The Killer’s Guide To
UNPUBLISHED CHAPTER FRO
M THE DRAFT OF THE NOVEL
THE KILLER’S GUIDE TO ICELAND
Date: Thu, 6 May 2003, 03:12:52 +0000
Subject: THE KILLER’S GUIDE TO BOMBAY
Bombay, or Mumbai as it has been known since the replacement of
its colonial name in 1996, is India’s largest and most progressive city.
This is a place where fortunes are made and dreams are shattered. It
is a city of stark contrasts, home to both the Bollywood film industry
and to the many poor who stumble in from rural villages in search of a
living. These uncomplaining ‘wallahs’ teeter on the very edge of
subsistence as they ply their various trades. It is their hardscrabble
lives that fuel the city’s roaring street economy.
I had read that the best way to see Mumbai is to hire a taxi wallah
and there were no shortage of eager candidates as I swapped the
cool marble of the Taj Mahal hotel for the sultry air of the harbour
outside it. A little under £200 had secured me two nights in the Taj, a
five star hotel overlooking the Gateway of India. It was supposed to
be a treat, a place where I could enjoy my newfound liberty, but after
five years of confinement, the hotel’s vast rooms, broad corridors and
unbroken sea views felt badly agoraphobic. My first compulsion was
to hide, to lose myself in the minutiae of the city, to become part of
the dirt under its fingernails.
Ichbal Varma, a short man with moist brown eyes embedded in his
face like two gooey dates, was the most persuasive of the drivers that
harangued me on the hotel steps. His shirt unbuttoned to the belly, he
shepherded me into his black and yellow Oxford cab with colourful
promises of dancing girls and opium dens. He boasted that he had
access to parts of the city that tourists rarely see. He would be my
wallah, my fixer, my guide.
I liked Ichbal. He had pluck. I was in two minds whether to kill him.
A pot-bellied Ganesh suspended on glass beads danced under the
rear-view mirror of Ichbal’s cab as he nudged us through a rabble of
buses, trucks, auto-rickshaws, cycles, tuk-tuks, pushcarts, stray dogs
and livestock. You had to question why the cab was equipped with a
rear-view mirror at all, as Ichbal refused to consult it. He used his
horn to force impossible gaps in the traffic and each time we overtook
a vehicle I feared that our cab would be opened up like a sardine tin.
Ichbal claimed that in his twenty years driving he had never been
involved in an accident. Given the number of marginal judgments that
he was making in even this routine journey – and you haven’t really
done Mumbai until you have gone two-wheeled round a blind bend
while squeezing between a sacred cow and an oncoming cyclist with
a tiffin basket on his head – his boast seemed rather fanciful.
We drove through Colaba, Mumbai’s genteel neo-Gothic central
district, its grassy squares click-clacking with cricketers. At every
traffic light the cab was attacked by swarms of young hawkers
attempting to sell jewellery catalogues, travel brochures or year-old
copies of Marie Claire and Vogue. Many of the kids had facial
disfigurements made even more grotesque when seen in close
juxtaposition with the airbrushed cover girls that they pressed on to
my window. Ichbal assured me that it is not advisable to give money
to hawkers as it only reinforces this form of begging as a way of life.
He was not the richest man, he said, but he was proud that he
worked for what little he had.
‘Yes, I live in a slum shack, but I have all I need … a table fan, a
charpoy to sleep on, dhal and roti to eat, two shirts, two trousers and
even a pair of sandals. I have running water that I siphon off illegally
from the main supply and my friend has a TV that we watch together.
I sometimes think what hardship all those rich people must be
suffering, always worrying about their big-big investments and afraid
of thieves taking their watches. Me? I have nothing and everything.”
We sped along Marine Drive and the curve of the bay known as The
Queen’s Necklace. Ichbal pointed out the fortified beachfront
apartment belonging to a top Bollywood star who had recently
escaped a prison sentence despite drunkenly driving his car over four
sleeping beggars, killing them all.
Killer Travel Tip: Murder is easy where life is cheap.
We headed north of the city and into a less salubrious district
bordered by a river that was no more than a swollen drain. The thin
ribbon of water lapped wearily against two muddy banks, its sparkle
derived solely from the silvery skins of the dead fish that floated in it.
Bright plastic bags blew across the surface and cans added colour.
Children dangled their bottoms over the edge of the exposed riverbed
and defecated into the sucking mud. Upstream, clean brightly
dressed women washed pots in the water while others stood and
bathed in it, their severed torsos soaping themselves in the fecal
heat. They scrubbed their teeth with twigs.
‘Where are we going?’ I asked Ichbal.
‘To the dhobi ghat at Saat Rasta, the biggest laundry in Mumbai.
Then you will know this city, her blood, her shit and her stains.’
We parked opposite Mahalaxmi rail station under a dilapidated
billboard advertising Anchor toothpaste. Ichbal introduced me to the
many wallahs that lined the pavement. He seemed to know every one
of the city’s two million street vendors.
We met Jamal, who squatted behind a kerosene-fuelled stove on
which sat a dented aluminium pot bubbling with chana bhatura (deep-
fried chickpeas) that reeked of ginger and ghee. For rush hour
commuters flooding out of the station, Jamal’s stall provided a cheap
and ready breakfast on their way to work.
We stopped at a chai stack that dispensed sickly sweet glasses of
Indian tea for five rupees a go. I declined the stale glucose biscuits
that were displayed inside a dim glass case alive with flies. I opted
instead for a lemon soda that was sold in a tall bottle with a blue
marble stopper to keep the fizz in. The stall owner presented my
change between wrists that finished as stumps. Ichbal said that this
man had lost his hands in the war with Pakistan.
Ichbal then introduced me to a ‘kaan-saaf-wallah’, a man in a red
turban who probed a bamboo rod into my ears. The rod was tipped
with a wad of cotton that he had soaked in glycerine. As it was a
straightforward job of clearing out my earwax he would charge only
ten rupees, explained Ichbal. But if I had an infection, the kaan-saaf-
wallah would need to use mercurochrome or other ointments for
which he would charge double.
A different kind of medicine man operated out of a makeshift tent on
the traffic-choked bridge that overlooked the laundry. Kunal was a
‘hakim’ who practiced alternative healing. Spread out on a mat in
front of him was an arsenal of cloudy glass bottles and rusty tins
containing powdered pearls, gnarled roots and extracts of crushed
belladonna and wild indigo. I asked Kunal to prescribe something for
my sore throat. It had been ravaged by dust on the drive across town
(the air-conditioning in Ichbal’s cab was achieved by winding the
windows down). The hakim felt the pulse at the base of my neck,
examined the soles of my feet. At no point did he look into my throat.
He quickly compounded a mixture that set me back Rs.25.
I considered asking him to concoct something more lethal. He looked
like he might if the money was right. But Ichbal was always within
earshot, a growth on my shoulder that even a hakim couldn’t
eradicate. I had to get rid of him.
Mumbai’s street activity runs the whole gamut from the whimsical to
the horrific and Ichbal catapulted me from one to the other without
warning. Not a hundred yards from the medicine man, I found myself
watching a family of street acrobats. The father raised his baby son
into the air on a bamboo pole and, while his wife beat a small drum,
the child walked a rope strung between two struts a good fifteen feet
above the concrete pavement. Onlookers clapped and coins were
tossed into a bowl. The expressionless father lit a cigarette. He stared
into the middle distance, picking tobacco from his tongue, while his
child flirted with death.
It occurred to me that every day in Mumbai, millions of people
perform this balancing act between life and death. I only had to be
patient and the opportunity to upset the equilibrium would surely
Before venturing down to the dhobi ghat, Ichbal insisted on walking
me further along the bridge to see a street barber or ‘nai’. I was
shown into a seat that appeared to have been salvaged from a burnt-
out bus. The nai handed a vicious looking cutthroat razor to a passing
‘churi-wallah’ who had been pedalling a portable knife-sharpening
machine. The bedlam of the traffic was drowned out by the scream of
steel against steel as the churi narrowed the blade. The ancient
barber slathered my face in a soap that smelt of ammonia. His
sharpened razor was returned and he went to work on my face, flick-
flacking the blade about my cheeks, neck and chin like he was
conducting the Indian Orchestra. His touch was so dextrous and sure
that he even managed to slice off my offending nostril hair. This was
truly the king of shaves, a snip at Rs.15. I handed the nai an Rs.50
note and told him to keep the change. It lessened the guilt as I
walked away with one of his razors secreted in my back pocket.
A parapet on the bridge afforded Ichbal and I a stunning view over
the Saat Rasta dhobi ghat. The open-air laundry that spread out
beneath us looked more like a shantytown. It just went on and on.
Thousands of garments had been laid out to dry on the corrugated
roofs of the densely crowded shacks, creating a vast patchwork of
oranges, violets, yellows, blues, greens and scarlets. Long lines of
clothes criss-crossed a sky that had turned a mucky orange, diffused
by the pollution from the shuddering city below. Wherever you looked,
shirts and saris gesticulated wildly like crowds at a tickertape parade.
The bridge had filled with tourists all keen to take long-lens shots of
the laundry. Ichbal explained that outsiders are not allowed into the
ghat itself, unless they have express permission, or ‘unless they are
with Ichbal’. He said this loudly, prostituting his services to a group of
Japanese holidaymakers that had disgorged itself from a tour bus.
Beggar children buzzed around them, settling like flies and taking off
again when the tourists brushed them away. Some of the kids nipped
their baby brothers and sisters to make them cry, hoping for a
sympathetic coin or a piece of food to pacify them. Ichbal knew one of
the young girls as Laxhmi. She was a pretty thing with haunting blue
eyes, her slight frame supported on two wooden crutches. One of her
feet had been amputated. ‘Laxhmi’s father cut it off when she was a
baby so that she would be able to make people sad for her,’ said
Ichbal. ‘With only one foot she will be able to beg more money.’
A train rollicked across the horizon with passengers hanging off it like
billowing laundry. Ichbal informed me that fifteen people a day die on
Mumbai’s trains and tracks. I asked him if many died in the ghats and
he nodded. He said that his father had been a ‘dobhi-wallah’ or
laundryman. He had been born on a ghat and he had died there after
washing clothes every day of his life. Almost two hundred dhobis and
their families worked together in what has always been a hereditary
occupation, but Ichbal had left his ghat to pursue different work on the
day they burnt his father’s body.
‘I needed to earn the money to pay back the debt of his funeral,’
Ichbal explained. ‘A dobhi does not earn so much. It cost me four
hundred rupees to buy enough hardwood to burn my father’s body so
that the dogs would not find anything left when they dug around in his
cold ashes. When you visit a ghat, you will see many skinny dogs
scrounging around in the ash pits. This is because many families
cannot afford enough wood to burn their dead properly. The dogs are
left with chompy chunks to chew on. But I was determined that they
would not get fat on my father. I have seen many deaths in the ghat
and I have seen many pyres being lit, but none were as impressive
as the one that took my father. I could smell the smoke on my skin
three days later, even after I had washed myself with Lifebuoy many
times. The tourists like to watch our funerals. They don’t know when
to put their cameras away. I have seen them turn and be sick while
the dry-eyed sons of the dead watch their fathers and mothers being
eaten by flames, without their faces even stirring.’
Ichbal told me this as we walked down to the laundry. That’s when I
noticed the smell. The sweet perfume of the cashew trees was hastily
covered by a claggy blanket of shit that had been thrown out of the
ghat. I rolled my lips up to my nostrils and breathed through my
The sound of splashing grew louder as we approached the entrance.
Ichbal folded a note into the palm of a shrivelled sadhu and he
admitted us through.
The ghat itself was a huge dhal-pot of sound and smell, simmering
with all the scents and echoes of India. It teemed with bare-chested
men standing ankle-deep in water and soapsuds, scrubbing and
thrashing garments on stone slabs and rinsing them out in square
tanks. We passed row upon row of these concrete wash pens, each
fitted with its own flogging stone. Every day Mumbai’s dirty laundry is