Bombay: The Lower Depths


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…

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