I know you’ve heard about the dabbawalas of Mumbai — illiterate men who have devised their own coding system to deliver hot-lunch boxes to schools and offices all across the city. I know you know that despite their inability to read the addresses they are delivering to, their failure rate is so minuscule that the Harvard Business School sent a team to Mumbai to study their system. You may have also seen the movie The Lunchbox, the plot of which is predicated on this hard-to-believe food delivery system.
But have you heard about the earwax removers — the men who squat on the sidewalk, removing wax from the ears of their clients? Have you heard of the corn removers, who cradle men’s feet in their hands as they shave their corns? Or the champi-maalishwalas, the illiterate masseuses who prowl the beachfront, offering vigorous head and shoulder massages to male clients? Have you read about the entertainers who make bears and monkeys dance on the streets, or those who follow you around with a scale and offer to take your weight? Unless you are a native of Mumbai, you most likely haven’t heard about the bone setters, men who have no medical training but claim to set broken bones.
What about the rag pickers or the rat-poison sellers or the impoverished women (ah, finally a profession that employs women) who roam the city with a skeletal cow and bundle of hay and call out in their high, nasally voices to passersby, “Buy some hay to feed the cow,” in exchange for a few measly coins of charity?
When I was a toddler in India, the cow woman’s piteous chant used to waft over into our large, comfortable, middle-class apartment every afternoon and make me burst into tears. Nobody knew why, least of all me. It was the minor key, the blue note, I suppose. But my uncontrolled sobbing got to be such a regular occurrence that my aunt began to pay the woman to walk past our apartment building without making a sound.
Every major city has its weird occupations; every city has its poor. But only Bombay — and yes, for me, the city will forever be Bombay, although I will self-consciously refer to it as Mumbai here — can boast (if that’s the right word) of having Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi, with more than a million residents. In fact, about 41 percent of Mumbai’s estimated 22 million residents live in slums, according to India’s census data.
As a middle-class child growing up in this teeming city, I used to pass the earwax guy squatting on the sidewalk not too far away from my home. I used to watch my father lie down on the warm sands of Chowpatty Beach and get an impromptu massage. (When I treated my father to a proper massage in America, he was shocked at how much it cost. “Go, go,” he said to me. “My roadside massagewala can put these people to shame.”) An aunt of mine once tripped over an entertainer’s sleeping bear on the sidewalk in her haste to catch a bus for work. (Let sleeping dancing bears lie?)
From a young age, I used to wonder: How can one possibly earn a living doing such desultory work, occupations that are so dependent on the whims and mood of the public? One of the most enduring memories of my childhood is that of watching scrawny, sweaty men, their bare skins burned black by the sun, straining to push a wooden handcart piled with long steel rods or other heavy loads up a steep bridge. And for this backbreaking work, they would earn wages too low to send their children to school or pay for a meal at a restaurant. Nor would they ever be able to buy even a tiny apartment or pay a doctor’s bill in full.
I used to ask my family about the mind-bogglingly hard work these men performed, transporting goods all across the city in their primitive handcarts. And I got the same, blithe answer that middle-class parents everywhere give to children whose sense of fairness has not yet been blunted into apathy: “These people are used to hard work,” they’d say to me. “Their muscles are strong from doing this work.” They might as well have said, “They are used to being beasts of burden.” But I knew the adults were not telling the truth. The proof was before my eyes, in how profusely the men sweated and strained as they transported their cargo. In how they used to stop to mop their brows, holding the cart against their backs, to keep it from sliding downhill.
But despite their brutal hard work, the handcart pushers were at least part of the formal business sector in this most enterprising of Indian cities, the financial heart of India. As such, they were guaranteed a basic income, as long as their bodies didn’t give out.
But what about those who were even more marginalized? What about the snake charmers? What about the junkmen? What about the parrot astrologers and roadside fortune-tellers? How did they earn enough to stay alive in a city where even middle-class people complained about the rising cost of food and runaway inflation? How did they do it, how did they survive? These questions haunted me throughout my childhood. I would tease the edges of those questions, ponder them as if they were a riddle that I would eventually solve.
When, years later, I wrote my novel, The Space Between Us, I focused on a member of a different type of underclass. One of my two protagonists was Bhima, a domestic servant who has worked for an affluent Parsi family for more than 20 years. Bhima’s life was less of a mystery to me, because, like every middle-class family in India, we employed maids and domestic servants. And even though in some ways these women were strangers to us — we knew very little about their lives after they disappeared into the slums at the end of the workday — they were also constant, familiar presences in our homes during the day. We got to know their quirks and idiosyncrasies, their stories and tragedies (alcoholic husbands, errant sons, murdered daughters, dowry-hungry in-laws). We knew who was honest, who stole, who was absentminded, who could be trusted with the house when we were away.
Not all employers got that close to their servants, of course. At one of my book readings, a young Indian woman approached me with tears in her eyes. She told me the story about how, when she lived in India, she had fired her servant for stealing milk from her. After reading Space, she said, she had gained a new perspective. She had come to the reading to tell me this story. It was as if she needed absolution. And she wanted me to know her new resolution: When she returned to India, she would make sure to provide her new maid with food and milk for her children. Believe it or not, this exchange was one of the most gratifying moments of my literary career.
In the years since Space was published, in 2006, there was another character who haunted me — Parvati. She is a terribly minor character in the original novel, a vegetable vendor who Bhima resolutely ignores as she shops for groceries for her employer in the open-air market. But I found myself frequently thinking about Parvati, who earns her living by selling six cauliflowers a day. Six. How does a human being survive by selling six cauliflowers a day? How much of a profit could she possibly make? Why is she so poor that she cannot double her inventory? What has gone so terribly wrong in her past to have brought her so low?
These were the questions I would periodically ask myself over 10 years. I didn’t know the answer, because I although I was born in a poor country, I had won the life lottery and, through sheer good fortune, was born to middle-class parents. Indeed, my interest in Parvati’s life circumstance was more than literary — it was sociological. She wasn’t just a character, but an embodiment of those people who populated my childhood, who demonstrated that Western concepts of what it means to be marginalized don’t even come close to the reality for millions, if not billions, in the developing world.
And then, one day, the answer came to me. I stood still as I “watched” the story of Parvati’s past unspool before me, almost as if I was watching a film projected on the wall. And once I knew Parvati’s backstory, I realized that I desperately wanted to write about her — and that I wanted to put her story next to Bhima’s and see if conversation and trust and solidarity could develop between two marginalized, temperamental, maltreated women.
And this is why I wrote The Secrets Between Us, the sequel to Space. They say every novel begins with a question that the writer tries to answer for herself. That is most certainly true of this new novel. As I wrote, I felt myself filled with admiration and respect for Parvati — and for millions of women just like her who populate this earth and are the backbones of most societies.
This is what I hope my new novel can do — make readers understand that what the world’s poor, the marginalized people who cling to the edges of existence, deserve is not our pity but admiration. That as odd as some of the professions may be, for millions of people they are the difference between living and dying. And that the creativity and ingenuity exhibited by these men and women should make them objects of awe and veneration.