PRAISE FOR MAXIMUM CITY: Bombay Lost and Found

Bombay native Mehta fills his kaleidoscopic portrait of “the biggest, fastest, richest city in India” with captivating moments of danger and dismay. Returning to Bombay (now known as Mumbai) from New York after a 21-year absence, Mehta is depressed by his beloved city’s transformation, now swelled to 18 million and choked by pollution. Investigating the city’s bloody 1992-1993 riots, he meets Hindus who massacred Muslims, and their leader, the notorious Godfather-like founder of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party, Bal Thackeray, “the one man most directly responsible for ruining the city I grew up in.” Daring to explore further the violent world of warring Hindu and Muslim gangs, Mehta travels into the city’s labyrinthine criminal underworld with tough top cop Ajay Lal, developing an uneasy familiarity with hit men who display no remorse for their crimes. Mehta likewise deploys a gritty documentary style when he investigates Bombay’s sex industry, profiling an alluring, doomed dancing girl and a cross-dressing male dancer who leads a strange double life. Mehta includes so-called “Bollywood” in his sweeping account of Bombay’s subcultures: he hilariously recounts, in diary style, day-to-day life on the set among the aging male stars of the action movie Mission Kashmir. Mehta, winner of a Whiting Award and an O. Henry Prize, is a gifted stylist. His sophisticated voice conveys postmodern Bombay with a carefully calibrated balance of wit and outrage, harking back to such great Victorian urban chroniclers as Dickens and Mayhew while introducing the reader to much that is truly new and strange. Agent, Faith Childs Literary Agency. (Sept.26) —Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

 

REVIEW OF MAXIMUM CITY: Bombay Lost and Found from Vogue, September 2004

Bombay Dreams: From Street Rebels to Bollywood, a Superb Account of the Giant Rags and Riches Indian City

By Nell Freudenberger

While leaving Bombay a few months ago, I was rhapsodizing to a friend about the city’s charms—the lights on Marine Drive, the old Art Deco movie houses, the still, green water tank on Malabar Hill. My Bombayite friend, who was navigating heavy traffic in
order to drive me to the airport, listened to this litany for a few minutes before remarking, ”Yes, Bombay is becoming the perfect city: slums below, fly-overs in the
middle, and billboards on top.”

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (Knopf), the brilliant first book by journalist and fiction writer Suketu Mehta, captures this layered quality, which can make the Indian capital of the movies seem like a city projected on top of itself.
Calcutta-born, Bombay and New York-bred, Mehta is unusually well positioned to diagnose the “multiple-personality disorder,” both charming and horrifying, of India’s most crowded city. Next year,
Bombay’s population will top 27.5 million (greater than the continent of Australia’s); by 2014, it is likely to outrank Tokyo as the world’s most populated urban area. “Bombay is the future of urban civilization
on the planet,” Mehta projects. “God help us.”

Like V. S. Naipaul’s first nonfiction about India, Maximum City is the chronicle of an uneasy return by an author extremely conscious of his status as an outsider. In contrast to Naipaul, however, Mehta is
immediately eager to be accepted—not only within his own community but among his subjects: mafia dons, hired killers, gang members, and a family of billionaire diamond merchants who renounce their worldly goods for an ascetic life as wandering Jain monks. Mehta doesn’t conduct interviews so much as make unusual friends; over the course of two and a half years, he pursues an overwhelming amount of what might chastely called “research” but is really much closer to obsession. “I had the freedom—indeed, the mission—to follow everything that made me curious as a child: cops, gangsters, painted women, movie stars, people who give
up the world.”

If each city has a “catalytic” event, as Mehta suggests, then the anti-Muslim riots and retaliatory bomb blasts of 1992-93 were to Bombay what the destruction of the World Trade Center was to New York. Mehta meets the men at the top—even the instigator of the riots, Bal Thackeray—but the most illuminating parts of Maximum City are his interviews with their followers. He recognizes the roots of communal hatred in the daily humiliations of life at the bottom and shows how insufficient housing, water, toilets, and leisure time can be highly effective recruiting tools. The young men who fight these ”street skirmishes in the larger worldwide war” do it “not to convert
the kafirs—the infidels—but to protect their own honor.”

Maybe the most important quality for a writer about India is balance. He must measure some of the grimmest social problems in the world against the country’s extraordinary successes, without
becoming either fatalistic or starry-eyed in the process. Even as Mehta rages about the Indian legislative bureaucracy like the Bombay Rent Act (a set of laws that makes New York City rent control look enlightened), he maintains his faith in Indian democracy. In one of the book’s most fascinating passages, he explains the appeal of Sonia Gandhi to India’s poor, who see her as a “dutiful wife,” drawn into politics against her own inclinations after her husband’s tragic death. Writing long before the recent general elections, Mehta essentially predicts the upset by Sonia Gandhi’s Congress Party, which shook India and the world last spring. “This is the biggest difference between the world’s two largest democracies,” he observes. “In India, the poor vote.”

Every good writer’s strength is also his weakness, and Mehta can occasionally get too involved with his subjects. At Sapphire, a “ladies’ bar,” he meets 20-year-old Monalisa—a dancer who sometimes makes twice as much as a high-class stripper in New York, in spite of the fact that she “doesn’t have to sleep with her customers, is forbidden to touch them in the bar, and wears more clothes on her body
than the average Bombay secretary.” Her business is to make the customer fall in love, coaxing cash out of him in the process. Mehta observes that there is a “beery fraternity” in the bar, and even the
girls were “enjoying themselves … making money, being fawned over.” Mehta is too smart for this delusion (popular among fraternity boys all over the world), and in better moments he paints an empathetic portrait of Monalisa’s self destructive desperation and loneliness.

Mehta is the best kind of investigative reporter—a voyeur who knows the limits of voyeurism. Just as he seems to be getting too close, his focus changes and another Bombay presents itself to the reader. As he moves from the cops to the gangs to Bollywood—where he co-writes a hit Hindi movie—Mehta finds that the movies offer the perfect metaphor for a city where there are always several reels rolling at once. The cinema “is fundamentally a mass dream of the audience, and Bombay is a mass dream of the peoples of India.”