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. The city sent a steady supply of dead babies, often girls, to the garbage mountains, along with its other expendables; mothers who couldn’t bear to tell their families they had delivered a girl sometimes threw her in the trash instead.
Farzana had occasionally unearthed them while rifling through rubbish. But as she tugged the baby girl out, two baby boys came up too, their stomachs fused to the girl’s. The three had probably died together, unable to survive with or without each other, she thought. Farha said she had heard that lunar eclipses caused unborn babies to split or deform within wombs. This baby must have been born as three, she told the group.
Farzana stretched her arms out, cradling the life- less babies. She began to make her way carefully down the wobbly slope, holding them gently. Behind her, the mountain rose like a teetering hulk, made up of Mumbai’s detritus, held in place with a topping of mud.
She waited for her friends to catch up. From high up on the next peak they could see the vertiginous trash moun- tains curve around them and stretch out into the distance. Together, the hills curled like a long sliver of crescent moon. Trash-made homes were dug into the inside of the moon’s curve, and a shimmering creek arched around the outer edge. The creek ran into the Arabian Sea, which rimmed the island city of Mumbai.
Rag-pickers such as Farzana called the garbage mountains khaadi, the Hindi word for creek. Nobody quite knew where the name came from but, standing high on a mountain clearing, you did feel as if you were floating in an undulating and smelly sea of garbage that faded into an unending expanse of glim- mering blue sea in the distance. Farzana continued her walk through the rising and ebbing trash.
When they neared the creek, Farzana’s friends dug their garbage forks into soft sand where the trash slopes petered into a rivulet. A few pickers came out of houses built on stilts, which lifted them above the trash at low tide and nearly immersed them in the waves at high tide. They walked over to see the babies and helped Farzana’s friends shovel sand. The tide was rising and gentle waves inched closer to them. Torn clothes and plastic bags bobbed in the water and dripped from the branches of mangrove trees. Farzana felt a gentle breeze approach through the creek. It rustled through the old trees, through the leaves and plastic that filled their branches and shivered through her.
She lowered the babies into their shallow grave. Her friends covered them with sand and whispered prayers. They usually came this way later in the afternoons, to wade and swim in the rising tide. Farzana liked to stay until the setting sun faded behind the fetid hills, giving them a dusty pink glow, and the waves turned metallic. That was when she thought the mountains looked their best.
That afternoon they walked hurriedly back across the hills to find their father, who was waiting and hungry. Hyder Ali Shaikh was standing, tall, gangly and gaunt, on a quiet slope, his face lit up in a tobacco-stained grin. They sat down to eat. Both sisters wore salwar kameezes with cotton jackets to keep the mud and trash away from their clothes, and errant strands spilled out of the scarves they wrapped around their long, loosely bundled hair.
While Farzana was prickly and quiet with teenage awkwardness, Farha, at fifteen, had stayed smiling and baby-faced. Over the lunch that Hyder Ali had brought from home, she told their father about their morning adventure. Uncharacteristically terse, he asked them not to venture near the graves again. Ye sab cheez chhodta nahi hai, he remarked. These things have a way of not leaving you.
Excerpted with permission from Mountain Tales: Love and Loss in the Municipality of Castaway Belongings, Saumya Roy, Profile Books.