Love and loathing in Mumbai: Booker prize-winner Aravind Adiga's love affair with the Indian city

Imoved to Mumbai in November 2006. The girl I had been seeing in Delhi came to the city to work for a marketing firm. She brought me along with her books and bags and bric-à-brac from Rohini, in west Delhi. I had quit my job with Time magazine at the start of the year to finish a novel. Instead I had wasted my time doing little freelance jobs for my former employer. Unless I left Delhi – too many journalists, too many stories – I would never get this novel done. Going to Kolkata was the original plan; a friend said he might rent out his place near Minto Park. But then the girl came to Mumbai.

I first saw the city in 1985 with my mother. We were the guests of my grand-uncle Suresh, a lawyer who lived in Bandra. Many in my family had migrated from Mangalore to practise law in Bangalore or Madras. Suresh, a feisty, affectionate, beak-nosed man, was the only one who had chosen Mumbai – a far-away, Hindi-speaking place where south Indians were reportedly attacked by the right-wing movement Shiv Sena. He drove us up to see the Queen's Necklace seafront; I had paani puris near the Gateway of India, and puked them into the ocean. And though 18 years passed before I came back, Mumbai always found ingenious ways to remind me of its existence.

In my first year at Columbia University in New York, I met Sudeep, the only other Indian in my batch. This was in 1994. He told me he lived in a place called Churchgate, which I recognised from the Monopoly boardgame marked with Bombay names that I had owned as a boy ("Lower Parel" was right next to "Jail": the association lingers). Sudeep and I went to Satyajit Ray films at the Lincoln Centre Theatre; he claimed his Bengali grandmother had been involved in the making of Pather Panchali.

From him I formed my idea of the Bombay elite. Though he had been to Cathedral, apparently a posh school, his grades at Columbia were not particularly good; I thought they were disgraceful for an Indian. But he knew what he wanted in life; he had balance and moderation, rarer gifts of culture that were not part of my nervous small-town upbringing. I sensed that he would be a happier man than I ever would.

At Oxford University, where I studied from 1997 to 1999, I met another man from Mumbai, a rich lawyer's son who had a chipped tooth and nasty, winning ways with women: we took an instant dislike to each other. Boastful, proud of his status, obscenely well-connected, he seemed to me the incarnation of old money, old privilege, and old stupidity – the living reason that people like me from small towns had to leave India. There must be a whole caste of men like this in Mumbai, I thought, sipping gin-and-tonic and sucking the country dry.

The two of them, the balanced Bengali boy and the lawyer's son with the broken tooth, haunted me for years; and I think I returned to India in 2003 to find these two men here. Make me a gentler, happier person like Sudeep, I used to pray to God, and let me also give that lawyer's son a good thump on the head. Contradictory goals, but both were somehow connected to the idea of living in Mumbai.

New Delhi, however, was now my home. I had come back as a correspondent for Time magazine, and they had sent me to the capital. I flew to Mumbai whenever I could, finding ways to fit it into any assignment I was given ("India- Pakistan talks? Must include the Bombay angle"). When I landed in the city I finished my work as quickly as possible, then I took a taxi to Crawford Market.

During my time abroad – after my mother's sudden death in 1990, I did not visit for over a decade – the news that India was changing reached me mainly as news that Bombay was changing. Returning from a summer at home, Sudeep had described a magazine called Bombay Dost that was now being sold openly in Churchgate; an Indian-American student who had gone to Bombay and stayed at the YMCA (£25, or around Rs1,780 a night!) whispered in my ear that "white prostitutes" were easily available in the city.

If the Indian boom had consisted only of more money and more licence, it would have been easy to form an opinion about it. But when I went to Mangalore I saw that most of my relatives now owned cars and flats; my mother had dreamed all her life of such independence. "This thing that is happening to your country – is it good or bad?" The question troubled me every day for four years, no matter where I was in India: but most of all here in Mumbai, in the densely packed neighbourhood of Crawford Market. Super-saturated with human beings and their goods, glowing in the evening light, each one of the ancient buildings around me looked like a metaphysical taunt: "If you can solve me, you'll solve your problem."

The plan was always to see the country and write a novel; when I had saved enough, I quit my job at Time in 2006. During my time in Delhi, Bengalis were the most curious and friendly people I had met. I went to Kolkata for 10 days, and decided it would suit a writer better than any other city in India. But the levers of fate had moved; and after a week spent above Dehradun, where I began reworking on an old manuscript of The White Tiger, I booked my ticket not to Kolkata, but to Mumbai.

It was fate: because a month after I followed her to Mumbai, the girl dumped me and went back to Rohini. I had already put a deposit down for a place in Santacruz (East) – a dingy one bedroom in an ancient building, which was the only thing I could afford – and one morning I woke up and found myself alone in it. That evening, sitting at an outdoor table in Vihar, a restaurant on the eastern side of the Santacruz station, I began thinking, whom will I talk to in this city, how will I live here, when a tall fair man with a moustache came up to me.

"You're from Udupi," he said.

"My mother was," I replied. "I grew up in Mangalore."

"You have a South Canara face."

He was the manager; he told me that everyone in the restaurant was from around Mangalore. I watched them, chatting in Kannada or Tulu, wiping tables and buzzing about that humid kitchen. A tough life, but they seemed full of energy and hope for the future. It occurred to me that if I worked on my novel as they were working on the tables, I too would be taken care of.

We had water only twice a day in my building, so I had to plan things in such a way that I was free from seven to nine in the mornings, and six to eight in the evenings. The rest of the time I wrote. The broker who had found me the place called one day: "The neighbours complain that you make no noise at all." To frighten my neighbours less, and to give myself a routine, I took the train every morning to the British Council Library in Nariman Point; for a change I would visit the Prithvi Theatre's outdoor café, where, if the writing had gone well, I would buy a ticket for a play in the evening.

I made a happy discovery: my grand-uncle Suresh was still in Mumbai. In the 1990s, he had been a judge in the Bombay high court, where he had earned his reputation as an opponent of the Shiv Sena ("Who is this man Suresh, with only one name? He must be a Christian!" its newspaper Saamna had railed.) He was now retired and lived on the Juhu-Versova link road. Grand-uncle Suresh is a talking man. He told me stories late into the night about the Bombay riots, of things that had been done in daylight and men who had never been prosecuted for doing them; I took the auto-rickshaw home, and returned to my novel.

At 16, a boy lies down to sleep thinking, "When I wake up, I will be taller and stronger." Now in Mumbai, a grown man in my thirties, I felt exactly like that. In the morning I opened my eyes and thought, "Before it is night, my book will be bigger and stronger." It was a period of unambiguous happiness for me, and it came to an end with an email in February 2007 from an agent in New York that said: "The London Book Fair opens in a few days. Pick up your phone."

Things moved so quickly after that; even quicker than with my mother's death. A journalist friend from Delhi wrote to ask: "Are you the same Adiga I'm hearing about?" "Probably not," I said, and meant it. But one morning at the British Council I opened a publishers' magazine and read an article about the London Book Fair and a book called The White Tiger. It was real. Everything had changed.

"How is it that you can afford a better place when you have had no job for eight months?" my broker asked. Late in 2007, I moved to a two-bedroom in Versova; I ran up and down the beach, worked out at a gym called Barbarian, and spied on actor Om Puri as he ate idlis every Sunday morning at the local restaurant. I was enjoying myself here, but my imagination, always perverse, was taking me back to Santacruz East. I had begun writing a novel set in my old suburb, called Last Man in Tower. So I had to go back.

My broker was starting to like me. He took another deposit from me, and convinced a Christian landlady to overcome her suspicion of bachelors so I could return to Santacruz.

But I came back sick. I thought it was just a flu I had picked up at the beach. Something was being incubated by the fever, and it hatched in my chest; one morning I spat blood on the platform of Andheri station. At the Lilavati Hospital, a doctor named Nayak gave me the bad news. Chronic bronchitis. "There is a lot of dust in Andheri," he said. "Old buildings are being broken down and old construction materials are in the air." For two months I came regularly to Lilavati – 500 rupees per visit – and sat in the chilled waiting room of the outpatient department staring at the x-ray of my congested skull. It looked like Balram Halwai.

The sicker I became, the faster I wrote. I realised that the two faces that had bothered me for years had blended during my stay in Mumbai; the good-natured and chip-toothed men were merging; and that after this illness neither I nor my writing would be the same. But I was becoming known for something written when I saw the world in a different way. Judging by the way some sane people in India had responded to The White Tiger, I figured that if anyone at the Shiv Sena opened it, I would have to take an auto straight to my grand-uncle Suresh's house and duck under a sofa. That day may yet come.

But back in 2009, the main threat in Mumbai turned out to be the air. A few months after I recovered fully, I had a second attack of bronchitis. My mother had left me a three-bedroom flat in Bangalore; it had been locked for years. I began to search for the keys. My friends heard that I would be going to the south for a few months for my health. "If you leave," one asked, "will you really come back?"

Years ago I read a parable in a comic book of a man who digs for water, gives up, starts digging elsewhere, and goes on like this the whole day. At sunset, he realises that if he had stuck to one place, he would have hit water by now. The parable frightened me all through the 1990s, when I lived abroad. Fear of drifting brought me back to India; but after seven years here, I find myself still moving about. Yet I know now that there is a meaning to these movements; I know now that they also serve, who drift and dream.

My broker couldn't believe it. He took me by the hand. "For 40 years I've worked and still I have nothing. From the moment you came here, everything you've touched has turned to gold. Why would you ever leave Mumbai?"

Aravind Adiga's new novel, 'Last Man in Tower', is published next week by Atlantic Books

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