Book Review – Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

Suketu Mehta is a Calcutta born, Bombay (now called Mumbai) and New York bred journalist cum fiction writer based in New York. He was born in the affluent family of diamond merchants, but the family business never was of any interest to him and he moved to New York in 1977. After having settled in USA for 21 years, he comes back to the city where he was once brought up. He is back in the city to re-live Bombay, which he left in childhood. Suketu Mehta’s regress to Bombay, his experiences with the city and his interaction with the peoples of Bombay who shaped up present day Bombay culminates into a chronicle of sorts. This memoir styled, non-fiction analysis of events, people, customs, practices and life style is what his debut book, Maximum City, is about. Maximum City was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 and has already bagged the Kiriyama Prize in 2005.

We have all grown up watching Bollywood movies which have captured the eccentricity of Mumbai : the riches of Malabar Hills and Colaba to the slums of Dharavi, the Mafia, Underworld, the Bombay riots, the ‘challs’, the north Indian immigrant or the Mumbai dance bars. Movies like Satya, Black Friday and Company have all touched upon some nerves of Mumbai. Even a literary master piece like Shantaram has had Mumbai depicted in a similar fashion. But, if you think that Maximum City is just another compendium on the history of Mumbai, then you are wrong. It is a unique narrative told in such a fast paced action that the book is just irresistible. The events and political as well as historical blunders that make Mumbai as it is today has been uniquely told by an author who once belonged to that place but now is seen as an ‘outsider’: someone who does not understand how Mumbai works.

The book deals with the experiences of Suketu Mehta, who lands in Mumbai after two decades in America. He explains the difficulties that one has to go through to find a place to stay in Mumbai. He gives a perspective about the tenant’s law existing in Mumbai, and how some of the most dilapidated buildings house many a families. Since he is from America, people treat him differently and he brings out the comparison in the attitude of people towards him. This is exemplified in the instance when he narrates about the hardships that he has to go through to get a school admission for his kid. Essentially the book has real life characters of a Cop, underworld dons, the mafia, politicians, bar dancers, film stars, the Jain family who renounces everything they had made, and the dreamer from Bihar who came to realize his dreams in Mumbai. But, the real character of the book is the author himself. He lives every character and dwells their lives from within. The vulnerability, perfections and the imperfections of each character is simply heart rending and Mehta lives Mumbai through their eyes.

Mehta accounts of meeting real life Mafia and political supremos with a sense of realism and depicts a non biased view for the reader. He talks about the families of the Mafia, the treatment of Police, and the general tacit understanding between the two. A large part of the book deals with the causes and effects of the Mumbai Riots, and how the city has chosen life over death, love over hatred; even though the underbelly lingers on. With the character ‘Monalisa’, the bar dancer, Mehta has created one of the most emotionally torn and vulnerable characters. It is the story of people behind the veil of gloss and glamour. Mehta also takes us into the Hindi Film industry and recounts his experiences during the making of the film ‘Mission Kashmir’. He brings to light the dark side of film making and the tiresome exercises that a film maker has to go through to make a movie in the city. In the latter part of the book, he tells us about a Jain family who renounce all their worldly possessions and move to the village. Hypocrisy and buffoonery apart, it tells us about the greater meaning of life and the imbalance between our possessions and self. Mehta also accounts about the touching incident of his serendipity with a child poet from Bihar, who runs away from home to write poems in Bombay. One cannot, but stop smiling as one turns the pages.

In his own distinct way, Mehta has tried to tell the readers what makes Mumbai and what differentiates it from other cities. The stories of lives of his characters make the back bone of his narration. It is not their lives; it is in fact the city which is living. He captures the rhythms, the patterns, and the asymmetry of Mumbai and makes a conundrum out of the city. Bombay, as he calls it, cannot be Bombay if it does not have what it has. For all of us who are enamored with Shanghai or Singapore, Bombay is for the romantics.

Take a plunge and do yourself a favor by reading this book.

Ravish Prabhakar

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