how I approach Mumbai with some trepidation?  I will have a little less than three days there—late Saturday to late afternoon Tuesday--and most of my time is spoken for.  I will only glimpse “the great ruined metropolis” but I want to experience as much as possible.  Maximum City was written in 2004, Shantaram in 2006 and Beautiful Forevers in 2009.  How much has changed I will, of course, not be able to determine.


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