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Bombay: The Lower Depths

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In 1998, Suketu Mehta, a writer based in New York, returned to Bombay, where he had spent much of his childhood, in order to research a book on the city. Built by the British, Bombay remains India’s financial and commercial capital, and, despite being inhabited by 14 million people, most of whom live in slums, and a growing reputation for violent crime, it continues to inspire hopes for a better future everywhere in the rest of India. For two and a half years, Mehta wandered its streets, with his “laptop in a green backpack,” and pursued everything that, he writes, had made him “curious as a child”: “cops, gangsters, painted women, movie stars, people who give up the world.”

As people talked to him, he writes, his fingers danced on his laptop’s keyboard. His appetite for stories took him into slums, trysts with hired killers in shady motels, scriptwriting sessions for a Bollywood film, a mildly erotic friendship with a bar dancer, and eventually to Dubai for meetings with fugitive mafia dons. One day he found himself at a police station in Bombay (renamed in 1995 as Mumbai) with three friends, a well-known film director called Vidhu Vinod Chopra, his wife, Anu Chandra, a film journalist with the newsmagazine India Today, and Ajay Lal, a police officer.

Mehta saw two men arrested with counterfeit money brought into the police station. As he describes it, in the present tense he uses throughout the book, “both speak English, and are well dressed…. A little more money, a little more education, and they would be People Like Us.” The police officer, Ajay Lal, tells Mehta, the film director, and his journalist wife to “sit in the back of the room, on a small sofa.” From here, they watch their friend and three other policemen beat the two suspects, first with bare hands and then with a leather strap. Lal threatens to give electric shocks to their genitals. “More information,” Mehta notes, “comes out.” Finally, Lal tells the other policemen to take the suspects away and shoot them.

After they leave, the film director, “who has witnessed such scenes before,” laughs at his distraught wife. He had asked her while the men were being beaten if she wanted to leave. But she “could not tear herself away in spite of her shock.” “I’ve never seen anybody being beaten,” she says. “I can’t wait to go home and hug my child.” Ajay Lal assures them that “this is nothing. This is Walt Disney.” The director says “knowledgeably” that “the real beating is still to come.” Mehta then informs the reader of what that might consist of: a mafia killer he met had had acid poured into his anus.

As Mehta and his friends leave the police station, the film journalist says, “There’s a whole world around us that we know nothing about. I just want to watch my Hindi films and be safe.” “All of a sudden,” Mehta remarks, “she’s conscious of some subterranean stream of homicidal violence five minutes down the road from her plant-filled house, some deep river of pain on whose banks she lives.”

Later, Mehta has Ajay Lal to dinner at his flat. Lal’s wife turns out to be one of the “People Like Us.” She read history at Oxford, and she wants to go to America to continue her studies. Ajay Lal too “wants to go abroad to study terrorism.” He “foresees a global linkage of the Muslim militant organizations—in Afghanistan, in Chechnya—with the Muslim criminal gangs in Bombay and in Russia.” Mehta helps Lal apply for a fellowship at the Rand Corporation in Washington, D.C., from where the “world’s leading authority on terrorism” writes back with an invitation for Lal.

India has the highest number of torture and custodial deaths in the world. According to government records, there were 1,307 deaths in judicial custody in 2002 alone.1 Mehta reveals that Ajay Lal himself was responsible for killing twenty-three people in custody in less than a year. Lal claims to be driven by “the fight against evil.” Mehta thinks that Lal could be the “reincarnation” of Charles Forjett, a notoriously harsh police officer in nineteenth-century Bombay, who also wished “to crush evil in the bud.” But then Forjett was a colonial police officer, rewarded, when he retired, by Bombay’s businessmen, for quelling “the explosive forces of native society.” Lal serves the government of an independent and democratic India, which has signed several international treaties banning torture.

It may be that police officers will tend to use extreme methods to keep the peace in places where much money is being hectically made. Certainly, in this respect, postcolonial Bombay differs little from its colonial version—the port city of the British Empire, which existed mostly in order to export the produce of the countryside and import the manufactured goods of London, Manchester, and Glasgow. Formerly a fishing hamlet, Bombay rose swiftly in the nineteenth century, when it became, under the supervision of British imperialists, part of the large political and economic networks now known as globalization.

Mehta deals briefly with Bombay’s formative colonial past, which preoccupied the British novelist Gillian Tindall in City of Gold: The Biography of Bombay (1982).2 As she described it, the city benefited most when the British bullied China into opening up its markets to India-grown opium. Many of its businessmen made their first big fortunes when the American Civil War disrupted the export of American raw cotton and created high demand for Indian cotton in Britain. Business interests dominated politics, and even weakened racial prejudice, in the city: partnerships between British and Indian businessmen flourished at a time when the British ruled much of India and lived sequestered lives in Calcutta and Madras. Economic opportunities attracted to Bombay a diverse population of entrepreneurs: Jews from Baghdad (notably the Sassoon family, of which the poet Siegfried Sassoon was a descendant), Armenians, the heterodox Muslim communities of the Bohras and Khojas, Hindus from western India, and, most prominently, Parsis, Zoroastrians who are said to have migrated to India from Persia in the first millennium AD.

During the Indian Mutiny in 1857, the city’s rich Parsis and Jews offered to help the British suppress rebellious Hindu and Muslim soldiers in North India; and Forjett was lauded when he had a few alleged conspirators blown from cannons in order to instill fear among likely native troublemakers. With its parks, private mansions, and Victorian Gothic buildings, Bombay always appeared, and often presented itself as, separate from the rest of India, as much of a world unto itself as Shanghai and Canton, the other great trading centers of the British Empire.

The disparities between the rich and the poor, which disfigure Bombay’s landscape today—thin, grimy towers of middle-class apartments marooned amid the shantytowns of rags, cardboard, and tin—were becoming visible at the beginning of the twentieth century. The British writer William Digby could see in 1901 that “behind the exceedingly beautiful gateway into India which the city of Bombay constitutes lie the most heavily-burdened and distressed peasant farmers in the Empire.” In 1921, Gandhi claimed that Bombay’s big buildings hid “squalid poverty and dirt.” While exhorting Indians to economic self-sufficiency and a ban on foreign imports, he asked Bombay to be “ready to lose what she has.”

As it happened, Bombay’s businessmen donated generously to the Gandhi-led Congress Party, and apparently didn’t lose much. In 1939, the Parsi Tatas owned the biggest firm in India. The businessmen and industrialists of Bombay came to be very influential in independent India, despite Pandit Nehru’s commitment to a state-controlled and planned economy. With its many small and large factories, the city embodied Indian hopes for rapid industrialization. But government restrictions on investment and imports led to the rise of a parallel “black economy” dominated by real estate speculators, bootleggers, and smugglers. Some of these men were Indian Muslims, with financial and commercial links to the Middle East. Helped by politicians and the police, they came to run mini-empires of organized crime by the late 1970s.

Overpopulation and economic recession began to catch up with Bombay in the 1960s. Mehta describes in lucid detail the severe shortage of housing that has marked life in Bombay for decades now. Nevertheless, migrants from North and South India continue to arrive in the city, and settle wherever they find empty spaces: on pavements, below bridges, and beside railway tracks.

Established in 1966, the Hindu extremist party Shiv Sena sought from the beginning to channel the resentment of middle-class people over their degraded conditions and apparently diminishing prospects, first against migrants from North and South India and Communist-dominated trade unions, and then Muslims, who form between 15 and 20 percent of the city’s population. Led by Bal Thackeray, a failed cartoonist and admirer of Hitler, Shiv Sena activists organized youth clubs, trade unions, and schools; its less idealistic members—mostly unemployed young men—extorted money from street hawkers and small businessmen. Supported by an unlikely mix of middle-class Hindus, factory workers, and slum dwellers, the Shiv Sena finally came to power in Bombay in the Eighties—the same time that its electoral ally, the Hindu nationalist BJP, began to receive middle-class support across India for its aggressively anti-Muslim position.

The liberalization of India’s quasi-socialist economy in the 1990s cre-ated much visible wealth in Bombay. Economic reformers from both the Congress and the BJP held up the city’s booming stock exchange, new malls, hotels, and restaurants as proof of the “India Shining” they claimed to have created. But many among the city’s elite came to be afflicted by unchecked greed—of the kind also found in the post-socialist economies of Russia and China. Bombay is the source of much of India’s bad news; and each of the stock market and banking scams, and gun-running and drug-trafficking scandals, reveals the links between senior politicians, bureaucrats, criminal gangs, Bollywood magnates, slum landlords, and corporate tycoons.

Though out of power, the Shiv Sena remains strong, with Thackeray often playing broker among the city’s fractious elites. As Mehta notes correctly, “the party’s money comes not from the rank and file but from the city’s leading businessmen.” It shares its influence in Bombay only with the mafia and the police, which tries to hide its primary role as the guardian of rich and powerful people by showy assertions of zeal—staged killings, torture—against relatively minor criminals.

Like most big businesses in Bombay, filmmaking, too, depends greatly on what Indians call “muscle power” and “black money.” Mehta details the manifold links between the mafia and Bollywood, which were most vividly exposed in March 1993, when Muslim gangsters set off bombs, killing more than three hundred people. The gangsters, some of whom were linked to a famous film star, were seeking revenge for the killing of hundreds of Muslims in the riots that followed the BJP-led demolition of the Babri Mosque in North India.

  1. 1

    See Rama Lakshmi, “In India, Torture by Police Is Frequent and Often Deadly,” The Washington Post, August 5, 2004.

  2. 2

    London: Temple Smith.

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