The best books set in Bombay

Thrity Umrigar Author Of Honor
By Thrity Umrigar

Who am I?

I lived in Bombay until I was 21. During my teenage years I had a love-hate relationship with the city, mostly noticing its poverty, the pollution, and the crowds. But as a writer, I have come to love the city for its resilience, its sweet toughness, its heartbreaking beauty. I love reading books by other writers that are set in this endlessly fascinating metropolis of 22 million, each with their own story to tell, stories that float in the air in front of us, ready to be plucked and set on paper. 


I wrote...

Honor

By Thrity Umrigar,

Book cover of Honor

What is my book about?

Indian American journalist Smita has returned to India to cover a story, but reluctantly: long ago she left the country with no intention of coming back. As she follows the case of Meena—a Hindu woman attacked by members of her own village and her own family for marrying a Muslim man—Smita comes face to face with a society where tradition carries more weight than one’s own heart and a story that threatens to unearth the painful secrets of Smita’s own past. While Meena’s fate hangs in the balance, Smita tries to right the scales. She also finds herself increasingly drawn to Mohan, an Indian man she meets while on assignment. But the dual love stories of Honor are as different as the cultures of Meena and Smita themselves.

The books I picked & why

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Midnight's Children

By Salman Rushdie,

Book cover of Midnight's Children

Why this book?

I left India for grad school in the U.S. at age 21 and a friend gave me this novel two weeks before I left the city. Reading it made me want to never leave because Rushdie took the dusty, dirty, chaotic city of my birth and gave it a new shine in his mad carnival of a novel. I was a product of an Anglophile education—this was the first time I could recognize the names of the streets he wrote about. Rushdie employs elements of magical realism and the Hinglish vernacular to paint a vivid picture of India from the heady promise of Independence to the dark days of the authoritarian Emergency in the 1970s. The result is a masterpiece that will be read as long as books are being read. 


Family Matters

By Rohinton Mistry,

Book cover of Family Matters

Why this book?

Rohinton Mistry’s masterwork Family Matters is as precise and delicate and realistic as Rushdie’s work is fantastical and flamboyant, a whisper instead of a shout. This book has a special resonance for me because the main characters are Parsi, a small, unique community in India, followers of the Zoroastrian faith that I was raised in. Mistry’s canvas is deceptively small and domestic—the squabbles of a family over caregiving and physical space—but this belies the emotional power of this moving novel. This is a 19th-century novel transposed to 21st-century India.


Breathless in Bombay

By Murzban F. Shroff,

Book cover of Breathless in Bombay

Why this book?

This collection of short stories by another Parsi writer paints an affection and compassionate picture of the metropolis, as seen from the eyes of its motley crew of residents—a laundryman, a writer, a cab driver. Shroff’s generosity and love for his city come through in every story.

This book, with its powerful evocation of the city and its description of the minutia of everyday life, left me nostalgic and breathless for Bombay.


Behind the Beautiful Forevers

By Katherine Boo,

Book cover of Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Why this book?

I absolutely adore this brilliant work of nonfiction by the journalist Katherine Boo. Not only is she a writer’s writer, her powers of observation are only matched by the depth of her compassion for her characters. By spending time with the rag pickers, junk collectors, and other residents who live in a slum located in the shadows of the gleaming new Bombay airport, Boo tells a story about poverty, inequality, police, and political corruption, and the corrosive effects of globalization. The book’s sweep is breathtaking as is its unforgettable portrait of the individual residents and their heartbreaking stories.


Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

By Suketu Mehta,

Book cover of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

Why this book?

Mehta’s propulsive, strangely entertaining nonfiction book takes us into subterranean Bombay—into the underworld gangs, the bar dancers, the pavement dwellers. Despite its oft-times grim subject matter, the book exudes an energy and excitement that is reflective of the maximum city itself. As someone who grew up in a genteel, middle-class household in Bombay and was not familiar with the world described by Mehta, this eye-opening book served as a guide to places I have never been and roads I have never traveled.


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