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At the short end of Bombay’s boom-to-bust cycle

By Suketu Mehta

The following essay appears in the latest issue of the literary journal The Common, which includes a special section of essays on Bombay.

On Thursday, May 14, join Suketu Mehta in conversation with Parul Sehgal, an editor at the New York Times Book Review, for a literary celebration to benefit The Common. Learn more and buy a ticket here.


Papad was the bard of the masses. He sat during the endless school classes on the bench next to me, composing rhymes which could be appreciated by all for their elemental simplicity. Thus:

O dear
Come near
Don’t fear
Have cheer
Beer is here

Or, still further atomized, each letter containing the whole of its Hindi word:


There were also his drawings: obscene stick figures copulating, or the mystic yantra which none could ever complete: a crossed square bordered by four half circles. The task was to construct this figure in one stroke, without pen ever backtracking or being lifted from paper, and though we spent hours, days, weeks trying, no one could ever complete the yantra. But—and this is why we kept trying—it always seemed eminently possible, as if, should we rack our ox-brains just a little bit more, we would get it.

It is 1999, and I have moved to Bombay for a couple of years, researching and writing about my childhood city, and seeing if you can go home again. One day, after visiting my old school, I decide to look up Papad. I go to his house— I have a hazy memory of it which turns out to be correct; it is in Malabar Apartments, the building with the brothel on the fourth floor. He’s not at home, but his wife, Amita, and his mother are. His mother remembers me, remembers that I liked to write. “Suki”: Amita remembers what her husband called me.

Papad calls up that very night. “Suki!” he shouts over the phone. I ask him if I can still call him Papad. “Yes, but I’m no longer like a papad,” the thin lentil cracker that accompanies most Indian meals. I take this to mean that he’s put on weight. The name had originated when a teacher had reprimanded him in open class: “None of your nonsense, or I’ll give you such a slap you’ll break like a papad and fly away.” How could a prize insult like that not stick? Even his mother called him Papad after that, we said to each other.

He was always a hapless sort of fellow, principally distinguished by his nose, which sat on his face like some enormous tuber. He came to Manav Mandir after having failed in the eighth grade at another school. I shared a bench with him for two years. I was doing badly in school then, so he was good company. We spent the periods when we were supposed to be taking dictation flirting lightly with the two girls behind us, the fat Sangita and the skinny Parul. “Two birds lost in a wood,” Papad says, reminding me of a joke, the meaning of which is now obscure.

“Do you have any contacts in leather distribution?” he asks me suddenly.

“So you’ve become a cobbler?”

“No, no, not footwear. Purses, jackets, but not footwear.” For the last year he has been trying out leather goods exports. He has two daughters now, and he is still in the stock market, but is trying other ventures as well.

We had last met in 1987, twelve years ago. I remember now the name of the girl he’d been sweet on in his old building, an old chawl in Gamdevi built for his caste. “Kani.” “You remember her name,” he observes, and chuckles. “She’s now married a doctor; she’s a doctor herself.” I also recall that he’d met his wife through a wrong number and tell him I have a story as good: I met mine on a plane.

He asks about my kids.

“They don’t look like me, thank goodness,” I tell him.

“With those Dracula teeth,” Papad agrees. “Did you get them fixed?”

“And what about your daughters? Do they have your nose?”

“Everybody says they look just like me.”

“You’d better stock up for the dowry, then.” This was how conversation was generally conducted in our school: through insult and abuse, covering up whatever good feelings we harbored for each other.

He wants me to help him find leather goods distributors in the States. So I ask him to come over for lunch that Sunday with his family, and we’d get on the Internet and find a few.

He comes into my house looking as young as, or younger than, me. His hair is so thick and black I yank at it to make sure it isn’t a wig. He has sprouted spectacles; otherwise his face seems untroubled by care.

I ask him about his daily routine. “I leave for the office at twelve or one in the afternoon.”

“What do you do till then?”

“You know, I’m on the computer. On the Internet, I send out my e-mails.”

“And then?”

“Then I go to the office, see if there is any work; usually there isn’t. My father takes care of the share business. So I come home by three or four.”

“So what do you do after you come home?”

“I check to see if any e-mails have come back.”

Since last January he’s been trying to start a leather goods export business. He says he has workshops in Dharavi which employ twenty-five people, and an agent—“a Hindu Maharashtrian, Vishal, not a Muslim—you can’t trust the mias”—who runs them. We go into the study to look for importers on the Internet. We log on, and I type into the search engine, “leather goods wholesalers.” A whole list of them comes up. I point out that he can go to their sites, write e-mails to them. He writes down in his notebook, “leather goods wholesalers.” “That’s enough,” he says, and sits back. He has no wish to waste time going to their sites. Lunch is being served.

“I got an inquiry from Japan,” he reflects, “but I didn’t reply.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t want to do business with Japan,” he says with mysterious finality.

While we are on the Internet, he asks me if I use it to chat, as he does. “I’ve got a Taiwanese babe, a Thai babe, and a Greek babe. But they’re all too young. I don’t do cybersex. I wish I could find someone older. There was a thirty- three-year-old babe, but she got cancer.” He points to the belt he’s wearing. “The Greek babe sent me this leather belt. Her father has a leather business.”

“Why don’t you try to get some business going with him?”

“He’s an exporter!” Papad exclaims. I think he is disgusted, but then I realize he is probably relieved. It would save him the bother of trying to make a business with him.

Every day, he chats with his babes for three-quarters of an hour. He used to visit the sex sites on the Internet. He would sign up for the one-week free memberships. “But I got sick of it. Always the same tits and ass. So I gave all my passwords to a friend.” I ask if Amita knows about it. “She knows everything. She is very forward. She knows about the girls I chat with. She doesn’t mind.” He doesn’t fool around. “How long will our sex life last anyway, another ten years?”

Amita grew up in Kandivli, and can’t take her residence in Malabar Hill for granted. She keeps asking me how they can get a visa to live in America. Papad had taken a year’s “break,” as he put it, to enroll in a computer course, in the hopes that this would get him a job in America. But he didn’t seem as excited by the prospect as his wife. “Life becomes like a machine there,” he ponders. “You have to just work a lot.” Here, they seem to have a wide circle of friends, mostly small businessmen and their wives.

He is kind to his two girls. He doesn’t want any more children, as most others would, hoping to have boys. His older girl is a bookworm; she disappears into the children’s room and goes through my son Gautama’s books, like I used to at her age whenever I went to somebody’s home. Papad’s wife, Amita, is a pretty, fair woman. I remember he used to rent hotel rooms to be with her, when they were dating. They’re a good-looking couple, in the Bombay way: well dressed, well spoken. At the table, Papad eats with delicacy, holding his spoon so and inclining his head slightly, a gentleman. He likes to eat. They both like to eat, street foods, Bombay foods. The afternoon wears on unhurriedly. Papad is not anxious to get anywhere. After lunch, he sits in the armchair and drones on, pleasantly. It is not important to respond to everything he says. I get the feeling that I can nap right there and he won’t be offended. A friend one can keep for a lifetime.

When the cool comes on, we drive to the seaface in Papad’s car, a Fiat of a model that was dated when I left India. While Papad parks the car and I wait for him, my wife, Suni, and Amita go inside a café with the children and get sodas and ice cream. When the waiter brings the bill, Suni pays, as she had expected and wanted to, but she notices that Amita doesn’t open her purse, doesn’t even raise it or make the obligatory protest.

* * *

I want to get some gifts for a trip to America, and Papad says I can get some leather goods direct from his factories in Dharavi, which is reputed to be Asia’s largest slum. The workshops are just off the main road, and they are not Papad’s. Vishal is not his “agent”; he is the owner. The paths here are swept clean; drains run along either side of the paving stones, and a little girl wearing an orthopedic bandage on her thigh shits at the entrance to a room. Papad and I enter the workshop, which has a few men sitting on the floor of the hot, dark room, cutting sheets of leather. Papad and Vishal discuss the requirements for the next consignment. Thanks to the Yahoo! search results for “leather goods wholesalers,” Papad has had an inquiry from Germany. “If I can sell to Germany, I can sell anywhere,” he says. The Germans want “azo-free” leather; it is the law there. Vishal’s workers are a mix of Hindu and Muslim. On his desk is an Indian flag; pictures of Hindu gods adorn the wall near him. Above the workers’ side of the room are two paper Pakistani flags, and simple white sheets adorned with Islamic calligraphy.

The workers are mostly from Bihar, the poorest state in the country, and they work fourteen hours a day, from nine to one in the morning, with an hour off for lunch. Sundays they work from nine in the morning to one in the afternoon. If there is an urgent order, they’ ll work all day and all night. Most employers in Dharavi pay their employees by the piece; making a wallet, for example, earns them between fourteen and twenty-five rupees. Vishal’s workers, however, are on salary, to a maximum of 2,800 rupees a month. Vishal is a good employer; once a month, he brings in a TV and video to show them a movie. They start working as young as eight, and do not work past twenty, by which time they’re not so quick or willing to work past midnight. “They have no friends circle, no nothing. In their life, they have no program for the future. They only have their picture theater, Juhu Chowpatty, and Dharavi,” says Vishal. They are illiterate and unused to paper; you can’t give them a sketch and have them translate the abstraction into a leather object, but if you give them a sample which they can hold in their hands, they’ll easily replicate it. They eat for three hundred rupees a week in small hotels; they eat well by Bihari standards, because their meals generally include meat, mostly beef. When they finish working, they lie down on the same patch of ground on which they’ve been sitting for fourteen hours. For the most part, they work in silence, hands moving in automatic gestures.

We see the samples with Papad’s company logo on them: four diamonds arranged to make a larger diamond. And the name, Artemis. “Artemis is a Greek goddess of hunting, and is associated with animals, leather,” explains Papad. “Also, the name begins with ‘art,’ which is what this is—it’s the art of leather.”

Vishal walks us around Dharavi. He and his family own six workshops, making leather goods, gold electroplating units, and an industrial washer unit. On the wall of one room are a whole set of blocks for embossing the designer name of the customer’s choice: YSL, Trussardi, Calvin Klein. He roots around in the box and pulls out famous names and logos. The blocks are available for between 350 and five hundred rupees each. The rooms are on the ground or the first floor, and each of them has a fan jury-rigged at a dangerously low level onto the tin roof, so that you cannot work standing up or your head might be nicked by the whirling blade.

In the midst of the slums there are several multistoryed apartment buildings. These have been built by the state housing authority; they demolish a patch of slum, put the occupants in a transit camp, and allot them the flats when they’re constructed. “The flats are a loss to us,” says Vishal. The residents strenuously oppose being moved to flats with covered toilets and running water and air and light. Vishal shows me the architecture of the slum, the way it has invented itself. Above each dwelling is a workshop. The owner and his family live below, and the commute to work is just up a flight of stairs. “If I am given a room in a flat, where will I build my factory?” he asks. If you’re working fourteen hours a day, then the only time you get to see your children is ten minutes snatched here, fifteen minutes grabbed there, and home has to be right under the office. This is the only time you’ll have for arranging the details of your daughter’s wedding, or meeting in-laws visiting from the vil- lage. A two-hour commute to your factory, which is what a government flat will mean, will kill your life with your family. Also, many of the slum dwellers make some extra income renting out the top storey. In 1999, these two-storey shacks go for half a million rupees ($12,000), a concrete room in an apartment building for considerably less.

Public housing in Bombay is designed like apartment buildings in the West: self-contained rooms, with doors off a long corridor. This is not what the people want. They want a village. It should be more like a college dorm floor, or even a chawl: rooms along winding streets, with doors always open, with plenty of community space. There should be a central courtyard, and balconies that look out on it. But there is an arrogance to architecture in Bombay, especially housing meant for poor people. They are not thought of as “clients.” They are thought of as charity cases; the government is doing them a favor by demolishing their unhygienic shanties and giving them concrete rooms with indoor plumbing. But public housing imposes rigid geometry on the winding streets of a slum village.

A spanking-new luxury skyscraper looms over the area. “That building is only for Jains,” says Vishal. Next to it is a lower apartment block; the developer got to build housing for the rich in return for building concrete housing for the families uprooted when their slum was demolished. But the Jains haven’t flocked to this palace in the middle of the slums, and half the building remains unoccupied, causing a huge loss to the builder. This is because Jains are strict vegetarians. From a thousand tanneries and leather industries all around, the stench of animal hides rises up in the air; the area could not be more revolting to the Jains if it had been purpose-built to torment them. Papad tells me about going to a box manufacturer, who was Jain, to buy boxes to ship his products abroad. The Jain asked what business he was in. When Papad told him, the Jain said, “I’m sorry—we are strict Jains, and we can’t work with anything that has to do with leather. I’ll refer you to another manufacturer.” Papad is disgusted that they can live in the middle of the leather works but not have anything to do with the commerce of it.

* * *

We walk into a tannery. Outside are dozens of drums filled with chemicals. “What if it catches fire?” wonders Papad. “You’ ll be roasted like a chicken.” Inside are hundreds of clotheslines, on which are hung pieces of hide being tanned and dried, and an ancient machine which sports the logo The Turner Tanning Mch Co, Peabody, Mass, USA. In the back is a red, toxic chemical mist; the drains are filled with a red chemical soup. “Is this blood?” asks Papad. Vishal has a diploma in leather tanning, and when he sees the proscribed chemicals, he says, “This is absolutely wrong.”

Further on, we come to the walls of an old fort, the “Black Fort” after which this part of Dharavi is named. Boys are playing cricket against it, and trees grow out of the ancient walls. There is a plaque: Built by order of the Honorable Ino Horn Esq. President and Gourvernor of Bombay in 1737. We meet a real-estate agent. I ask him how big Dharavi is. “Dharavi is between six train stations.” It is an incomprehensibly vast area. A slum is not a slum. It is a series of neighborhoods, of different classes. People in the Kala Killa area will speak with disgust of the Kumbharwada area, “where you won’t be able to breathe and it’s so filthy and men just fight everywhere on the roadside.” Papad tells me that he’s seen a lot of Dharavi, from the times he’s come here. Vishal corrects him: “You have not even seen point one percent. Point zero one percent.” Dharavi was a creek all the time Vishal was growing up, and there were many more mosquitoes than there are now, and the occupants filled up the creek and built the colony. “All this is illegal,” he points out. “But we are all financially well off. Everybody has a factory.” And indeed, every residence has a TV and a fridge. “But it looks bad, because we don’t improve the inside. At any time it could be demolished; then what would be the use?” asks Vishal. Fear of demolition makes the occupants reluctant to upgrade the slum. It’s not as if Dharavi doesn’t have the money. “Dharavi does one hundred crores ($25 million) of business annually,” declares the estate agent. “More,” declares Vishal. Unimaginable is the wealth of Dharavi, whether from legal or illegal enterprise, for those living in Asia’s largest slum.

I give my friend a ride to the bus back to Malabar Hill. Papad says he enjoys the bus, which takes a lot more than an hour each way; he says he prefers it to a taxi. “It would’ve been better if you hadn’t come to India,” he complains. “You’ve come only to go back. You haven’t come here to stay.”

* * *

A couple of months earlier, he had been idly reading The Indian Express when he came upon his horoscope. “A friend will help you,” it said. And then, a month later, I turned up in his life and typed “leather goods wholesalers” in the Yahoo! search engine. This led him, after he left my house, to a Usenet group for buyers and sellers of wholesale leather goods. Papad posted a one-line message to this group: “Our products speak for themselves.” This occasioned eight responses, or “inquiries.” “They may speak for themselves, but please tell us more!” wrote a dealer from Italy. Now Papad has new hope, in his business and in the essential benevolence of destiny. “I told Amita that horoscope turned out to be true. How, roaming, roaming, you turned up in my life now. Why didn’t you come all these years when you came to Bombay, and why now?”

I hadn’t seen him in twelve years, because he had dropped out of the circle of my school friends, who were making their way up in the world of medicine, the stock market, and the diamond business. In the years since I had left, the city had, through a boom-and-bust cycle, separated the winners from the losers.

* * *

We are at Papad’s, or rather, at Papad’s parents’ flat, for dinner. The flat is really a one-bedroom, but the balcony has been taken in and the living room split in two so it makes another bedroom for Papad and Amita. The parents’ bedroom has an air conditioner in it, but Papad’s, although small, is bright and catches the fresh sea breeze from the west.

Papad’s family are Kapol Vaniyas from Surat, the city of gourmets. We enjoy a fine dinner, and they make it a point to serve papads. The meal is marred only by our hosts insisting that we eat more than we really want to.

At dinner we find out that Amita’s birthday has just passed. “What did you do that day?” I ask them.

“Nothing.” Papad spreads his palms outward. “Relaaaaaax.”

“You cheapskate. You didn’t even take her out to dinner?”

“I’ve been married to her for twelve years. We were going out for eight years before our marriage. I used to take her out to dinner then.” We laugh, but there is something uncomfortable in the air; we feel its presence like a fifth person at the table.

After dinner Papad and I go up to the terrace of the building with my son Akash and Papad’s younger daughter. It is a fine terrace, with concrete benches built so you can sit on them and take the evening air. On one side is the lush, thick green of Hanging Gardens, and on the other side, past tall buildings with yellow lights—all the poorer buildings have white tube lights—is the sea. Below us is the vast Nepean Sea Road slum, Simla Nagar. At a party at the American consul’s, I’d met an Iranian woman who found herself, in late middle age, in possession of this entire slum, a dying gift from her lover, a minor prince. It is the way that Bombay, also called “Sone ki Chidiya”—the Golden Songbird, works: it starts trilling all of a sudden for some, and stops mute for others. There is a bright moon in the sky, and my son runs about, pointing a finger at the glowing white orb, saying, “Moo!” After a while we sit down on the bench, and our kids, at peace, put their heads on their fathers’ laps.

Papad explains why he couldn’t take his wife out to dinner on her birthday: He couldn’t afford to. There had been nothing in Amita’s purse that evening in the café in Bandra. For her last few birthdays, he hasn’t been able to give Amita anything. “I have no income. I can’t even buy her a dress.” He would like to go away with his friends for three days somewhere, “but then I need four, five thousand. That’s how I like to go out of town; I should feel free.” Now, too, I understand why he takes a bus all the way when he goes to the workshops in Dharavi.

I listen closely. It is about all I can do, but it counts for something. His younger daughter is sleeping with her head in his lap, her knees drawn up, sleeping with that great concentration with which children do everything. In the dim light I can’t make out his face, and whether there is any moisture upon it. “I don’t go to movies anymore. I send Amita, and I stay home and work on the Internet. The tickets cost a hundred rupees each. I would rather spend that money in my business. This used to be nothing for me—movies, restaurants, they were like nothing for me.” Like everyone else in the stock market, he had done well in the boom years. The family had been able to move out of their one-room in Gamdevi to this flat off Nepean Sea Road. Then, as Papad succinctly puts it, “boom went bust.” He was never very good at the market anyway; he can’t speculate, and he can’t lie. Now he wants his own business, and he loves the process of it. “When I take a piece of leather and I make something, a wallet, a purse, and I hold it in my hands, I feel so happy! I think, I made this! I made a product. In the stock market I felt like a peon. I would just go into the ring and do some work and come back.”

But the leather business hasn’t taken off. The first year he only got three sample orders; the largest of them was for 150 wallets for four hundred dollars. Each time he sent an order, the forwarding agent charged two thousand rupees and the courier four thousand. The best business possibility was a Bulgarian. After the initial samples were accepted, Papad sent him a consignment, out of which eleven different items never reached the Bulgarian; there was a lot of theft at the Sofia airport. At this point Papad, seeking to establish some goodwill at the first sale, told the Bulgarian that he would replace the eleven items at no cost to the client. The Bulgarian later wrote to him that “your goods have been well received in the Bulgarian market.” “My goods were well received in the Bulgarian market,” Papad repeats, savoring the sentence. Papad asked his manufacturer about making the eleven items anew, but after he found out what it would cost to make new dies for the varied items, and the huge cost of sending the material via courier to Bulgaria, he realized that all his profit from the sale would be wiped out. So he phoned the Bulgarian and told him that he would, since his goods had been well received in the Bulgarian market, deduct the cost of the eleven items from the next order. The Bulgarian cooled after that, and never replied to Papad’s e-mails or faxes or phones.