Maximum City
Suketu Mehta
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Buy *Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found* online

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
Suketu Mehta
560 pages
September 2004
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Bombay’s allure is unmistakable. Millions throng to it every year from all over India to heed its siren song of glamour and economic prosperity. Yet all indicators seem to point out the fact that it is an unlivable city, with a population of 19 million and growing, with ubiquitous traffic congestion and recurring communal violence interspersed with regular underworld activity. Suketu Mehta lived the first fourteen years of his life in Bombay and then moved to New York when his diamond merchant father moved his entire family to the United States. Twenty-one years later, Mehta returned to Bombay for a two-year stint, along with his wife and two infant boys. Ostensibly, Mehta’s reasons were to give his children a sense of their roots and an exposure to Indian culture. But what really brought Mehta back was his curiosity about the city of his birth – to see if it had changed or had remained true to his boyhood memory. Mehta, in essence, acted on every expatriate’s dream of going back home and reconnecting with his past.

Mehta realizes that much had changed in Bombay in the two-decade plus interim. In addition to the more obvious demographic factors – an ever increasing population with the highest density of people per square mile anywhere in the world – Mehta sees a culture shift that is not particularly subtle. The growing gap between the haves and the have-nots and the rising tide of communal violence that culminated in the 1992-1993 Hindu-Muslim riots introduced the city to gangsters, contract killings, and protection payments. Mehta comes face-to-face with several hitmen, the functionaries of gang leaders who operate from afar, whose price for a killing is no more than the cost of a mid-priced dinner at a New York restaurant.

Since the city extracts a huge price in terms of the number of hours spent on commuting and on the job, in recent times it has seen a mushrooming growth in bars and the consumption of alcohol. The bars in Bombay are unique in having “bar girls,” girls employed by the bar owner to dance fully clothed to entice customers to buy more alcohol in the promise of something more from the dancers. The story of Monalisa, a world-weary twenty-one-year-old dancer, is both sordid and poignant as it details a sure and steady descent into everyday hell.

Mehta encounters several lower middle-class people who desperately search for economic stability and a place to live. Girish, a young computer programmer, lives with his large family in a slum that has communal toilets and intermittent water supply. By making immense sacrifices, the family moves to a newly constructed apartment block in the outskirts of Bombay. While the family sees this as a move up, Mehta perceives it as an act of desperation, for the new apartment block is a crumbling edifice with little by the way of infrastructure and facilities.

Much as V.S. Naipaul did in his books on India, Mehta lets his characters have free reign in their description and assessment of their life in the city. While it leads to a meandering and incohesive account at times, its impact is palpable. It is a searing portrait of a city in the constant throes of chaos, as the eddies of everyday lives intersperse with people’s dreams and hopes – sometimes dashing them, and at other times affirming them emphatically.

Mehta has a keen eye for detail and a dry sense of humor as the following passage about why Indian fans like Bollywood movies with their implausible plots, indicates:

The suspension of disbelief in India is prompt and generous, beginning before the audience enters the theatre itself. Disbelief is easy to suspend in a land where belief is so rampant and vigorous. …. The audience is pre-cynical. They still believe in motherhood, patriotism, and true love; Hollywood and the West have moved on.
Mehta is an undeniable talent. He approaches the subject with a surfeit of honesty and seeks candid reasons why his city changed its name to “Mumbai” and why people throng to it in multitudes in spite of its decidedly unattractive features. In the end, he realizes that it is not one singular thing that makes the city tick. Rather, it is an aggregation of the quotidian, like people helping each other out, a shared sense of making it, and the hope that the city inspires in people, that makes it what it is. Populated by vibrant, colorful characters like the incorruptible cop, Ajay Lal, the street poet, Babbanji, and the cross-dressing dancer, Manoj, the book is a must-read for those interested in cultural history.

© 2005 by Ram Subramanian for

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