As the trash mountains tumble down all over the world—Delhi, Colombo, Addis Ababa, and Shenzhen—or float off the coast near New York, the trash mountains in Mumbai seem to be stable. But the world is watching these Mumbai mountains as a time bomb—NASA’s images of the fires burning at these landfills being among the latest bits to get international attention. Former journalist and founder of a microfinance venture, Saumya Roy writes about these trash mountains, the human habitation around them, their history, and the bureaucracy that is supposed to take care of them in her ethnographic account Mountain Tales: Love and Loss in the Municipality of Castaway Belongings. The book is part history and part journalistic investigation attempting to make sense of personal stories, “trash addiction”, and the unbelievable types of work and industries the mountains support. It is a portrait of Mumbai drawn in waste.
Spread over 320 acres in Deonar near a creek very close to the Arabian Sea, these mountains are over 120 feet tall. Every Mumbaikar has heard of them but except for those involved in dumping trash and digging into them for glass, plastic, metal, or paper to be sold and recycled, and the mafia that controls all these units, no citizens have seen them. Roy comes to discover them through the pickers who live around them. It is especially the story of Farzana, a picker, who is among the characters born here, and affected in strange ways by the spirits of the mountains: she plays in the trash, is run over by a bulldozer, sent by the officials, finds love, and is afflicted with tuberculosis. It is through her eyes that Roy finds something sublime about waste:
Most mornings, when Farzana got to work on the trash peaks, she started by collecting the overripe tomatoes and aubergines that came in thrown-away food or sprouted from it with the rains. She waited for her friends’ hazy figures to emerge on the rugged slopes and threw her pickings at them, making dark, wet splotches on their clothes. They swivelled in pain and confusion. When they spotted Farzana, her friends scrambled to look for their own tomatoes. They scoured through the trash that had arrived overnight for bits of watermelon or eggs and hurled them at her. Giggly tomato-fights ensued as they chased each other around the unsteady sun-filled slopes rotting fruit in hand. Laughter and light were refracted in the halo of the forgotten mountains.
Otherwise, it is a narrative about modernity and obscene consumption gone horribly wrong. To put it briefly:
As they filled and grew, the dumping grounds began to emanate a toxic halo. Nothing made it out; things only arrived. While Bombay came to be known as the ‘city of dreams’, Deonar became the sprawling necropolis of their remains: a noxious and wondrous world. Only its putrid air and water mingled, unseen, with the city’s.
Strange things land up in the grounds. Roy spends a moment with a handbag that yielded a gold necklace, something that every picker dreams of finding someday:
He unzipped the pockets, rummaging inside to discover worlds so secret that women sometimes forgot to clear them out, even while throwing their bags away. Moharram Ali had found letters written in curly handwriting, delicate miniature bottles of perfume, monogrammed handkerchiefs that could be washed and sold as white scraps, and sometimes even crumpled currency notes, saved too safely from tight household budgets.
It is not just strange things; the grounds lure people in too. There is also a dead woman who floats into the creek on a boat with all her bridal jewellery.
Roy also studies the historical records and court proceedings to examine how these mountains appear on paper. The Deonar space was dedicated to trash by the British municipal administration in the aftermath of the 1896 plague epidemic in Bombay. The marsh was expected to turn into grounds within 23 years and be useful as premium real estate that could even be leased to the farmers for cultivation. But over 120 years later, here they stand as they kill people with disease and crime ever since the early days when trash would come here in trains giving fevers and eye infections to the municipal workers. This wasteland continues to reflect the history of the city: the tremors of the 1992-93 Bombay riots were felt here; with the 2016 demonetization, gunny sacks filled with notes were discarded here as trash; and with the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act, a lot of the pickers have been thinking about how to prove that they belong here and are not illegal migrants from other countries.
Which is ironic because these are the people who have become attached to the mountains, suffering from “mountain fever like a love affair”. They are lovers, denying the impact of the presence of toxic waste on their health. Readers watch Farzana grow and look at her own ways of denying any changes in her body. By the end of Roy’s narrative, Farzana’s neck begins to swell and stiffen to an extent that she has to look around from the corners of eyes rather than turn it.
Roy’s entry point into Farzana’s life and the lives of those around her is the trash economy. The low-interest loans that her firm used to offer to the pickers piqued her curiosity about how they would return the money. When asked how they made money, the recyclers would reply with blank stares because they were not sure. It is through digging deeper that Roy came to discover a different side of the city:
I fretted about how she would repay our loan, with her odd business. If you can only sell what you collect with your hands, how will our loans help you grow? … Vitabai quickly countered. Will there ever be less trash? She worked in one of Mumbai’s fastest-growing industries, she pointed out. She offered to show me the unending hills she and other pickers mined. What she could not collect herself, she would use our loans to buy from others and then sell to traders. She quickly became my introduction to the world of the Deonar township — a place that before her arrival I knew nothing about, but would soon, like so many others, become addicted to.
Nothing has happened to the mountains yet. Contracts have been given to companies but the trash remains where it is. While some like environment experts and health experts would want to have it moved elsewhere, others like these pickers whose work ethic and addiction that Roy talks about very movingly resist and protest municipal plans and court judgments. Between the two factions, the trash isles of Mumbai stand as a testimony to hope and greed. It remains to be seen what would happen to the latest $40 billion plan to manage the mountains. One hopes that Roy’s book makes an impact on the powers that be who have been dealing with the situation as a problem of space rather than as a lived reality.