The ends of consumption

An essay about Mumbai's garbage pickers, from Saumya Roy, author of the new book "Castaway Mountain"

“I came to see the mountains as an outpouring of our modern lives -- of the endless chase for our desires to fill us,” the journalist Saumya Roy writes in her much-praised new book reporting on garbage sorters in Mumbai. In a moment of environmental reckoning and re-examination of the economic models underpinning our lives, “Castaway Mountain” arrives as the best kind of nonfiction: a zoomed-in look at one little world that, in fact, illuminates all the world.

Today I’m delighted to share this essay by Saumya, drawn from the book.

The Township of Trash

By Saumya Roy

FARZANA ALI SHAIKH RUMMAGED on a mountain clearing on a hot April afternoon. The sun warmed her head and made lurid colors swim in her eyes. The smell of rotting prawns wafted up from the mountain. She jabbed her long garbage fork to push aside translucent fish scales, crackling prawn shells, entrails, and animal dung, and scooped up the broken glass jars that had just poured out on the clearing.

Smoke and heat rose up as forklifts shoveled glass away. It blurred Farzana’s view of the trash strewn around her and brought up burning smells that mingled with the stench of decaying flesh. Scavenging birds swooped low beside her, searching for entrails. Farzana kept her eye on the glass and hacked her fork into the mess, keen to retrieve it. She didn’t usually work on the jhinga, or prawn loop, as this mountain was known. It was made mostly of animal remains from the city’s municipal slaughterhouse, its vast port lands, and elsewhere. But that afternoon they had waited long for trucks before she and her younger sister, Farha, who was fifteen, had chased one winding up the unsteady slope of the jhinga loop, also known as the gobar, or cow dung loop.

Farzana worked quickly, shoveling glass jars, shards, and saline bags that had fallen out of the truck into the large plastic bag she dragged along. The truck had probably come from a hospital, and its contents would fetch good money. A straggly crowd of rag pickers grew around her, also eager for the glass. But at seventeen, Farzana was tall, athletic, and fearless. Her eyes were trained to spot plastic bottles, wire, glass, German silver, a metal alloy used to make appliances and machinery, and cloth scraps. She snapped up her pickings before others could get to them.

Farzana looked up to make sure Farha was picking close by. It must nearly be time for their father to arrive with lunch, she thought. She clanked her fork into the glass heap again and, this time, brought out a heavy blue plastic bag. Farzana thought it must be filled with smaller glass bottles, which usually fetched a good price. She squatted on the warm slope, with flies hanging close, untied the string, and gently upturned the bag, expecting delicate glass vials to fall out, clinking and glinting in the sun. Instead, a single large glass jar plopped onto the clearing. As she bent low to see what was inside the jar, she could see arms, legs, toes, and tiny, bald heads swimming inside it. She squinted, looked again, and screamed. A few friends gathered to examine the jar crammed with floating limbs.

Farzana opened the lid and nearly brought out a baby girl, a little bigger than her large bony palm. The city sent a steady supply of dead babies, often girls, to the mountains, along with its other expendables. Mothers who couldn’t bear to tell their families they had delivered a girl sometimes threw the baby in the trash instead. Farzana had occasionally unearthed them while rifling through rubbish. But as she tugged the baby girl out of the jar, two baby boys came up too; their stomachs were fused to hers. The three had probably died because they were unable to survive with or without each other, she thought. Farha said she had heard lunar eclipses caused unborn babies to split or deform within wombs. A baby must have been born as three, bringing it here, she told the group that had gathered.

Farzana stretched her arms out, to cradle the lifeless babies. She began to make her way carefully down the wobbly slope, holding them gently. Behind her, the mountain rose like a teetering hulk, made up of Mumbai’s detritus held in place with a topping of mud. She waited for her friends to catch up. From high up on the next peak, they could see the vertiginous trash mountains curve around them and stretch out into the distance. 

Together, the hills curled like a long sliver of crescent moon. Across a broken wall, and dug into the mountains, were shrunken homes made of cloth scraps, plastic sheets, torn sarees, soggy bamboo poles, and metal sheets full of holes. On the outer edge, a shimmering creek arched around the mountains. The creek ran into the Arabian Sea, which rimmed the island city of Mumbai. Ragpickers, such as Farzana, called the garbage mountains khaadi, the Hindi word for creek. Nobody quite knew where the name came from, but standing high on a mountain clearing, you did feel as if you were floating in an undulating and smelly sea of garbage that faded into an unending expanse of glimmering blue sea in the distance. Farzana continued her walk through the rising and ebbing trash.

When they neared the creek, Farzana’s friends dug their garbage forks into soft sand where trash slopes petered into a rivulet. A few pickers came out of houses built on stilts, which lifted them above the trash at low tide and nearly immersed them in waves at high tide. They walked over to see the babies and helped Farzana’s friends shovel sand. The tide was rising and gentle waves inched closer to them. Torn clothes and plastic bags bobbed in the water and dripped from the branches of mangrove trees that edged the creek. Farzana felt a gentle breeze approach through the water.

It rustled through the old trees, through the leaves and plastic that filled their branches, and shivered through her. She lowered the babies into their shallow grave. Her friends covered them with sand and whispered prayers. They usually came this way later in the afternoons, to wade and swim in the rising tide. Farzana liked to stay until the setting sun almost faded behind the fetid hills, giving them a dusty, pink glow, and the waves turned metallic. That was when she thought the mountains looked their best.

After the makeshift burial, they walked hurriedly back across the hills to find their father, waiting and hungry. Hyder Ali was standing, tall, gangly, and gaunt, on a quiet slope, his face lit up in a tobacco-stained grin. They sat down to eat. Both sisters wore salwar kameezes with cotton jackets to keep mud and trash away from their clothes, and errant strands spilled out of the scarves they wrapped around their long, loosely bundled hair. While Farzana was prickly and quiet with teenage awkwardness, Farha had stayed smiling and baby faced. Over the lunch he brought from home, she told their father about their morning adventure. Uncharacteristically terse, he asked them not to venture near the graves again. “Ye sab cheez chhodta nahi hai,” he remarked. These things have a way of not leaving you.

HYDER ALI HAD moved to live in the shade of the mountains just months before Farzana was born. He had come to Mumbai in his teens, from his village in Bihar, nearly two thousand kilometers away. For years, he had worked as an embroiderer’s assistant. He enjoyed the long, quiet hours of filling fabric, tightly stretched out on the frame, with lacelike patterns. Half made flowers, rising vines, and wingless birds made shadows on his face and limbs when he curled up to sleep under the frame. Then a wife, Shakimun, and five children followed, forcing Hyder Ali to seek a life outside the embroidery room that formed his world.

He had heard of the mountains that never ran out of work, vast dumping grounds at the edge of the city, where the remnants of everything Mumbai consumed came to die. Nothing had ever been composted, incinerated, or recycled. Instead, it lingered on at Deonar, adding to fetid and ever-growing mountains of garbage. Hyder Ali had heard from his friends that the mountains were older than the oldest pickers who worked on them and larger than the largest trash hills in the country. They stretched over 300 acres and some rose more than 120 feet, monuments to the increasingly ephemeral desires of the city’s more official residents. 

Hyder Ali’s friends trawled the slopes all day, selling the trash they collected to traders who would sell it on to be remade anew. They foraged for mangled plastic that could be pressed into sheets or pulled into filament. They traded glass bottles to be refilled with new drinks, metal to be melted into new parts for gadgets, and cloth scraps to be stuffed into toys and quilts or sewn into clothes. Hyder Ali had heard you could earn good money on these slopes, and their edges could yield space to make a home for his growing family.

He had also heard they sustained pickers, fed them, threw up treasures that had made fortunes, and fueled rivalries and ambitions. So, in 1998, he moved his family to a spot where a drain that ran down the mountains met a lane that curved around them. Their lane was called Banjara Galli, or Gypsy Lane, for the itinerant inhabitants who had left before city drifters replaced them. Farzana was born months later. Two more daughters and a son would follow, filling the house they would build on the edge of these shape-shifting foothills.

At first Hyder Ali looked for embroidery commissions, while Shakimun strapped Farzana onto her back with a dupatta and waded into the township of trash hills. But finding embroidery commissions on his own was hard work and soon he followed her into the rolling landscape of garbage. At first, the mountains’ rising stench made Hyder Ali throw up. His bony hands stank and when he ate; he felt they transported the smell of garbage through his mouth into his stomach, making him nauseous.

Mountain trash swam in his eyes. He could not eat or sleep for days, whittling down his already skeletal frame. Hunger made him dizzy. Hyder Ali developed a technique to protect his hands and appetite, clenching his toes tightly around cloth scraps while balancing himself precariously, on the wobbly slope, with his other foot. He would bend his knee and lift his leg, clinging to the cloth, depositing it into the bag that Shakimun held open for him. He often lost his balance in this acrobatic act and fell flat on his face into muddy trash amid a swarm of pickers. If he didn’t get to something fast enough, someone else would.

Eventually, he had to discard his leg curling technique and use his hands to work quicker. As his hands and feet filled up with cuts and bruises from stumbling on glass and metal, he also learned to dodge the stray dogs and birds that chased them for trash. Determined, Hyder Ali, Shakimun, and the children hung close to the khaki and orange trucks that relentlessly emptied the city’s moth-eaten possessions onto the rising mountain clearings.

Hyder Ali liked to tell Farzana and her siblings that there was nothing he had not seen while trawling through this sprawling necropolis. Everything that gave meaning to Mumbaikarss lives, from broken cell phones to high-heeled shoes and gangrenous and dismembered human limbs, ended up here. He, like most pickers, believed that the spirits of people and possessions that had been sent here for unceremonious burials hung around the windswept slopes. Delivering the Urdu books that he found in the trash to clerics, he had heard from them that God, who made people, also made spirits and that the evil ones among them were called Shaitans. Unseen and unheard but nevertheless tangibly present, they were said to be a manifestation of people’s baser nature, of their rising, unending desires. They gripped people, only to lead them astray.

Shaitans lived in filthy recesses and rose from smokeless fires, the clerics had warned Hyder Ali. Indeed, fires simmered, furtively and constantly, within the mountains’ layers of decaying trash. He had seen smoke that rose from fires burning deep within the mountains and flames that danced without smoke. At other times, flames erupted and moved like lightning across the hills, letting off swirling smoke, the two dancing together. Hyder Ali had nearly been encircled and trapped in these traveling fires. The Shaitans were bound to appear on the mountains, a dizzying accumulation of partly sated desires wreathed in fires and smoke, pickers believed. Shaitans arose from them and lay in wait for new homes and younger people to inhabit, they believed.

Hyder Ali had heard of friends who had been tripped on mountain slopes when they crossed the path of lurking Shaitans. Others warned him to stay away from certain hill slopes or claimed they had encountered the tall, floating spirits, known as Khabees in Islamic mythology, in their shrunken, plastic-and- cloth- scrap homes on the edges of trash foothills, where they demanded rent. Hyder Ali’s friend Moharram Ali had told him he heard a woman call out to him every time he neared the pile of white cloth scraps he had collected on a slope, asking him to return her shroud from his neatly folded stack.

Hyder Ali knew, of all his nine children, Farzana loved being on the mountains the most. She was the first of them to be born at their feet, and had learned to walk on the gentle incline of trash foothills. As soon as she could make the short walk from their home, Farzana had come wobbling over to them and it had been a losing battle to keep her away from them, ever since. At first, Shakimun sent him to get Farzana back, worrying she would get buried under the garbage showers that erupted from emptying trucks. She had heard of children getting mauled by dogs, falling off garbage cliffs, or tumbling down mountain slopes. Hyder Ali often found Farzana swinging from abandoned car fenders or digging for toys buried in trash. He delivered Farzana home, crying, and returned to work on the slopes. Soon enough, Farzana escaped again and followed him.

FOR MONTHS, FARHA and Farzana would remember the day they buried the babies as the day they got thrashed. When they arrived home, their oldest brother Jehangir was waiting for them, his face filled with rage. “Mardaani ho gayi hai? Bache gaad rahi hai?” he asked, his voice rising. You think you’ve turned into men? Burying other people’s babies? Without waiting for their answer, Jehangir, who was eight years older than Farzana, slapped her and then Farha. He asked why they hadn’t called him. He was at a clearing nearby that afternoon, he said. He would have taken care of it, or asked the municipal officials to. Don’t get into these messes, he shouted. Nothing good ever comes out of them.

Farzana couldn’t answer. Tears choked her. Besides, fighting with Jehangir was never a good idea. Everyone at home knew of their wiry and intense brother’s explosive anger. In that long hot summer that stretched between her and adulthood, Farzana worked through the smoke that drifted over the slopes, the constantly burning fires, their sharp smell, the heat that turned humid as rain clouds approached, and even the new security guards that arrived to patrol the hilly township’s hazy rim.

It would all end soon, she told Hyder Ali, coolly. The baking sun would give way to Mumbai’s long season of torrential rains that would soak their burning township and quench the fires. That year, the summer would also end in the holy month of Ramzan (known elsewhere as Ramadan), filled with daylong fasts and feasts that would occupy much of the night. And three days before the first fast, on June 2, 2016, Farzana would turn eighteen.

Hyder Ali later came to believe that it was in this long and boiling summer of waiting, the summer of 2016, when Farzana found the glass jar filled with lifeless babies, that the mountain spirits entered his daughter— though they did not know it at the time.

THROUGHOUT THE SUMMER, Farzana and Farha had watched the engineering consultants bore holes and lower tubes into the mountains to measure the fires seething within. They heard that some of the vents would stay within the mountains, to release these secret fires and their smoke. They also heard the consultants were mapping the township in order to pick a section for a waste-to- power plant. The map was carefully made with images from drones that had flown low over Farzana as she worked on the mountains that summer.

On a long, warm afternoon, Shakimun squatted next to Sahani, the second oldest of her daughters, at the mountains’ rim. They watched as Farzana arrived with a cloth pile, leaving them to sort through some fashionably, and other irretrievably, ripped jeans while she turned to walk back up the slopes for more. Shakimun, sitting with her arms hanging off her bent knees, waited until Farzana had walked far enough out of earshot, then spoke softly to Sahani, in the lilting dialect she brought from her village, decades ago. “Raat mein ajeeb harkatein karat hai.” She says strange things at night. Shakimun was worried: the mountains, with their chaos and poison, were bubbling out of her daughter in nocturnal mutterings and strange behavior.

Farzana was born to the mountains. Their contours had shaped her, body and mind. But now she seemed trapped in them, and they were wedged inside her. 

Saumya Roy is a journalist and social entrepreneur based in Mumbai. Her new book is “Castaway Mountain: Love and Loss Among the Wastepickers of Mumbai,” from which this essay is adapted, courtesy of the publisher, Astra House.

Photo of Farzana courtesy of Saumya Roy