Reading up on India

Spending as much time as I do on airplanes has done wonderful things for my reading habits. I’m reading more than ever and loving it. The majority of my reading is travel-related. Not necessarily travel guides – those are more fun to write than to read for me – but the stories I’m reading, both fiction and non-fiction, are set in destinations that I’m excited by. They might be places I’m going or places I’ve just been or just places I’m intrigued by. I often find inspiration for my travel obsession in the stories being told in these books. Most recently I’ve been reading about India. I got started late last year when I thought I’d be going back this spring thanks to a great sale offered by British Airways. That fell through, but my desire to read more about the country didn’t nor did my desire to return for another visit. In fact that desire continues to grow, based mostly on my reading of two books during the intervening months.

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, by Suketu Mehta

Maximum CityMaximum City is a collection of stories told by a Bombay native who returns to his hometown from New York City twenty years after having left as a teenager. His return finds the city reborn as Mumbai and many differences but also enough similarities that he is able to settle back into the routines and find his way. During the couple years he spends with his family in Mumbai he follows a few main story lines and characters around town.

There are stories of gangsters responsible for extortion and contract killings – they come as cheap as $10 on the street – and there is the story of the police commissioner responsible for tracking down and prosecuting such criminals. Whether taking a meeting with men responsible for dozens of murders and inciting riots around town or with the man who ultimately broke open the case of the riot organizers and drives the prosecution, the story is engaging and riveting. There are movie stars and producers under the protection of the governments from the extortion schemes of the criminal organizations which are run by leaders who are based in foreign lands and there are occasional efforts to actually reign in the crime waves, though mostly the efforts focus on just keeping enough people alive and financially sound so that there isn’t a revolt in the communities.

There is the tale of the beauty queen, working in one of the many dance clubs that Bombay has to offer, trying to break out of that world and into the realm of professional modeling and acting. And there is her counterpart, a man who dances as a woman and who is known for the energy and excitement she exhibits while dancing. The story tracks her home life where she lives as a relatively normal man, married and eventually a father. These two stories surround a world of women being exploited and, when successful, turning that exploitation back on the men who effect it, becoming rather wealthy at the expense of the men who would take advantage of them.

One story follows a family seeking enlightenment. A successful diamond merchant, the patriarch of the family ultimately decides to devote his life – and that of his family as well – to the pursuit of moksha, the Jain concept of enlightenment. They are millionaires who divest themselves of everything, literally throwing their money and possessions out into crowds, as they pursue this spiritual cleanliness.

The author gets invited to help write scripts for movies in Bollywood, rubbing elbows with the star directors and actors and giving a view into the way that industry works, both on the financial and human side of things. The author tells of working with a director to write an “A-level” movie and following the gang-funded development of a lesser film, tracking the hopes of an aspiring actor and the stories of woe of the thousands who move to Mumbai each year in hopes of breaking into the business.

There are other stories as well, each its own tiny piece of the whole story that makes Mumbai such a magnet for immigrants from the countryside. And each of the stories makes me want to discover just a bit more of Mumbai for myself. I know I’ll never get close to most of the people described in the book, but I want to see the city and experience my version of the life that can be had in those neighborhoods.

Shantaram: A Novel, by Gregory David Roberts

ShantaramWere this simply a novel built from the imagination of someone who decided to disappear into the underworld of Mumbai the story would be fascinating. Considering that the tale is loosely based on the author’s actual experiences, it is simply phenomenal. I didn’t know that it was a mostly true story until I was about 80% of the way through (sorry for the spoiler if that ruins it for you) but once I found out I actually spent a couple hours just remembering some of the crazy situations that the author recounts. Even if they are only half true the fact that one man experienced so much is awesome.

Shantaram is the story of an escaped convict living on the lam in Mumbai. He did time in prison in Australia before escaping to New Zealand and eventually to India, a great place to get lost in the underworld for a few years if you’re willing to make some sacrifices. Unwilling to risk living in guest houses and hotels – locations where passports must be registered – the protagonist befriends, or is befriended by, a local who lives in one of the many slums around the city. He moves in to the slum, living on what he can drum up in various gray and black market businesses. And those are the least crazy parts of his time in town. His time in town starts with meeting a guide as he comes off the bus from the airport. That brief moment in time, a gutsy decision to trust a random stranger, turns out to define most of the rest of his time in Mumbai.

Of course, he falls in love with a woman; there is the long chase of that love. There is also his indoctrination into the true underworld of crime in Mumbai. He becomes an expert in black market currency exchange, the smuggling of gold into the country and the production and sale of false passports and other documents. He breaks into the movie business, arranging for funding of some films and working to cast extras – westerners he initially meets for drug or currency deals – in others. He sets up a small medical clinic in the slums based on his limited first aid training, eventually becoming the initial doctor for thousands of folks living in the neighborhood, people who otherwise would never receive medical treatment. Oh, and eventually he travels off to Afghanistan, smuggling huge caches of weapons along the way, to become a fighter in the war there, fighting along side natives who had previously transplanted to India and set up shop as gangsters.

He serves time in the Indian prisons, accused of a crime that he might have committed. But the accusations are secondary to the corruption in the prison system. Although he eventually manages to bribe his way out – the fingerprints taken at his initial processing return his true identity as an escaped convict – the stories of the treatments inside the prison are harrowing.

There are heroin dens and hashish bars, great meetings of the mafia dons and trips to meet with the lepers who can provide him with black market medicines for his clinic in the slums. How do you stop an epidemic from spreading through a community where an eight foot by eight foot room is home for a whole family? You simply hope to contain it and isolate the sick long enough that the others can survive. Such tales are heart-wrenching but also tell the story of the communal spirit to survive that permeates the poorest of the Mumbai communities.

And then there’s the fact that he actually wrote the book more than once. The notes, scribbled on random slips of paper accumulated over the years and eventually committed to a manuscript were all lost after he returned to prison for real, his history finally catching up with him. Still, with everything lost he wrote the stories again and weaves a tale that, while probably not 100% factual, is close enough that it is easy to feel yourself alongside him as he tries to move past the previous life and simply reinvent himself in a city that seems built for such a task.

The story is incredibly long but reads quickly. It is a page turner that is hard to put down. And the stories are compelling.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


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