Nov 152012
 

There’s little Indians hate more than foreigners writing (or making a film or insert your chosen art form here) about the country. This sentiment is particularly evident in a city like Bombay. “Why do they want to see only the negative side of the country?” is one question. “Who do they think they are?” is another. “Why don’t they focus on their own problems?” All, of course, are valid questions, and I’ve asked these very questions, particularly when I lived in India, about various documentaries and films that portrayed Bombay and, indeed, India.
But now that I’ve written a novel set in Mumbai from the comfort of my living room in the U.S., I have a different take. Possibly because I did get a few , “Sitting in America and writing about us…” sort of comments — mostly said half in jest. Anyhoo, that’s the reason for my reversal.
Hypocrisy? Perhaps. But I’d like to think of it more as a disinterested view.
A previous blog post chronicles a list of my favorite books on Bombay.
It’s only on revisiting that post today did I realize that four of the five books on the list were written by authors who don’t live in the city. Among them is Katherine Boo, the author of Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, which won the National Book Award last night for Nonfiction.
Here’s what I wrote about the book at the time:

Reporter Katherine Boo’s telling of life in a Mumbai slum can be daunting reading, but it provides stark and necessary relief to much of the narratives emerging from India in the Western media about India’s growing prosperity.

Here’s what I liked about Boo’s book: She neither patronized nor infantilized the subjects of her book. Now, that’s a rare trait in most of us with relatively privileged upbringings who deal with the poor or poverty. Boo’s focus comes from her career, which has been spent reporting on poverty in cities like Mumbai, but also in American communities.

Her reporting on the mentally retarded in Washington, D.C., won her a Public Service Pulitzer in 2000. Here’s what the awards committee said about her work at the time:

“Awarded to The Washington Post, notably for the work of Katherine Boo, that disclosed wretched neglect and abuse in the city’s group homes for the mentally retarded, which forced officials to acknowledge the conditions and begin reforms.”

Her article “The Marriage Cure”, which reported on Oklahoma’s efforts to promote marriage as a way out of poverty, won a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing in 2004.

What is especially remarkable about Boo’s reporting is that she’s avoided the allure of reporting on the world’s “big events,” preferring instead to focus her attention on social issues. Here’s how the Guardian described her in a recent profile:

“American reporter Katherine Boo decided early on that hers would be a different route. Once and only once did she agree to write about life at the top: in 1993, as a reporter at the Washington Post, she was commissioned to write a lengthy magazine profile of the new vice-president, Al Gore.
Afterwards she felt it had been pointless. “I get tired of obsessing about characters,” she says when we meet in London. “I feel like there’s a lot of people who want to do that kind of work, and they’re really good at it. I think social issues are kind of worthy things that people graduate from, to a large extent. In journalism, if you get to be really hot stuff, that’s where you get to go – to the White House! – and that’s too bad.”
So Boo, then in her late 20s, returned to her vocation: writing about the lives of the poorest people in America.”

I highly recommend Beyond the Beautiful Forevers if you haven’t read it yet. It’s a remarkable work of reporting that delves deeply into the lives of people whom the rest of us do our best to ignore.

Sep 042012
 

Can a city like Mumbai be the setting for noir? Here’s my take:

In the 1980s, I lived on a street in Bombay that housed the Soviet cultural center. Western movies took years to make it to theaters — that is if they came at all. We listened to music that had been popular in the ‘60s. And there were two cars on Indian roads: the Premier Padmini and the Ambassador, an elephant-like giant modeled on the Morris Oxford. Nothing ever seemed to happen. But that placidity belied some tumultuous changes shaking the city. The biggest one was the shuttering of the textile mills, Bombay’s lifeblood for much of the past century. Along with those mills went thousands of livelihoods, people who’d been trained to do nothing else suddenly out of a job. And the unions that were supposed to protect them were being slowly coopted and destroyed.
Fast forward 20 years. The Soviet cultural center is now a car showroom. Hollywood movies are often released in Bombay before they are in the West, and music choices are as diverse as any other place. And there are cars; plenty of them, along with showrooms to sell Audis and Porsches and anything else you may want. But this dramatic change belies a constancy among those left behind: the old man pulling a wooden wheelbarrow laden with goods that weigh three times as much as he does; the half-naked beggar seeking pennies from the passenger who has shut the have-nots away; the migrant worker who comes to the city full of hope only to be told he doesn’t belong here. These stories aren’t unique to Bombay. A similar scenario has played out in countless other places. What they have in common is a city that’s at once welcoming and cruel, and residents at once despondent and full of hope.
That’s where noir comes in.
To me the genre has always been about characters: flawed, cynical characters, characters down on their luck, with a bleak worldview. The best place to find such people is a city.
Cities represent the best society has to offer: arts, culture, diversity, opportunity; a vital life force if you will that makes a nation hum. But they also represent the worst of humanity: crime, greed, apathy, poverty; those aspects that we’d prefer to conceal.
Both these attributes are apparent in a city like Bombay, and they are all the more apparent because of the dramatic increase in wealth — and the consequent increase in income disparity — India has seen over the past two decades. This is fertile ground for noir. Any story that focuses on such a city and its characters is bound to have elements of the genre. Indeed, Indian filmmakers have been among the first to successfully exploit this with a series of recent gripping crime dramas. Now, for a city the size of Mumbai, crime is surprisingly low. But what noir teaches us is that when you scratch below that veneer of cosmopolitanism, the world is much more interesting. That’s true whether you’re living in Mumbai, New York or Rio.

Jun 152012
 

There’s a paradox in crime fiction that’s set in a particular place: One the one hand, you need crime, preferably murder, and on the other, you risk making your location, usually a place you know and love, appear crime-ridden and desperate.
I certainly faced this dilemma while writing my first novel, Murder in Mumbai, which focuses on the investigation surrounding the killing of an American executive in India’s largest city. But as I’ve said in the book and to anyone who’ll care to listen, there are comparitively few homicides in Mumbai. But the more emphatically I said that, the more I wondered, is it really true?
With that question in mind, I visited the Mumbai police website to look for actual crime data from the past few years.
Here’s what I found: There were 202 homicides in the city in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. That’s a drop from the 227 homicides the previous year. (India’s overall homicide rate is among the lowest in the world).
Now, one might argue that even one murder is a killing too many, but let’s look at the facts: That’s 202 homicides in a city of 14 million people. In comparison, Philadelphia, a city of 1.5 million people, had 324 homicides the same year, the highest rate among large U.S. cities.
But crime statistics are only one part of a writer’s armory. If they were the only thing that writers relied on, there would be no Scandinavian crime fiction, no Sherlock Holmes and certainly no mysteries based in large English castles.
So what does one consider — besides fact — when writing about crime in a city? Mood, for one. This is easy when a city has its own personality, as Bombay does. It helps that the city isn’t a planned one; its growth has been organic, its focus commerce. And because the city exists for one purpose — to make money — it attracts a certain type of population: the striver. The belief is that your background doesn’t matter in Mumbai, all you need to succeed is determination. This environment is perfect for crime fiction. True, homicide rates may not be high, but the type of crime to be found — con jobs to make a quick buck, examination scams to get ahead and the unholy nexus of crime, politics and business — make it a fertile ground for the genre.
I’ve never visited Scandinavia, but the crime novels set there are among my favorite. Many of them focus on serial killers and sex crimes. Do such crimes happen? I’m sure they do. Do they happen at the rate the books suggest? Certainly not. But that doesn’t detract from the writing or the genre.
As someone once said, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

Apr 202012
 

My book, Murder in Mumbai, is being published July 17 by the Penguin Group’s new digital imprint, Dutton Guilt Edged Mysteries. You can pre-order it here 

Gateway of India
Mumbai, Chaotic, confusing and pulsating with life has fascinated writers. There is something about the city that, even those of us who love it, can never comprehend. In most books, the City of Mumbai – with its crowded alleys, its overflowing drains, its overworked public transport system its maddening traffic, its’ people who never stop to star – is as much a character as any of the protagonists. A city which despite all its warts still has heart of gold – but that heart is hidden away under layers and layers and layers.

While writing “Murder in Mumbai”, i tried to get some of the quirks of my city – especially the way it moves seamlessly from Bombay to Mumbai

Here are, in no particular order, some excellent books on the city:

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found — Author Suketu Mehta returns to the city of his birth in this brilliant work of narrative nonfiction. Mehta examines life in Bombay, its people, its businesses, its crime and its prolific film industry. But the chapter that left the biggest impression on me was the final one, about a Jain diamond merchant who renounces his material life and family in search of enlightenment.

Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie’s most-famous novel is one of my favorites. Much of it is set in the city he loved, one that perhaps sadly no longer exists, except in the realm of memory.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers — Reporter Katherine Boo’s telling of life in a Mumbai slum can be daunting reading, but it provides stark and necessary relief to much of the narratives emerging from India in the Western media about India’s growing prosperity.

Mumbai Fables — A recent discovery, this book by Princeton professor Gyan Prakash is a historic telling of how a group of islands that were gifted by the Portuguese to the British as dowry eventually became India’s commercial powerhouse. It tells of Bombay under the British, the rise of the communists, of the Shiv Sena and the city today. It’s surprisingly one of the few historic accounts of Bombay’s growth.

Bombay, Meri Jaan — The title to this collection of essays — which translates to Bombay, My Love — says it all. With essays by Kipling (he was born in the city), V.S. Naipaul and, perhaps my favorite one in the collection, Duke Ellington.