Mumbai: The Indian writer's New York

Mumbai Mumbai is India's most cosmopolitan city

Why is India's financial and entertainment capital, Mumbai (Bombay) the favourite muse of Indian authors writing in English? The BBC's Soutik Biswas finds out.

Indian writer Manu Joseph's debut novel Serious Men opens on Mumbai's crowded seafront promenade.

It is filled to the gills with walkers - pale young boys, solitary women, calm old men, arthritic women - and furtive lovers sitting on the parapet.

His protagonist, a Dalit - untouchable - clerk, loves the city's "humid crowds, the great perpetual squeeze, the silent vengeance of the poor".

For him, the stifling constriction of Mumbai is a great leveller. "On the streets, in the trains, in the paltry gardens and beaches, everybody is poor. And that was fair."

Joseph's mordant satire - the Daily Telegraph calls him one of the top new novelists of 2010 - could have been placed anywhere in India, but the writer chose Mumbai - or Bombay, as he and most of his peers prefer to call the city.

Chaotic

Bangalore may be a kinetic technology hub teeming with expatriates and bright young Indians, Calcutta a decaying dowager brimming with a million stories, and Delhi the capital where power meets noir.

But cosmopolitan, energetic and chaotic Mumbai, where the rich live cheek-by-jowl with the poor, is the city where the story-tellers from Rushdie to Vikram Chandra to Kiran Nagarkar to Joseph are turning for inspiration and fodder.

Start Quote

Rushdie

The tolerant, open-hearted, secularised Bombay has gone. And I think this [new] Bombay is still interesting, it's still a great capital, it's still a huge buzzing metropolis”

End Quote Salman Rushdie

"Of late, Mumbai seems to have definitely taken over [in the number of stories being told]. It's like the city is teeming with stories just waiting to be picked up. Or maybe it's do with the number of immigrant writers who've made it their home and as new immigrants, are constantly taking stock of their new environment," says VK Karthika, chief editor of Harper Collins, which published Serious Men in India.

Joseph, who grew up in Chennai and came to Mumbai to work as a journalist, says one reason is the city is a great setting for novels is that it has "all sorts of people from all kinds of places".

"Every character which lives anywhere in India has a clone in Bombay. The city can absorb everything, and as long as your characters are real it does not make them look awkward," says Joseph.

In Kalpish Ratna's 2010 novel Quarantine Papers, a story of love and death in Mumbai, the city is gasping for breath - and is still on the move.

The protagonist is walking in a neighbourhood. "There was no horizon. There was no sky. The only co-ordinates where those buildings, spilling over onto the pavements which swarmed with urgencies - children in various stages of defecation, bhangis (sweepers) piling wet mounds of garbage, barefoot Jains, scrubbed and masked, hurrying for some obscure surgical rite."

"Everything, or everybody, was on the move in every direction... There was no place to stop, no place to dawdle, you either moved on or got mowed down."

Salman Rushdie, whose sensational Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh have many moments in Mumbai, once said: "When writers fall in love with cities, they often don't fall in love with cities, in general. They often fall in love with the city at a particular point in time."

So the Mumbai of 1950s in which Rushdie grew up finds a strong resonance in his novels.

In Midnight's Children he talks of the city as a "dumb-bell shaped island… which grew at breakneck speed, acquiring a cathedral and an equestrian statue of the Mahratta warrior-king Sivaji which (we used to think) came to life at night and galloped awesomely through the city streets..."

'Buzzing metropolis'

Rushdie returns to the city in The Moor's Last Sigh, writing that the metropolis was a "palimpsest, Under World beneath Over World, black market beneath white."

Mumbai street Mumbai is a congested city

He bemoans the death of the "open, free" Mumbai thanks to the rise of strident Hindu nationalism and chauvinistic identity politics.

"The tolerant, open-hearted, secularised Bombay has gone. And I think this [new] Bombay is still interesting, it's still a great capital, it's still a huge buzzing metropolis. It hasn't lost that."

So why does he write about Mumbai?

"Bombay is a city built by foreigners upon reclaimed land; I, who had been away so long that I almost qualified for the title, was gripped by the conviction that I, too, had a city and a history to reclaim," Rushdie wrote in Imaginary Homelands.

The city doesn't inspire fiction alone - one of the best non- fiction books to come out of India is Suketu Mehta's Maximum City, a gripping exploration of the city's turbulent heart.

"There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia... Bombay is the future of human civilisation. God help us," Mehta wrote.

Mehta talks about Mumbai as an "island of hope in a very old country" and in a reference to its seamy underside, a "city in heat". "Cities like Bombay live at night. The day is a gathering up of forces for the night," he writes.

'Aspirations and heartbreak'

Writer and critic Nilanjana S Roy says what strikes her is how wide-ranging the curiosity of the average Mumbai writer is.

"Almost all of the great Mumbai novels are fascinated by the complexities of the city - from Rushdie to Kiran Nagarkar, they cover a massive amount of ground, both in imaginative and geographical terms."

Mumbai slum Rich and poor live cheek-by-jowl

She says some cities lend themselves to literature better than others, and for years, Mumbai was that city of India.

"It had the aspirations and heartbreak of the film world, the violence of the underworld, the power struggles of the corporate world, to name the three biggest Mumbai novel cliches.

"And it was a city of migrants, like New York or London, two other cities that have representation in literature."

Ray says that the Mumbai novel resembled the New York novel, while the Delhi novel resembled the Washington novel.

"One deals with power and politics and as we've seen among some of the younger writers is often restricted to the narrow world of [posher, upscale] south Delhi. The other deals with far more primal human struggles.

"But with Delhi becoming more hospitable to writers, this could and almost inevitably will change - Delhi has its stories, it just needs someone to tell them."

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