It’s India’s entertainment and commercial capital – a peninsula where nearly 12 million people live side-by-side in an area less than half the size of London. It’s little surprise, then, that Mumbai has inspired some truly riveting reads, from first-hand accounts of life in the slum to epic novels that explore the city’s underworld. These, we reckon, are five of the best.
It’s the 936-page story of an escaped Australian convict who builds a new life in the Bombay underworld – and much of Shantaram’s chronology, unlike its characters, is apparently based on real-life events. Why Gregory David Roberts wrote a novel instead of an autobiography is a question that many have pondered, especially if this could have prevented sentences like “Our tongues writhed, and slithered in their caves of pleasure” from being written. But get past the cringe-worthy metaphors, and the slightly annoying aphorisms, and it’s undeniably fun being taken in by Shantaram’s truly rip-roaring adventures. Just don’t be tempted to buy the sequel.
4. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
If ever a non-fiction book captured the essence of modern-day Bombay, it’s Maximum City. Suketa Mehta, who left the city aged 14, returned for two-and-a-half years to research its narrative – and during that time he met the super-rich, the super-poor and just about everyone in between, including feared mafia dons, once-violent Hindu nationalists and, less scarily, determined teenaged poets. As the book progresses Mehta tries to work out whether he could return “home” and, after almost 500 pages, he decides that he probably could. The trick, apparently, is to discover one’s own Bombay before inhabiting it, which is as good an excuse as any to pay it another visit.
It has a few parallels to Shantaram in that it explores the darker side of Bombay, and that its author escaped the clutches of heroin addiction. But Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, places opium – and specifically Rashid’s opium – at the heart of the story. Characters come and go, but most of them have one thing in common: addiction. Their tales are told against the backdrop of a city that appears to be falling apart; by the end, however, Bombay has somehow managed to reinvent itself. Its journey – and that of the narrator – is a fascinating one.
2. Midnight’s Children
“I was born in the city of Bombay,” reads the first sentence of Midnight’s Children, “once upon a time.” Salman Rushdie’s mammoth novel, which is narrated by Saleem Sinai, its main protagonist (and, according to the Times of India, Rushdie’s most-loved character ever), may be a grand tale of Indian identity, but it’s also a celebration of the city of the author’s birth. Indeed, it begins and ends there, and the other locations – namely Kashmir, Delhi, Pakistan and Bangladesh – don’t really compare. Saleem, for example, “never forgave Karachi for not being Bombay.” Midnight’s Children won the Booker of Bookers in 1993.
1. Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Katherine Boo spent three-and-a-half years, on an off, in Mumbai’s Annawadi slum ahead of writing this award-winning account of life in one of the city’s most challenging environments – a place where 3,000 people live within half an acre, and where selling discarded rubbish is one of the only career paths its children can take. Boo introduces the reader to three families who call Annawadi home, and whose futures are uncertain owing to the slum’s proximity to the ever-expanding Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. The book’s somewhat crowded, which goes with the territory, but at 250 pages it’s refreshingly brief and hugely poignant.