I have a theory that with cities like Kolkata, Delhi or Mumbai, you cannot be unemotional; you will either be strongly attracted to them or detest them equally heartily. These cities are living organisms by their own right, shaping and in turn being shaped by the lives and minds of their inhabitants. So when I read Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, a sprawling, grandiose narrative about Bombay, I could understand where his passion was coming from.
Having left Bombay as a teenager when his family shifted to the US – the most defining event that charted the course of his life decisively, including his turning to writing in order to come to terms with it completely – Mehta came back to the city after twenty one years in search of the home he had left behind. By the time of his return though, the city of his childhood seemed to have vanished. When Bombay became Mumbai, it lost much of the serene and idyllic character that the author’s childhood memories were imprinted with. It was now a city of breathless pace, of immense wealth and power and corruption, a city of gangsters and slum-dwellers, of mad cops and madder politicians, of ravishing dancing girls and cross-dressing men, of penniless poets and millionaire businessmen on their way to diksha and denunciation. It was a city bustling with energy and aspiration, a truly cosmopolitan haven attracting millions each year with the tantalising promise of a better life.
Coming back to Mumbai after his long absence, the author realised that he was now an outsider. He was more American than Indian to his friends and acquaintances and it would take him and his family a long time to fit in to the Bombay way of things. His experience brought to my mind the lyrics of a song – “so, here you are too foreign for home, too foreign for here. Never enough for both”. Yet for all those feelings of being left out, it was the American card that opened a lot of doors for the author. A lot of people wanted to be written about by the ‘American’, from the goons and rioters to the notorious politician Bal Thackeray and even dangerous gangsters close to Dawood Ibrahim. They all wanted the same thing: that he should write about them honestly and let the outer world – the world of Americans – know of their true characters. It is this very sense of duality, paradoxes and contradictions that make the book come alive.
Mehta’s Mumbai is really two cities. There is the glitz and the glamour of celebrities and businessmen, the top echelons of the city, those living in ultra modern sea-facing bungalows and penthouses worth hundreds of crores. And then there is the Mumbai of the chawls and the jhopadpattis. This is the Mumbai of the masses, of the vast ocean of people who live hand to mouth through all sorts of dhanda. This is the Mumbai that the rioters and gangsters and bar dancers live in. This is a parallel world, a world that is often antagonistic towards the other, and yet sometimes the dividing lines get blurred. Every time there is a demand for extortion, every time an ‘encounter’ takes place, every time a director comes down to the slums to shoot an authentic scene for his or her movie, there is a coming together of two separate universes.
With Maximum City you get to visit ways of life you will probably never know yourself – the women’s committees in different slums petitioning for clean toilets, the seedy pleasure houses that cater to all sorts of often bizarre tastes, the inside stories of a high risk IPS officer’s career, the aspirations of an ordinary salesman who dreams of going to America not for himself but to bring prosperity to his family, all the way to the other end of the spectrum, to the world of cinema, the world where you visit Amitabh Bachhan’s home late at night for a script reading and are on first name terms with director Vidhu Vinodh Chopra.
It may be the exotica of a world unknown and vastly different from my own, but it was the lives of the aam admi that attracted me most in the book. The strange mentality of the jhopadpatti dweller who would not shift to an apartment because he felt part of a community in the very din and squalor of his slum, the hired assassin who pulled the trigger without batting an eyelid but was unable to sleep alone at night, the gangster who philosophised about God and the universe while doing his ablutions – these are men so far away from my world as to seem almost fictional. Yet they are very human with their own joys and dreams and fears and sorrows. Their aspirations are often very simple; a better life for their family, assured meals every day, a cemented house instead of a thatched one. Their daily lives are fraught with danger and distress; in many areas Hindu-Muslim relationships are like live wires, ticking time bombs waiting to go off any minute. Yet there is still a palpable wave of hope, a promise of better times ahead. These people are as enamoured of Mumbai as their chronicler, and that is what comes through most strikingly throughout the narrative.
Almost every emotion, every situation that the book expresses remains subjective. As you progress with the narrative, you become less and less certain about distinctions. The book is all gray, with only rare glimpses of black or white filtering through the uncertainty. The same man who is hero to one group of people is Satan incarnate for another. Ideas about life and death that offer one character solace remain absolutely reprehensible to another. You become increasingly aware of the relativity of good and bad, and are cautious about tagging anyone as evil. Your mind is opened to alternative explanations, and you are slow in forming opinions.
In a lot of ways, Suketu Mehta’s Mumbai is a microcosm for the Indian way of life as a whole. There is the coming together of a motley mix of religions and cultures that is so peculiarly Indian. There is the simultaneous existence of the frivolous and the dead serious, the riches and the rags, the East and the West, the absolutely materialistic and the intensely spiritual. The binaries of life and death, of good and evil, of the mortal and the divine are omnipresent. Indeed, Mehta’s Mumbai is Maximum City, city of extremes, more city than many others taken together.
You have to give this to Suketu Mehta, the man worked hard for his project. He left no stones unturned to get first person accounts from these people, people who very often live in the peripheries of civil society. He visited the slums to know their living conditions first hand, interviewed seasoned gangsters and killers at considerable personal risk, pulled all sorts of strings for all sorts of people and amassed a treasure trove of experiences, stories that he then wove together with infinite finesse and sensitivity, giving the text a throbbing, pulsating life of its own.
Suketu Mehta’s style of writing is very pleasing. There is the perfect blend of humour and solemnity that makes you laugh at the right places and ponder often. The undulating account of the many lives gives a sense of movement, a certain restlessness inherent to the traveller, making the book as much about the author’s own state of mind as about the characters he portrays. He has remained true to the people’s own ways of speaking, so that each character is brought to life through the dialogues. The titles to the chapters are strikingly evocative – from ‘The country of the No’ to ‘Powertoni’, ‘A City in Heat’ to ‘Sone ki Chidiya’ and ‘Goodbye World’, the names stay with you long after you have finished reading the book, like a pleasant aftertaste.
Ultimately, Maximum City is a book about the urban noir. It is a book about polarities and peculiarities and extremes. You will not find the stories of ordinary middle-class people, whose lives are safe and predictable in their regularity. These people with comfortable jobs that allow them to live in comfort and occasional luxury. The middle class professionals who form a major part of every Indian urban space are significant by their absence in this book. The author must have found too little matter of literary interest in their lives to include them – in fact, the occasional mention of this class comes when he talks about his own school days and some of his friends around the city, but only in passing compared to the study he has made of the others. For this reason, Maximum City fails to be a complete and authoritative work on the city of Mumbai. For all its intensity, it remains a selective account.
A fitting conclusion to this review would be a quick reverting to what I began the essay with. Cities like Kolkata and Delhi and Mumbai, you either love or you hate. And your feelings about the place are likely to translate on to any book you read about them. When I finished with Maximum City, I was mighty pleased and strongly recommended the book to my father. My father is the one person who has overwhelmingly shaped my own tastes in literature and we very rarely disagree on books. Yet he tells me he is finding the book quite revolting. Never one for big cities, he hates the long descriptions about the heat and the crowd and the criminals and the dirt and grime, and says that he might have to give up on the book before long. Funny how these things happen!