In the bustling city of Mumbai, lives a mountain. Eighteen or more storeys high, invisible to the city’s inhabitants but very much a part of their lives. It stands a witness to social change. Politicians discuss it and push the discussion into some dusty corner, families live off its hidden treasures, and regardless of their station in life, be they industrialists, government officials or rag pickers, everyone chokes on poisonous smoke from its fires.

Mountain Tales, despite its pleasant-sounding title, is more about the sub-title that follows it. A difficult book, not because of the writing style, or even the tortuous ten-year-long story the author narrates, but because it brings us face to face with what we would prefer to ignore: Official apathy and helplessness, our own increasingly use and throw lifestyle, the tattered lives of the homeless living on the edge of civilisation in a city where ‘no one starves’, and the increasing hazard to health that heedless waste disposal continues to create.

Of course, it is not a story only native to Mumbai, every city in the world, boasts of mountains of filth and waste that grow with every passing year. But the author has trained her gaze on Mumbai’s Deonar dumping ground to tell us the story of its history, and the stories of those who live off its pickings.

Roy traces the history of the mountain, starting at its base, which was laid out in 1897, as a way to clear the city of the plague that was killing thousands.

An 823-acre marsh in the distant seaside village of Deonar, where the city’s waste would be sent to clean the narrow lanes and tightly packed homes of the poor of the filth that bred rats and disease.

The ‘kuchra’ was sent by trains to the marshland, dumped every night, and the officials sat back sanguine they had done a good deed.

They opined that the waste marshes dumping ”turn into a ‘valuable Municipal estate’ yielding more than 1,00,000 rupees as rent from the farmers, who would cultivate the grounds enriched with rotting garbage, and form the new edge of the extending city.”

They were wrong. As the years rolled and an independent India carved out States, and Bombay’s reputation as the city of gold grew, its numbers swelled and its areas stretched, and marginalised poor with nowhere to go set up makeshift, flimsy homes of plastic and bamboo or discarded slats, along the borders of the rubbish heap that had assumed the contours of a mountain.

With little hope of jobs, they turned to the mountain to feed and clothe them; trawling through its stinking masses to unearth discards to sell, use or consume as the need dictated. Communities grew, with their share of the helpless and those who wrested power over them by sheer might.

Through the ten years of her journey understanding the story of the Deonar mountain, Roy also followed the legal trail that time and again brought in rulings to stop the mountain from growing, to change the scenario that was causing toxic fumes to endanger the health of a city, and especially those living in the mountain’s shadow, be they rag pickers or residents of the high rises that dotted the skyline.

It’s a long tale of strong actions taken for the city’s betterment by judges and activists that fall by the wayside in the face of the utter helplessness of the successive municipalities to find solutions and alternatives to things as they are.

Roy brings to this tale that could have been a dry and harsh reading, a human twist. She takes us along as she traces the story of the young, lissom, bright as buttons, Farzana, whose fast legs and alert eyes miss nothing, as she runs behind the trucks after release from her school, and digs through the rubbish for treasures her father can use or sell.

Graduating from crushed plastic bottles to glass and wires, her eyes and hands miss nothing. Often, like others, she steps on broken tube light edges, cutting deep fissures in her feet, or falls and hurts herself. Later, she will watch helplessly as her younger sister falls backward on an upright sliver of glass that will cut a deep z across her back. Tobacco and pieces of cloth are the only remedies at such times, and their indomitable spirit. Which is spurred by the fact that there could be another bag with notes and a gold necklace as the one found by one of her father’s neighbours.

The years pass. The mountain continues to grow, and the yields too get richer. Copper and silver from discarded cell phones, glass bottles and syringes from medical waste. In one horrifying incident, Farzana picks up a bottle to find three new born dead foetuses inside, joined together at the waist. Her humane act of giving them a burial only gets her and her companions a sound thrashing.

Farzana cannot stay away from the mountain, she finds love, and disaster, when trapped by a wire coiled around her feet, she falls in the track of a reversing bulldozer, and is run over, once and then again when it is moved off her. A small miracle must have occurred to save her. Broken in every bone, face puffed out of recognition, lung punctured, stomach sloshing with leaking blood, she survives, and marries and bears a child. The mountain and the shaitan that her father felt had tried to suck her into it, had left her, but she could not get rid of the tuberculosis that now had taken hold of her lungs.

Through Farzana and the families around hers, Roy tells the stories of deprivation, sickness, courage and despair that the mountain wrote into their lives.

It’s a harsh book; and a book that must be read. The lessons it has for us are manifold. Meanwhile Farzana grows sicker. And the mountain, despite new diktats, stands.

(The reviewer was the editor of Femina for 12 years and is the author of Hariprasad Chaurasia: Breath of Gold, among others)

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About the book

Title: Mountain Tales: Love and Loss in the Municipality of Castaway Belongings

Author: Saumya Roy

Published in Great Britain by Profile books , London & available in India through Hachette India.

Pages: 294

Price: ₹699