‘Mountain Tales’ review: Where home is a rubbish mountain 20 storeys high

Soma Basu 23 October 2021 16:55 IST
Updated: 22 October 2021 14:58 IST

A gut-wrenching story of the poor and marginalised who work and live at Mumbai’s Deonar landfill to earn their daily bread

Rag pickers live off what the rest of the world throws away. They lead invisible lives in the landfills that keep growing, stagnating and putrefying with items discarded by the city’s rich. The dark trail of modern life is seen and felt everywhere.

Journalist Saumya Roy, who spent eight years researching the impact of urbanisation, over-consumption and waste mismanagement in Maximum City, describes it as ‘discarded desires’ of the moneyed-people. The grossness of disparity between the world of the rich and the poor compelled her to explore the lives of rag pickers in 2013, when she co-founded Vandana Foundation to support the livelihoods of Mumbai’s poorest micro-entrepreneurs.

Unspoken trauma


Roy initially planned to write a magazine article but in 2016 after fire erupted in Deonar’s garbage mountains engulfing the city in its smoke and the pickers got arrested, her Mountain Tales took shape as she witnessed the unspoken trauma of the marginalised community. She knew they struggled to feed their families and continued to live in anguish in the place because they believed it gave them an opportunity to earn.

Recycling, reselling and reusing waste is a way of life for the human scavengers but inside their collective world of filth and poverty, is the silent and harsh battle with illnesses, pollution, injuries, misery, neglect, death and despair. It tugged at Roy’s heart and she began chronicling the daily life of teenager Farzana Shaikh, her parents and eight siblings, extended family members and friends. The teetering piles of deliveries brought them everything “from stale food, recyclable material, dead animals, foetuses of newly born, medical and plastic waste, old clothes, broken furniture, glass and twisted metal.”

How the waste pickers live in rotting garbage, sewage and toxic chemicals to find clothes, food, love and friendship; how they relentlessly search for items to sell for a living and in the process clean up a significant proportion of waste generated daily by the city; how they get injured while working with waste and sometimes crushed under the wheels of bulldozers; the stigma they face and remain out of any welfare scheme — all this drives Roy’s powerful narrative.

She critically examines the relationship between the comfort of the better-offs and the accumulating waste at Deonar landfill estimated to be in existence for 122 years housing millions of tonnes of waste spread over 314 acres of land. The garbage dumps are as high as 20-storeyed apartments.

The poorest of the poor reach the landfill slums with the faith that the dumping grounds will shape their lives. It perhaps does for those who chase and get lucky to sort the new trash delivery trucks or bribe the municipality and police to put their hands in first to strike gold from the garbage. The rest live around and continue to scour the dump in hope.

Spectacle of decay

The garbage mountains have a toxic halo, says the author, in her telling account. With age and gender no bar, the waste pickers instil life into the mammoth graveyard of belongings of the privileged: they resell things that come from the city, they eat, wear, hoard and play with them. “They stalk the waste and make for a world that is a mirror image of ours,” writes Roy.

She details every instance with care and empathy and her lucid writing not only draws the reader but also helps to reflect upon how one person’s trash impacts another’s life. There are pending court cases aimed at controlling entry of garbage into Deonar’s landfills. But the garbage mountains have remained a spectacle of decay even as the lives that the waste pickers build on it get more fragile.

Mountain Tales; Saumya Roy, Profile Books/ Hachette, ₹699.