Monthly Archives: July 2012

A Book about Mumbai Takes its Toll On Me

Deeply insightful. Thoroughly painful. That’s how it was reading Katherine Boo’s acclaimed book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.

You know how it happens?  A friend recommends a book and soon after that someone else mentions the same book, and then it becomes a must-read.

When I first started on it, I knew nothing more than that it was set in Mumbai.

It turns out that it is actually set in a Mumbai slum. I was half way through reading the book and it was touching me fiercely when I decided to look it up and see what else I could find out about the author and her writing.

To my utter shock I discovered that this was a non-fiction book.  Until then, I was reading it as fiction. Even so, it was a painful read. Immensely painful. Can you imagine how I felt when I discovered that this was really non-fiction?

The Mumbai slum has played a major character is a couple of famous books and movies. The most well known book (until now) is Shantaram – a must-read for sure. And, of course among movies, there’s the much admired, equally criticized Slumdog Millionaire, which took the Mumbai slums to a new level of fame, adulation and fortune.

For those who have read Shantaram (for those who haven’t, I do feel sorry for you…) I’m sure you can easily recall some of the unforgettable images that his writing sketched for us – of his life in the underbelly of Mumbai, including the phases that he spent living in its slums.

It is a fascinating story with so many colorful characters and incredible episodes that sometimes it just made you stop, take a deep breath and say, “is this for real?” Well, let me tell you, that even with all that was remarkable in Shantaram, when compared to Boo’s book, that feels more like an adventure of the lighter kind. (Well, not exactly ‘light’, but you get my point).

And then when I discovered that Boo was writing non-fiction, I almost did not pick up the book again. These were not characters in a story created from an author’s imagination, these were real people, real lives!

Her intense descriptions of a few families, their unfortunate lives trying to make enough to eat and live while dealing with the scourge of corruption (in that state of poverty!) and yes, their hopes are so vivid, that they affect you deeply. I won’t lie – it was painful and harrowing. The inequality, the injustice and the fight for some of the most basic of human needs for people in the slums is beyond tragic. And all too real!

These fact-based stories and lives seeped into me,  making themselves felt strongly, refusing to leave me and my mind alone, as much as I tried to chase them away.

In all ways that I can think of, it is a brilliantly written book. Certainly it’s one which bears a weighty theme, and for the reasons mentioned above, it’s not an easy one to recommend that you read. Personally, I am torn.

Here are a couple of excerpts that I had to share, the first a quote from a boy from the Annawadi slums:

“For some time I tried to keep the ice inside me from melting,” was how he put it. “But now I’m just becoming dirty water, like everyone else. I tell Allah I love Him immensely. But I tell Him I cannot be better, because of how the world is.”

….Abdul’s father had developed an irritating habit of talking about the future as if it were a bus: “It’s moving past and you think you’re going to miss it but then you say, wait, maybe I won’t miss it – I just have to run faster than I’ve ever run before. Only now we’re all tired and damaged so how fast can we really run? You have to try to catch it, even when you know you’re not going to catch it, when maybe it’s better just to let it go –“

And here are excerpts from the author’s note:

….Although I had no pretense that I could judge a whole by a sliver, I thought it would be useful to follow the inhabitants of a single, unexceptional slum over the course of several years to see who got ahead and who didn’t, and why, as India prospered.

….The events recounted in the preceding are real, as are all the names.

….In the age of globalization – an ad hoc, temp-job, fiercely competitive age – hope is not a fiction. Extreme poverty is being alleviated gradually, unevenly, nonetheless significantly.

….Too often, weak government intensifies it and proves better at nourishing corruption than human capability.

….In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of a mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.

….It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good and that many people try to be — all those invisible individuals who everyday find themselves faced with dilemmas….

….If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?

There’s more info on the author, Pulitzer Prize winner, Katherine Boo on the website for the book, along with deservedly glowing testimonials from its readers (some famous ones).

Have a look around and then decide for yourself if you want to read (no, experience) it. I hope you do, and if you do I know that it will affect you just as deeply while giving you an acute understanding of yet another side of what is quickly becoming for me one of the most ‘interesting’ yin-and-yang cities in the world. Mumbai.

I daresay that this darker side of Mumbai is not contemplated, registered or understood to this level even by most people who live in this very city (the ones who live outside of those slums that they see and pass by each and every day).

As a temporary resident, I am glad to have happened upon a book that shed this kind of light, as heart breaking as it was to travel through some of its stories. While they are still fresh in my mind, no doubt I will be thinking of the Ashas, Abduls, Sunils and Fatimas who live in the next slum that I travel past.



Photo credits:

Slums: By Abhisek Sarda from Goa, India (Slums) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Mumbai Monsoon Madness 2012 Begins

A couple of weeks or so ago on the day that I was leaving India to go home for a short visit, it started raining cats and dogs in Mumbai. The timing was right so I figured that the monsoon season of 2012 had officially begun that day.

But during the two week period that I was away, whenever I called the office or my driver in Mumbai to check up on things, I would ask – is it raining? and the answer was always: No. Puzzling!

Then, I returned. On the day of my return, and for a few days after that, guess what? Rain, pouring rain, and more rain! I guess I’m good for something in Mumbai. 😉

But can someone who is more at home here enlighten me please, about the Mumbai-monsoon chaos? The season itself is remarkably regular, like clockwork almost, give or take a few days. Every year, Mumbai monsoon arrives in June and it rains relentlessly for four months. Every year. (And I assume it has been this way for…centuries).

So, how come Mumbai and Mumbaikars are surprised and overwhelmed by it every, single darn year?

How come Mumbai is always caught unprepared for the rain?  

Resulting in its people being forced to endure this way of life –

  • crawling vehicles for miles on end (my usual 15 minute commute is now taking an hour or more)
  • traffic jams so bad – the likes of which you never see in the dry season (even as bad as those are)
  • water logged streets (in the same damn places every year!)
  • potholes
  • more potholes
  • many, many more potholes!


[To get some relief from this, the only advice I can come up with for the frustrated and stymied commuter is don’t look down. Look up instead, so you can admire the beauty of Mother Nature – the rain, the clouds and the bright green, clean leaves].

You would think that after centuries…or even decades…of being super acquainted with the arrival and challenges of this season, there would be some level of preparedness by the city authorities! This is not rocket science after all.

But noooooooo….

Instead it’s time for Mumbai to be ‘surprised’ by the monsoon yet again this year. (And year after year after year…).

Worse still, why and how do the hard-working, tax-paying citizens of Mumbai put up with this s**t? Other than some bashing by mainstream media, I have not seen much from people beyond general head-shaking and muttering about inconveniences. Where is the collective anger and outrage? Where are the riots and revolts? Why are people so accepting and passive about what amounts to government malfeasance that occurs year after year?

I can hear you now…I’m just a short-timer and expat, what do I know?

Well, I guess it’s just time to shut up and endure another installment in the long-living saga – welcome to the 2012 edition of Mumbai Monsoon Madness.


Shifting Gears

Enough about that. How about getting some relief from all this pothole-talk…

Just sit back, relax, get in a different kind of Mumbai monsoon mood, forget about all that chaos I described (I want to!) and enjoy this brilliant music (thanks Eurythmics). I mean it. Really enjoy!


In case Bollywood is more your cuppa tea and only it can put you in the right frame of mind to savor this season, here’s one for you too. Carefully selected, it’s a vintage monsoon melody, with the backdrop of the city, circa 1979 – a relatively pristine and uncrowded yet waterlogged Bombay:


And simply because I’m in a much better mood now, this one’s a bonus, from 1942 Love Story, capturing all the simple pleasures of love…and  rain:


Aaaah, I feel so much better already.  You?



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