Boyd Tonkin: Mumbai stories from the slums to the stars

The Week in Books
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On any ordinary morning, a car journey down the long, bloated finger of central Mumbai can leave you almost enough stationary time to read a book. During a trip a couple of years ago, I was idly chatting in the back of a cab as it inched – no, millimetered – its way through the gridlock. We stopped for another endless pause just, so I recall, as the gleaming offshore landmark of the Haji Ali mosque and tomb came into view. A child street vendor – that heart-grabbing spectre at the feast of boom-time India – came to tap on the driver's window. And his wares turned out to be books. Not any old pulp, either, but a smartly chosen selection of upmarket recent successes, neatly shrink-wrapped: Suketu Mehta's spectacular non-fiction panorama of the megalopolis around us, Maximum City; Thomas Friedman's Indophile cheerleading for the glories of globalisation. The World is Flat; William Dalrymple's elegy for the empire that the Raj replaced, The Last Mughal; Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, the Man Booker winner just a few months before.

In retrospect, it looks like a too-perfect Slumdog Millionaire moment – and, as Danny Boyle's Oscar-tipped take on Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A opens, we have not been short of sentimental paeans to the uncrushable vigour of a city of seething dreams that craves knowledge as much as wealth. Remember, too, that the motif of a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? jackpot winner who dumbfounds the experts came from the real Harshvardhan Nawathe, a modest young Mumbaiker whose run of answers in 2000 made him India's first Crorepati on the TV show.

Given the terror attacks of late November that slaughtered over 170, I rather think Mumbai deserves a bit of a sentimental break. Leading writers from Rudyard Kipling to Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry and beyond have of course found inspiration in the rainbow cultures of their mother metropolis. Viewers galvanised by Boyle's film should not only return to Swarup's pacy, entertaining – if somewhat different – novel (now reissued as Slumdog Millionaire by Black Swan). They might search for a few of the literary landmarks that have surfaced in the post-Rushdie generation.

In reportage and documentary, Mehta's Maximum City takes an exhilarating ride through many sides of Mumbai life visited in the movie. As for fiction, Vikram Chandra's superlative epic thriller Sacred Games also uncoils at a Dickensian length, and with a brio and savour to match, through the dark areas of crime and corruption where the city of hope buries its despair. For a much briefer, but equally intense, fictional collage of the city's lives and minds, try to find Altaf Tyrewala's terrific debut No God in Sight.

For light relief, there's always Shobhaa Dé. India's much-imitated diva of the sex-and scandal bestseller has also spent decades speaking up for gender equality. Imagine Jackie Collins sharing the same brain as Joan Bakewell: improbable, but maybe that's Mumbai. On her racily outspoken blog (shobhaade.blogspot.com), the author of Sultry Days, Starry Nights and Socialite Evenings has recently – and typically – been mocking the "Paki-bashing" of Indian TV debates in the wake of the November assaults. She prefers the style of pundit fielded by the hated rival team. "Most of them are far better looking, for starters. And better dressed, too. Our guys (especially the senior journos from Delhi) show up in ancient tweeds, peculiar caps, or mufflers and World War Two style overcoats... Pakistani commentators, on the other hand, are nattily outfitted (sooooo Savile Row!!), do their homework, are armed with convincing arguments... somehow they always end up making our lot look like turkeys. Underdressed turkeys, at that." There's a name for that kind of attitude, and I think it might be: freedom. From slumdogs to penthouse poodles, people have always hoped to find it in Mumbai.

P.S.As William Dorrit leaves the Marshalsea, Mr Chivery blesses him with the words: "remember that you are, in the words of the fettered African, a man and brother ever". That a turnkey uses this phrase in Little Dorrit, and that Dickens expects his readers will spot it instantly, reveals what lay closest to Josiah Wedgwood's heart. Reports on the sad plight of the pottery he founded have overdone the royal allure of his designs. Wedgwood was a fervent abolitionist, whose loathing of the slave trade led him after 1787 to produce thousands of medallions with the image of a chained African and the motto: "Am I not a man and a brother?" Often worn as fashion accessories, his tokens took a shocking challenge to slavery into every corner of social life. Forget imperial dinner sets, and ask if any British entrepreneur since has done so much for human welfare.

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