Mountain Tales: an extract

27 July 2021

‘Roy has a journalist’s unflinching eye, a poet’s talent for detail, and a radical sense of empathy … a stunning achievement.’
– Kiran Desai, Booker Prize-winning author of The Inheritance of Loss

‘If you read one book about India, read this one.’
– Geeta Anand, Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of The Cure

All of Mumbai’s memories and castaway possessions come to die at the Deonar garbage mountains. And among these vast, teetering piles of discarded things, a small, forgotten community lives and works. Scouring the dump for whatever can be resold or recycled, waste pickers also mark the familiar milestones of babies born, love found, illnesses suffered and recovered from. Like a mirror image, their stories are shaped by the influx of unwanted things from the world outside. But now, as Deonar’s toxic halo becomes undeniable, a change is coming. And as officials try to close it, the lives that the pickers have built on the Mountain seem more fragile than ever.

Saumya Roy spent more than eight years entangled with the Deonar mountains and their denizens, watching the lives and businesses of four families unfold in their shadow. Most of all she watched a teenager, Farzana Ali Shaikh, grow into a life that seemed as unlikely as the mountains, rising precipitously with the desires that had flickered and died in the city. This book is Farzana’s story.

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Read an extract below:


1

Farzana Ali Shaikh rummaged on a mountain clearing on a hot April afternoon. The sun warmed her head and made lurid colours 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 shovelled 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 up of remains from the city’s municipal slaughterhouse and its vast port lands. That afternoon she and her younger sister, Farha, had chased a garbage truck winding up its unsteady slope.

Farzana worked quickly, shovelling glass jars, shards and saline bags that had fallen out of the truck into the large bag she dragged along. The truck had probably come from a hospital, and its contents would fetch good money. A straggly crowd built up 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 often used to make appliances and machinery – or cloth scraps. She snapped up her pickings before others could get to them.

She looked up to make sure that 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 fly-filled slope, untied the string and gently upturned the bag, expecting delicate glass vials to pour down, 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, she could make out arms, legs, toes and tiny bald heads swimming into each other within it. She squinted, looked again and screamed. A few friends gathered to examine the jar crammed with floating limbs. Farzana opened the lid and brought out a baby girl, a little bigger than her large, bony palm.

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