Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
By Suketu Mehta (Knopf, 542 pages)
Bombay is my favorite city in the world, and like many others with a deep passion for the city, I find it as endlessly frustrating as I find it endlessly fascinating. Everything about the city poverty, beauty, bureaucracy, generosity, overcrowding, glamour, pollution is explosively, exponentially more intense than in any other place in the world. Very few individual things about Bombay are entirely unique; you can find traffic jams and movie stars and slums and overly generous families in quite a few cities, but only in Bombay will you find them in such spectacular numbers. The organic energy (and smell) of the city assaults you as soon as you deplane and it comes at you constantly until you depart. It's a marvelous place that, thanks to its people and its innumerable ineffable attractions, imprints itself permanently upon you. Even if you despise it, you'll never forget it.
Author Suketu Mehta was raised in Bombay and, as many of us do for the places of our pre-adolescence, he's held a strong and diffuse love for the city in his heart. He's lived in various big cities around the world but he found himself drawn back to Bombay for visits to the place that he missed "like an organ of my body." Ultimately, for the purposes of writing this book, Mehta uprooted himself, his wife and his two children from their New York existence to live there for two and a half years.
It only takes him 30 pages to sputter out: "This fucking city."
This reaction is familiar to anyone who's tried to do anything in Bombay. Whether it's hailing a cab, buying a movie ticket or getting directions (we won't even go into cashing a check or interacting in any fashion with the government), nothing is ever easy or straightforward. Nothing can ever be done in one step. In Mehta's case, he's just finished rattling off a litany of the many nuisances he's had to deal with in acclimating his New York self to the particularly trying nuances of Bombay life. And, as this comes at the beginning of Maximum City, it's easy to get the impression that the book is going to be an entertaining, but somewhat vacuous tale about a nonresident Indian and the wacky hijinks that ensue when he returns "home."
Thankfully, Mehta doesn't take the route of standard Bollywood fare in Maximum City. Quite the contrary. As William Dalrymple does in his phenomenal book The Age of Kali, Mehta paints a depressingly vivid picture of a city in the throes of what seems a fatal decline. He illustrates the degradation Bombay has endured due to rampant unchecked growth by telling stories about the people who trudge through daily life there. Whether the vegetarian hit man and his underworld associates, the brutal but nobly effective cop, the deeply troubled (and clearly gorgeous) dancing girl (not to mention the deeply troubled and clearly gorgeous dancing girl who's actually a man), the social-ladderÃclimbing slum-dwellers or the delusional movie-star wannabe, Mehta coaxes beautiful and troubling tales of their struggles. And, by making real the people who call Bombay home, Maximum City is as "real" as Bombay gets. No song-and-dance numbers necessary.
"My primary audience is really Bombay in the sense that I want to hold up a mirror to the city, because I love it so much," says Mehta. "I want people in Bombay to see what's happened to the once and future citadel of my heart."
To this end, Maximum City is filled with the sort of Hinglish that's so common in Bombay. Long strings of English are abruptly peppered with Hindi words that roll off the page with insouciant ease. It's a cosmopolitan language mash-up that might be off-putting to some, but is perfectly natural to your average Bombayite.
"Salman Rushdie did the same thing with Midnight's Children," says Mehta. "He's got lots and lots of Hindi words thrown in there, and that's been a general tendency among Indian writers of late in which we refuse to apologize for our language and we throw it in as casually as Hemingway throws bits of French and Spanish untranslated into his books.
"I wrote a review once in the New York Times Book Review of a South Asian novel which just bent over backwards to explain everything. It was so irritating, even to an American reader. I think readers who read my book will be satisfied that they're getting something absolutely authentic without being pandered to."
Maximum City is certainly authentic. Through the profiles Mehta writes, you get a real sense of the lives of his subjects, and ultimately, the parallel universe called Bombay in which they live. It's a universe where the government is ineffectual at best, crushingly corrupt at worst. It's a universe where slum living is considered by many to be preferably communal to the shut-off world of apartments and middle-class housing. It's a universe where gangsters settle most neighborhood and real-estate disputes and where sexual energy is omnipresent but distorted by its own tumescence.
"I've taken a very tough look at the city, but in the end, I say that any city where there are 500 new people a day crowding into it can't be a dying city," says Mehta. "The established elites in Bombay, they despair of the city and they're leaving in large numbers for the cities of the south like Bangalore. But `the book` is not just about Bombay. It's a book about megacities and the future of 'the city.' Bombay exemplifies a group of megacities like Rio, São Paulo, Lagos and Jakarta ... these unimaginable concentrations of humanity that have the same sort of defining characteristics: uncontrolled migration from the countryside, a lack of essential civic services. But despite all their unpleasantness, they remain beacons of hope for young people.
"The wonderful thing about Bombay is that it is an extreme city," he says, "and the people who live on its extremes are happy to talk about their lives. I can't imagine a mafia hit man in New York sitting down over a few beers with me to talk ... and confessing to murder. And if he did, he'd want the rights to his story; he'd be contacting his agent."
It's clear that Bombay is also Mehta's favorite city in the world. But unlike most people who hold the city in their heart, he's doing his best to change it for the best by forcing it to look at its problems and, hopefully, solve them.