Glimmers of Hope for Bombay in Suketu Mehta’s ‘Maximum City’

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
Suketu Mehta
Vintage Departures
Sep 2005

Maximum City is New York-based writer Suketu Mehta’s vast and occasionally riveting recounting of his return to the home of his youth, Bombay. He takes what might be called a ‘literary census’ of Bombay through interviews and immersion in Bombay life; these intimate details about his subjects’ motivations and routines are the backbone of the book, one informed by a journalist’s eye and a homecoming heart

Mehta returns to Bombay 21 years removed from where his extended family of ‘mercantile wanderers’ grew up. His family starts to build a temporary life in South Bombay, which turns into an emotionally challenging experience. They undergo an unfathomable series of misfortunes dealing with the rank politics of a new apartment. The plumbers are corrupt. The price of the apartment exorbitant. Phone service is near impossible, and getting cooking gas into the apartment a challenge. Even rented parking spaces are contentious. And then, there is the pollution:

The only way we can get air into the living room is to open the study window, to let the sea air in. But this also brings in a sand dune’s worth of thick, black, grainy dirt from outside, along with a spectacular array of filth.

This throws a light on the base truism of Bombay: that money buys satisfactory conditions. Bombay is wealthy, but most of it is private and thus the degree of social stratification as spelled out in later chapters is extreme. The Rent Act of 1947 is to blame for Bombay’s expansive “informal market”, the slums; but Mehta sees glimmers of economic and social hope in this overwhelming city. He visits one slum and describes the trials of a group of women whose resilience in the face of horrid living conditions is astounding and hopeful.

But he also spends time with the artist and professional class that takes in his family. These “internal exiles” are another challenge to Mehta’s definition of Bombay — a definition he is aware will change as his research continues. He learns to call Bombay a “maximum city,” and this definition is apt.

The first part of the book covers “Powertoni” — a confusing mash-up of power, and power of attorney – and the players involved in Bombay’s endless power games. Mehta meets those involved in the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992 and 1993. Mehta’s scope of conversations with Bombay inhabitants on this topic, rich and poor, Hindi and Muslim, is revelatory:

The riots of 1992 and 1993 were a milestone in the psychic life of the city because its different worlds came together with an explosion. The monster came out of the slums.

He meets Sunil, who lives by the dictum that “Money is God.” Sunil is an entrepreneur and a well-respected Special Executive Officer, but he also murdered during the riots:

The fact that a murderer like Sunil could become successful in Bombay through engagement in local politics is both a triumph and a failure of democracy.

He also meets Bal Thackery, whom he paints as a ridiculous, uninformed, hugely egocentric leader with “no theory, grand or minor.” He interviews a few of the gangster-murderers — cold-hearted misanthropes — and tries to find empathy with them, but fails. He spends a long chapter with Ajay Lal, a now-retired top police officer, through whom we see a shocking amount of crime and corruption. And we witness torture.

The mechanisms that the Bombay police department use against gangsters — a truly powerful presence in Bombay — are chilling. Reading these passages, I had to remind myself this was supposed to be a civic police force, not some rogue, unaccountable private unit. Torture in Bombay seems as common as corruption in the political and police ranks, which exchange bribes and favors habitually. In spite of the culture of torture, Mehta describes Lal — one of the very few honest cops in Bombay — with great sympathy.

After Powertoni, Mehta writes about Pleasure and of the sex and film industries in Bombay. He interviews a wide scope of characters — a young dancer, a transvestite, a filmmaker, various actors and screenwriters. His skills lead him to become very involved with a sex dancer, attesting to his empathies as a writer, but this part drags on too long. On sex, the story of Honey the transvestite is more compelling.

He meets the movie stars Amitabh Bacchan and Sanjay Dutt (on trial for his role in the riots of 1993.). He follows the director Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who must make great concessions in order for his film to have success. He helps script a movie. He writes about the trials of the young man Eishaan, a “genuine struggler” who moves to Bombay to become a successful screen actor. He also writes of the young movie star Hrithik, who becomes the victim of the workings of the exiled gang lord, Abu. Abu had Hrithik’s father killed earlier; Abu extorts Hrithik, who is now going to work for Abu. Unlike sex, Mehta’s writings on the film industry are fully engaging.

In the last section, Passages, he covers the characters that arrive in and pass through Bombay, to fascinating effect. He then follows a family of converted Jains, ‘orthodox Hindus’ who renounce all of modern, worldly life. He observes this family take ‘dishka’ — a denunciation of the modern world — and leave Bombay for good into the world of the wandering monk. Mehta is able to write of this from the inside, observing the rituals of extreme change.

He also finds Babbanji, a 17-year-old poet. Mehta describes his street life: Babbanji sleeps on a folded-down sandal stall and washes in a public washroom; he visits slums and sewage ditches where people live. Here, Mehta’s writes with empathetic passion. Babbanji’s story and his commitment to the life of a starving poet are convincing. The young poet tells Mehta something that may also apply to Mehta’s writing life: “Bombay is in my mind because it has given me something to write.”

The spectrum of life open to Mehta in the city of his youth has indeed given him ‘something to write,’ both for this book and for his writing career:

I have learnt to see beyond the wreck of the physical city to the incandescent life force of its inhabitants. A city is only as thriving or as sickly as your place in it. Each Bombayite inhabits his own Bombay.

He sees a crumbling city, but a city that continues to thrive. He comments on the train system, on automobiles, on sanitation and corruption (“Half the population doesn’t have a toilet to shit in,” Mehta quotes a filmmaker, “so they shit outside.”), on the suburbs and on materialism. Mehta has a historian’s sense of timeline and a sociologist’s depth of context and because of this,Maximum City is a fully realized book, at times drawn-out, but always influenced by the next relationship that Mehta endures. He is able to keep track of the larger context of Bombay through his interviews and encounters: a city of contradictions, and his inspiration.

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