Author Gary Shteyngart On Mumbai's Glowing Flamingos and Bollywood Bars

as told to Elizabeth Thompson

Gary Shteyngart, one of the funniest and most original satiric novelists today, frequently travels for Travel + Leisure magazine and other publications. Here, the Leningrad-born author of Absurdistan, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Super Sad True Love Story and the forthcoming memoir Little Failure, out January 7th, tells us about going to Mumbai, sight-seeing amid nuclear waste and embracing his "Neiman Marxism."

I travel a lot for Travel + Leisure magazine and went to Mumbai last year with my friend Suketu Mehta, who wrote Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. We had a pretty good time. I really just like to hang out when I travel. I hate museums. I don't get them. The life of the city is the real museum.

My tips for visiting Mumbai are to take a lot of cabs because they're cheap, and to not be afraid of eating everything and then dying. You should also stay at the Taj Mahal hotel if you can. I stayed at the Taj and had my own personal butler named Samrat. I took to having a butler like a fish to water. My butler was so good at cleaning my shoes! As a Marxist, the idea of having a butler upsets me. But as a Neiman Marxist, it makes me happy.

I mentioned this in my Travel + Leisure piece, but some gangsters and police ran us out of a luxury housing building north of Mumbai in east Banda one day. They were demolishing an old housing colony that we had gone to visit before they knocked it down, and the gangsters got pissed off. They chased us off and it actually started to get kind of violent. That was a little scary. And then we saw some radioactive flamingos in a nearby bay that was located next to a crazy nuclear-waste plant. The flamingos glow in the dark at night, but we only saw them during the day. There were these signs up that said things like "Flamingo view," which I thought was funny.

I also met a parrot who told me my future. There was this guy who had a talking parrot, and it told me that I shouldn't work on Saturday. I guess the parrot somehow realized I was Jewish.

I ate a lot of food. I had Bombay duck, which is actually fish. I ate it fried. And I had the vada pav, which is really a street snack, but I had a more high-end version of it. It's like a fried potato fritter inside a piece of bread. Almost like a veggie burger, if you will. I loved it. I went to a great place in Bandra, which is a little like Mumbai's Brooklyn, called Pali Bhavan. They have this thing called galouti kebab, which the menu said was "created for leisure-loving nobles who preferred not to chew." So, like a kebab for a king without teeth. Or a baby. 

I went to this Bollywood bar called WTF, which I think is a chain. There are several WTFs. People there love their Bollywood stars. And the stars look great. They always have great hair. I met a Bollywood star -- I can't remember what her name was -- at a rooftop bar near the Taj. She was a nice woman, who talked psychoanalysis and tango with me. She told me she'd had a great psychoanalyst, but then discovered tango and that became her way of living.

I was in India for a while. I also went to a literary festival in Jaipur. It was nice, because people in India still like to read for some reason. I don't know why. Even if you're nobody, if you're a writer, people want to touch your hand and stuff. All these kids came from an elementary school just to be able to hang out next to a writer. It was very weird. The kids didn't have money for books, so I just signed the air next to them.

Illustration by Lindsay Mound

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