But I may have been very wrong, very middle-class in my thinking. After spending a month travelling the length and breadth of our confoundingly claustrophobic metropolis, visiting healthposts in 'slum' areas, setting up health camps inside houses, no, not houses, but huts, I have understood that these are real communities, teeming with aspirational, upwardly-mobile, intelligent, hardworking people, most of them immigrants from the far-off regions of distant states, others hailing from war-ravaged countries in our South Asian neighbourhood.
I always had this fantasy in my head, of people being seduced by the mirage of Bombay as a glittering city with the untold promise of wealth and luxury, luring them away from their clean, pastoral existence into the grimy muck of the ruthless, heartless city. Now, I realize that this was an oversimplification of the highest order.
People leave their homes, only and only when their existence becomes unbearable there, only when they realize that there is absolutely no way for their lives to improve, if they stay where they are. In other words, they immigrate from a place of no hope to a place where they think they can hope, hope for better lives, if not for themselves then at the very least, for their children.
My own great-grandfather left his ancestral home in another state, persecuted for his religious beliefs and linguistic allegiances, to come to this benevolent leveller of a city where three generations later, his great-grandchildren no longer speak his dear mother tongue with any felicity, nor do they hold that sacred religion close to their heart. But they survive. They thrive. I wonder if he would have believed, as I do, that tradition was a good thing to barter with, in exchange for prosperity.
I admire each day these people I meet. They are smiling, hard-working people, not as disillusioned with the state of affairs as me and my friends are. They want the very best that their money can provide for their children, education and healthcare that wud have been impossible to achieve in their native villages.
Everywhere we went, we were spoken to politely, greeted smilingly, invited into humble but tidy homes for tea and biscuits. There were old women who asked after my family, young men who shyly asked me my name, children who asked me how they cud become doctors, too. These were not the tragic half-starved working-classes of my overheated imagination, these were robust people, confident in the future they cud build in this incredible 'maximum city' as a writer called it. They did not despair, they just got on with their lives.
I wondered if Gregory David Roberts did not grossly exaggerate the life of slum-dwellers in Shantaram; I was always doubtful if his foreigner's eye and subsequent rise in life did not colour his 'somewhat true' story. But I was perhaps more foreign to these places than he was. He'd lived here, right beside the people he wrote about. And I understood now what fascinated him.
As for Danny Boyle, I admit I was wrong about his film. I can see now, just as he saw, the traces of great beauty in the harshest of faces, in the darkest of places.
My parents have always tried to educate me about the importance of keeping an open mind when visiting foreign lands. I begin to understand they did not mean only other countries. I can also see that it's hard to leave the comfortable world one belongs to, to dip into unknown worlds with unknown dangers, but these journeys are definitely worth it.