Malavika’s Mumbaistan: Mountainous Achievement

Set in the forgotten vertiginous garbage mountains of Deonar, Saumya Roy’s recently published ‘Mountain Tales’ follows the true story of a small community of rag pickers who live among the teetering piles of rotting food, plastic bottles, medical waste and make a living out of it
The idea of writing a book about the community crystalized in 2016 when mysterious fires began to consume Deonar’s mountains and threaten the already fragile existence of the community around it. Thinking she’d write a couple of articles on the subject, Saumya Roy threw herself even deeper in it, and from here she said the idea for the book grew organically. (ILLUSTRATION: SUDHIR SHETTY)
The idea of writing a book about the community crystalized in 2016 when mysterious fires began to consume Deonar’s mountains and threaten the already fragile existence of the community around it. Thinking she’d write a couple of articles on the subject, Saumya Roy threw herself even deeper in it, and from here she said the idea for the book grew organically. (ILLUSTRATION: SUDHIR SHETTY)
Updated on Nov 12, 2021 10:16 PM IST
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ByMalavika Sangghvi

“What a delightful and powerful experience it is to read a good book about India.”

-Manu Joseph author of ‘Serious Men’.

As an erstwhile voracious reader, who in recent times has seldom found a book that ‘reaches the parts that need reaching’, it is hard to describe the thrill and sheer pleasure that reading Saumya Roy’s recently published ‘Mountain Tales’ has afforded me these past few days.

Set in the forgotten vertiginous garbage mountains of Deonar – which are said to stretch over 132 hectares, rising to over 164 feet and receive 5,500 metric tonnes of Mumbai’s waste daily – it follows the true story of a small community of rag pickers who live amongst the vast, teetering piles of rotting food, plastic bottles, medical waste, broken glass and twisted metal and make a living out of it.

To write a book about what most would consider a dark, desolate subject and yet manage to infuse it with so much tenderness, heroism and humanity, is where Roy’s mastery as a writer lies.

With her journalist’s eye and a poet’s turn of phrase, Roy enchants the reader from the get-go, with her introduction to the book’s 17-year-old “tall athletic and fearless” protagonist Farzana Shaikh, born under the mountains’ shadow, whose life over the next eight years – packed with hair raising danger, undaunted daring and gut-wrenching despair – mirrors that of her family and community.

Roy’s deeply humane and empathetic portrayal of Farzana’s family, starting with its patriarch Hyder Ali – an embroiderer’s assistant from Bihar who had come to Mumbai as a young man to find work and had ended up entangled in the mountain’s lure (“he had heard of the mountains that never ran out of work-vast dumping grounds at the edge of the city, where the remnants of everything that Mumbai consumed came to die’) – along with that of the Siddiquis, Shaikhs, Kambles and Khans, evokes the writing of some of her favourite authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Steinbeck and Naguib Mahfouz.

That she has infused some of the most marginalised people on the planet with a larger-than-life quality, making the reader so deeply engaged with their struggles, hopes and dreams, is just one of the reasons that make Mountain Tales an astonishing accomplishment.

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The other reason is of course that it’s all true. These men and women who we feel for, despair and empathise with, through her writing are not some fictitious characters conjured up by a skilful author to tell a story, but real, living, breathing people, who actually exist and go about their lives to this day in a suburb of Mumbai, perhaps not too far from our own homes and lives.

How had Roy managed to delve so deeply into their lives? How had she won their trust? What did they make of the book?

“I got to know them over a period of eight years,” says the Mumbai-based former journalist whose initial introduction to Deonar’s community of rag pickers was as a microfinance lender for the foundation she’d begun with her father in 2010 to provide loans to the city’s marginalised micro-entrepreneurs.

“I began visiting as a non-profit lender at first, and then with their consent, spent time in their homes, visited schools, clinics, hospitals, graveyard, markets, shrines with them. Over hundreds of hours, they scribbled in my notebook, fed me, laughed and cried as they told me of their lives lived in the shadow of these mountains. There were things they didn’t want to talk about and I respected that. At other, unexpected times, they began to speak of these and other stories….They wanted to speak about their lives, their so-far unspoken trauma.”

But the idea of writing a book about the community crystalized in 2016 when mysterious fires began to consume Deonar’s mountains and threaten the already fragile existence of the community around it. Thinking she’d write a couple of articles on the subject, Roy threw herself even deeper in it, and from here she said the idea for the book grew organically.

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Immersing herself in her subject, Roy says she walked the mountains alone and with her subjects, attended hundreds of hours of court proceedings of the ongoing 26-year-old legal battle that was to decide Deonar’s fate and sourced archival material on its history through Right to Information (RTIs) queries, becoming something of an authority on the subject.

This intense focus forms the larger narrative of the book and provides a fascinating study of overconsumption, the lack of urban planning and the absence of a political will, which has resulted in mountains of garbage growing often 18-storeys-high in India’s celebrated financial capital.

Even more compelling is Roy’s portrayal of the people whose lives are inextricably linked to it, the men and women who live under it and daily scour it for anything they can resell to feed their families.

What is remarkable is how in spite of their daily existential struggles to surmount extreme poverty, illnesses and accidents, the book affords readers with moments of unexpected hope, tenderness, joy and love, taking us into a world of birthday parties, teenage romances, joy and sunlight under the mountain’s shadow; depicting mothers who heroically subject their bodies to dangerous clinical trials to feed their children; brothers whose undying love for their sisters prevail over tragedies and tribulations, and steadfast paramours undeterred by the vagaries of fate and physical appearances.

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Above all, Roy’s book tells the story of Mumbai and its denizens, those who live lives of conspicuous consumption – acquiring insurmountable piles of objects, only to discard them soon– and the people who live off the dregs of this runaway ingestion. Through the heaps of castaway cell phones, high-heel shoes, make-up, clothes, milk and coffee containers, it tells of the apathy that allows a city to exist cheek by jowl with those whose every meal and day is a challenge. Most importantly, it speaks of the need to acknowledge our shared humanity with those we often disregard or ignore.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Geeta Anand said about Mountain Tales: “Read it for a most delicious story, read it to understand India, read it to know what it is like to grow up in extreme poverty in the shadow of enormous wealth. If you read one book about India, read this one.”

Meanwhile, the Deonar mountains still loom as do the court battles to shut them down, along with the people whose fragile lives depend on it.

Mumbai’s invisible twin, its lengthening shadow, the elephant in its room…

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Saturday, December 04, 2021