In the warren-like rooms that line the narrow, winding alleys of the Madanpura neighborhood of Mumbai, neat rows of bare-chested men sit cross-legged on the ground, sewing leather suitcases, or hammering soles into ladies shoes, or making tiny toys that will be sold by children on the city’s streets.
On the opposite side of the alley, sparks leap out of a lathe machine as a young man wearing protective goggles sharpens metal. It is late evening, and the entire area is a hive of activity. The heat is more unbearable than the smell of raw sewage.
Mumbai teems with slum-dwellers, cops, activists, actors, bar-girls, prostitutes, and mafia dons.
Dense entrails of electrical wires hang in my path. A radio broadcasts cricket commentary, and behind a blue curtain a group of young men, clad only in loin clothes, stare glassily at a TV broadcasting the porn movie “Queen of the Himalayas.”
On the pavement outside, a man is a selling pirated copies of English pulp fiction and a cheap, Hindi translation of the Starr Report with a bodice-ripper illustration entitled “America’s President Bill Clinton and Monica’s Sexual Relationship.”
I have come to this neighborhood to meet Suketu Mehta, author of Mumbai, Maximum City. Mehta’s book, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for non-fiction in 2005, vividly describes a city teeming with slum-dwellers, cops, activists, actors, bar-girls, prostitutes, and mafia dons—a city in heat that is seething with energy.
Madanpura, is where Mehta brought the Bollywood film-makers who wanted to shoot a scene about a gang-lord, having arranged for some real life gangsters to give them protection. As they were filming, the star actress turned to Mehta and asked, “Can you point out someone who’s killed?” Meanwhile, the local criminals kept the film-loving hordes at bay with a cordon of locked arms, fists and wooden clubs.
A similar scene occurs in the opening minutes of Danny Boyle’s new film, Slumdog Millionaire. Wading through filth, kids from the slums fight their way to a film star to get his autograph, establishing the interplay of abject poverty and garish good fortune that defines this city, a magnet for India’s destitute and the home of Bollywood, its prolific dream factory.
According to Mehta, “Every day, 14 million Indians see a movie in one of its 13,000 theaters; worldwide, a billion more people a year buy tickets to Indian movies than to Hollywood ones.” Slumdog Millionaire celebrates Bollywood films by borrowing their dramatic tropes, their romantic quest, and even a little touch of the musical. More than anything else, just as we have become used to seeing in Hindi films, Boyle uses his movie to infect us with an idea of the miracle of transformation. “Rags to rajah.”
The film’s young hero, Jamal Malik, is a Mumbai slumdog who is one answer away from winning the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Opposite him is the game-show host who was also born in the slums and became rich. We learn this during a commercial break, when the contestant and the host converse in the men’s room. And in that discovery, we also see modern Mumbai, where power and money are now shared by those who had always been denied both.
Our hero Jamal knows the answers to the questions he is being asked because he has lived life. The message is that the ordinary people on the street, those who have managed to survive despite the odds against them, hold the keys to success.
And that, in the end, is what brings people to Mumbai, a city where new buildings go up every day.
Take, for instance, a young man named Babbanji, whom we meet in Mehta’s book. Babbanji is a bookseller on the sidewalk in Mumbai. He isn’t yet 17; he is a homeless migrant; and he writes poetry in Hindi in his diary. He left his home in distant Bihar when he was harassed and beaten by thugs. After his first night on the train, he found that he had been robbed, his watch gone.
Standing on the platform in Lucknow, Babbanji saw two trains waiting, one for Delhi and the other for Mumbai. The Delhi train was less crowded, and, to help matters, our young poet had a relative or two in that city. The other train, going to Mumbai, had a huge crowd pressing against it that the police were trying to hold back.
The journey to Mumbai would take more than two days, the train didn’t appear to have any space left, and, to make it worse, he had no one to help him when he reached there. Nevertheless, Babbanji decided to get on the Mumbai train. He wanted to know why all those people were doing the same.
Amitava Kumar is a writer and journalist born in Ara, Bihar; he grew up in the nearby town of Patna, famous for its corruption, crushing poverty and delicious mangoes. He is the author of several works of literary non-fiction, including Husband of a Fanatic, and a novel, Home Products. Kumar is Professor of English at Vassar College.