Journalist, social activist, and professor Saumya Roy joins Zibby to talk about her first book, Castaway Mountain, which is the culmination of eight years of interviews with and research on the wastepickers in the garbage landfill of Mumbai. Saumya shares how she first became involved with wastepickers after she and her father began a non-profit that offers loans to microentrepreneurs and was approached by a number of those who managed the landfill. She wanted to not only show the world who these individuals are and how they have built their lives but also how we as a global community are constantly generating waste which greatly contributes to climate change.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Saumya. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Castaway Mountain: Love and Loss Among the Wastepickers of Mumbai.

Saumya Roy: Thank you for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: This is such a pleasure. Where are you these days? Where are you for this Zoom, in the world?

Saumya: I just moved, last week, to Berkeley, California, to teach at the university here.

Zibby: Wow. I’m sorry, it’s early.

Saumya: No, that’s okay. Just for this. I’m teaching about writing on India, actually.

Zibby: That’s so interesting. Would you mind telling everybody what your book is about?

Saumya: My book is about the garbage landfill of Mumbai, except when you think of a landfill you think it’s buried into land. This is actually rising up like mountains that are 120 feet high or like twenty small buildings, so mountains that are that high just made of trash packed in with mud, so literally feel like a mountain, made up of everything that we used and threw away. Just as Mumbai was getting wealthier, these mountains were getting higher. Like cities all over the world, Mumbai was struggling to manage its waste. The only people taking trash away from these mountains were wastepickers, who I happened to meet. I followed some of their lives for about eight or nine years. This book is about these mountains made of our castaway things and these people who live there and make a life there and the only people who take anything away from there. What are their lives made of?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, what an undertaking to do that for such a long term as a project. It’s amazing. Can you explain how you originally met Farzana, who you follow through the book?

Saumya: I was a journalist. Then I left and started a nonprofit. We used to give small loans to microentrepreneurs across the city. We began getting wastepickers in 2013. They approached us saying, “Can you give us a loan?” I said, “What business is this? What do you do? Our loan is going to go bad because the only thing that you can pick is with your bare hands, so how are you going to grow this business? What business is this? How are you going to grow this? My loan is going to go bad.” The way they presented it was the total opposite. They were like, “This is one business that’s never going to — is trash ever going to reduce? Never. We’re never going to run out of work. We can keep growing it. We can keep employing people. You have no idea how big this place is.” They began bringing me videos, photos. I began following them. When I went there, it became clear to me that — they were repaying us perfectly. They were earning, but poverty was on their paths. It was in the carts. It was in the bruises that they got working in these garbage mountains. Their homes were made of the garbage mountains. Their life was on the mountain. They wore what they found. They ate what they found, ready-to-eat foods. They were cut by glass. They were jabbed by syringes they found there. When we say poverty is not only for money, but it is on their person. It was in the illnesses that they got from working in this place. It became clear to me that their life was intertwined with this garbage mountain that we made. Then in 2016, there were huge fires there. I thought, why don’t I write a magazine story about this? Then I began researching, how was this place made? How did it come to be? Slowly, it grew and grew and grew and became a book.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. You write in such vivid detail about the trash mountains. There’s one image that I cannot get out of my head, which was the image of the conjoined triplets that were just thrown away and how there was this whole history of throwing away babies as trash to be discovered with their whole body intact. I couldn’t get that image of the conjoined triplets out of my head. I couldn’t believe that people just left their kids in that way. Tell me more about that. That was harrowing detail.

Saumya: What goes in garbage is something that we don’t think anybody’s going to discover. We put it into trash cans or into trash bags thinking this will just disappear or vanish. A lot of secrets come there, including babies. In a larger sense, in India, we do have this issue of missing girls, some of whom are aborted, some of whom are not even aborted, may be born, but left in trash cans. My hunch is that they’re going to disappear. Nobody thinks, what happens at the landfill that somebody finds them? You just want them to disappear from your life. What goes there is out of sight. Why I use this incident — at first, even I found it unbelievable, so I actually asked many wastepickers about it. So many wastepickers told me that they found babies. They found dead babies. It’s not the norm that every day you would find one. If you have worked there your whole life, many people have found them, some of whom maybe came as biomedical trash, I don’t know, but some as unwanted babies. They find more girls than boys, but they do sometimes find boys as well.

Zibby: How many wastepickers did you follow? How many did you interview over the course of the project?

Saumya: We used to lend to them, which is how I first knew them. We must have lent to more than five hundred, all of whom I interviewed, at first for loan purposes, so I knew their stories. When I thought I would write a magazine story, from that point onwards, there were at least half a dozen who I interviewed for — this book follows four families, mainly Farzana and her family, but there are four families who I followed over these eight or nine years. I’m continuing to follow them for different reasons. Also, there were many of those. Even for the book, you see all these different characters coming and going out who live in that lane or who I asked, “Did this really happen? Is this possible?” They would say, “Yes, of course, I found it too. I knew this too. I had seen this too.” I would say hundreds of people were interviewed. While one particular incident was used, even just to check it and verify it — so many things, you feel like, what? Is this real? Certainly, lots of people were being asked for those kinds of things.

Zibby: What were some takeaways after you went through this and followed this and collected all this data and observation and everything? What were some of your main takeaways and findings?

Saumya: My book is not a prescriptive kind of a book. It was more introspective, a little bit. It certainly encouraged readers to think that — going to this place made me feel, what gives meaning to our life? If we accumulate things thinking that — certainly, I feel that way sometimes, accumulating things sometimes, whether it gives us comfort — during the lockdown, I felt that food or things or clothes, pillows, whatever, they give us comfort. They do, but if that is what gives meaning to our life, then why do I see it there at the garbage landfill just piled up squashed together so soon after we acquired it? A cell phone, heel shoes, all the things that we feel give us shine, give us comfort, if they ended up there, then how are they giving so much meaning in life? It just encouraged me to think.

I saw wastepickers who didn’t have so much, but they did have relationships. In some ways, you could say that their life was very difficult, and it is, but in some ways, it was filled with a lot. I don’t mean to romanticize it, by any means, but it was filled with a lot. It didn’t present itself to me as a dark place, but as, also, a place where children were growing up, where they were having birthday parties. Teenagers were having romances. They were finding things, also a joyful childhood even without having a lot. They didn’t have a lot, which was a different kind of a thing. In saying so, I don’t mean to romanticize it, but just that it encouraged me, certainly as a reader, to think and to introspect about what it is that gives meaning to our lives. That’s one. On a more policy perspective, I certainly felt that — waste is waste. The climate impact that it has is certainly something that this brought out, that landfills are a major cause of pollution and climate change and that they do need to be remediated across the world. I did visit the landfill in New York City as well, Fresh Kills.

Zibby: My little kid’s school does field trips there every year. We go. We pick up trash. Then we explore. It’s a whole thing.

Saumya: It’s going to turn into a park now.

Zibby: Crazy.

Saumya: That gave me a lot of hope. What really is to be done with this waste? How do cities struggle to deal with it? In this case, while the city was thinking from a very technocratic perspective — how do we turn it into ash and the ash into bricks? — there are people involved. There lives involved. How do we intertwine these into any kind of solution as well? That was certainly something that came out of my research.

Zibby: Amazing. Wait, so tell me about the nonprofit. Are you still running that as well, or you don’t do that anymore?

Saumya: Less so. It is running. The foundation is still running, but not at the scale that it once was because I’ve been busy writing this book.

Zibby: How long did it take for you to write the book? What was your process like?

Saumya: At first, accidental. I had slow typing, never written a book. As you can see, it’s not written in a very typical journalistic way. It’s like a nonfiction novel, as it was. At first, I thought that it would be a magazine piece. Then just the research, what is this place? I remember a wastepicker telling me, “Do you know this is here since colonial times?” as if it were a monument. It’s not a monument. It’s trash. What are you saying? How is that possible? I began looking at colonial archives. Then I heard there was a court case. When I went to court, it seemed like, oh, my god, this place is just going to shut down. They seemed so purposeful. When I saw the date — the case had been going on for twenty-six years. I immediately thought, what? If it’s been going on for twenty-six years, why is this place still going? I wanted to find out. It turned out that for twenty-six years, it seemed like it would just close, it would just close, it would just close, but it had not. It has still not closed. There were many policy-related questions, legal questions. Slowly, my research just grew. Also, of course, around the wastepickers, so many things were happening to them around this period. I kept chronicling it and writing. I was fortunate to get a lot of writing residencies that gave me the time to write in the way — I felt that there had to be a certain grace to their life. It should not be written in a very raw way because that was so many of their characters. They was so much grace in their characters. It had to be written in that way.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. I love the whole determination, the way this whole project has evolved, just from a deep place of interest. You have to write about something that will keep your interest for so long. Look at how you stuck with this topic, even the way you talk about it, like wanting to write about it gracefully. You’re right, it does read much more like a story than a reported article or something like that. It’s the story of someone’s life, which is, of course, endlessly fascinating, and especially growing up in this way. It raises so many questions about how we use things and recycling and how we consume anything, really. I always feel now, when I’m putting something in the trash, I’m like, this is so ridiculous. All the people who are involved in making this item, all the factories, and getting it on the shelves, and then I used it, like some sort of packaging or a toy or I don’t know what, and then two seconds after I get it, it’s in the trash again off to go where? It’s a reminder for us all to stop in our tracks and rethink. What was it like at all of your writing residency programs? I’ve never done a writing residency. I’m always so fascinated. How do they help you? What did you learn? Did you get to just toil away in a cabin? What was it like? What’d you get out of it?

Saumya: I loved it. As you know, Mumbai is one of the most hyperkinetic cities in the world. My first writing residency was in Upstate New York in a cabin, in a cottage, I should say. Snow all around, absolute silence except for the wind, just white all around you, as different as was possible from muggy Mumbai. It just slowed my mind down completely. It was as if this world came to me in slow motion allowing me to process it, allowing me to capture it. I was alone in my room, but you know that there are the most amazing writers working on their computers in some room next to you. That itself was very inspiring, to know that somebody else is also struggling with their writing, rewriting, throwing away drafts. That is a very inspiring and wonderful feeling. When we meet for meals, some of the best-known writers who you idolize are looking just as troubled as you feel inside. Then sometimes when you go for a walk or you go for a boat ride or something, then you talk about it. Hey, what are you going through? How are you? Sometimes writers are . Sometimes they’re not. For instance, I had the good fortune even of finding some fiction writers at writing residencies or having music composers or scientists, doctors. When we go for a walk, then we’ll just talk about different things. How are you dealing with what you are? How do they structure stories? How do they bring out characters and stories? How do they use dialogue in stories? You get to learn so much from what they’re doing in a very informal or unexpected way.

Zibby: That sounds amazing. It’s wonderful. Could you give me the short version of how you even got to the nonprofit stage, your background up until then, where you grew up, and when you knew you were interested in this type of stuff? What’s your little life story?

Saumya: I always wanted to be a journalist since I was in high school. I grew up in India. I always wanted to be a journalist. I studied journalism in the US, worked here briefly, went back, worked in journalism. I wrote about all kinds of things. In Mumbai, I’ve written about the stock market. I’ve written about Bollywood, everything. I found myself increasingly drawn to these sorts of stories. Once, I had written about redlining, which is a practice — at that point, India’s economy was booming. There was a consumption boom. I remember everybody would get phone calls. Would you like a loan for a holiday to Europe? Would you like a loan to have a big Indian wedding? You can get a loan. I had done a story that if you did not live in a nice part of town, did not belong to the right religion, that banks would not lend. They would just say, oh, sorry, we can’t give you a loan. You can’t open even a savings account. I had brought out documents to say that if you lived in this area, they would hang up on you, basically, on all financial services. I had this in my mind that if I ever had money on my reporter savings, I would like to do something about this and also about farmer suicides, which is another part of the foundation.

In 2010, my father and I — he had retired from government service. We started this nonprofit. I had no experience of managing anyone or any organization. I just was stumbling and learning. It was small, but we were growing. It was endlessly fascinating because we were meeting people like this who had their own businesses. It was like seeing the city from the bottom up, people who made shoes, people who made snacks, women who made lunches, women who collected trash. We were just seeing this amazing perspective of the city, how people run many businesses to keep their families growing. You see their gumption every day, their strength, their sense of humor, their strong sense of self. All of these things just kept me learning and growing every day, so much so that I stopped writing. Then it was in 2016 when these fires happened. I thought, hmm, maybe I should write a magazine piece, and the journey of this book began.

Zibby: You said you were teaching about writing about India to your students. What are some of the things that you’re teaching them? What do people have to know about that as a specific genre?

Saumya: The students are from America, but they’re also from Italy, from Spain, from different places. One of the things we look at is, obviously, India being a very old and ancient society, but a democracy, the world’s largest democracy. I encourage them to look at it a little bit as a mirror to the US as well. There’s so many cracks in society, like my book also shows. Those cracks are along so many lines like gender, like race, like caste in India, class both in the US and India. We are looking at, what are the democratic ways in which so many of these things can be talked about, can be, if not addressed, then at least, how do you have that conversation in countries like in the US and in India? We see them to be a mirror of each other in so many ways. We read stories, say, about India or about the US. We are studying gender this week and how to report and write on gender. They’re reading a story about rural Indian women. This girl wrote back in her assignment saying, “I see very similar struggles in the US also. Women are struggling to work, to balance families, to balance expectations of their families, and yet have a sense of self, have a sense of their own dreams and balance those with what their family is constantly tugging at them for.” I said, “That’s exactly it. They’re not different,” which is also what I hope with Farzana. In so many ways, she seems so different. She also is somebody in such a different physical surrounding and yet somebody who wants jeans, somebody who wants to be loved and to love, and so not so very different.

Zibby: Amazing. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Saumya: To learn to enjoy it. I think it’s like a muscle. Sometimes, I find, every day, sitting there at the computer and just typing away and not thinking, what have you written? When you write and you read, then suddenly, it’s like the story’s — when you see it in nonfiction, it’s actually happening. As you write and you read, it comes alive on the page. Allow that space for the story just to come alive. Don’t give up. Sometimes you look at it and, oh, this is no good. I don’t want to write any more. You sometimes have to allow it to come alive. You just write. You rewrite. Sometimes it’s not good, but it’s your mind clearing. As you keep writing, suddenly, oh, yeah, this is exactly how she looked at that moment. Maybe this is what she was trying to say. I remember calling Farzana sometimes and saying, “Is that what you were trying to say at that point?” She would be like, “Yeah, I think so.” Allow that thought process to come out on the computer. Sometimes it’s almost unconscious as you’re typing and you’re thinking. That thinking is happening as you write. Allow that space for rewriting. Keep rewriting. Something will emerge.

Zibby: I love that.

Saumya: If not polished, that is beautiful in its own way.

Zibby: Aw, that’s great. Thank you so much. Saumya, this has been so interesting. I never would have learned about the wastepickers. This is a collection of lives and, essentially, jobs that I never ever would have come across or thought about. Now it’s changed the way I think about use and trash and everything. It’s always just so neat to take away something from every book that changes the way I see the world. Your book really did that. Thank you for introducing me and all the other readers to your characters and their lives and Farzana and everybody. It was really awesome.

Saumya: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. It was a pleasure and an honor being with you.

Zibby: Good. Take care. Thanks again. Buh-bye.

Saumya: Thank you so much, Zibby. Bye.



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