Synopsis: Expat Mumbaiker returns to the city of his childhood, enmeshes himself into the human fabric of the mega-city and over seven years produces a 600 page living biography of one of the world’s biggest, badest and most bustling cities. Prepare to have your eyes opened.
My Take: It might be living life once removed, but when I travel I like to read deeply about the places I go to while I’m there. An outsider’s appreciation of a place is unavoidably limited by ignorance – without a bit of context it’s impossible to even know what to look for. So with this objective I picked up the Pulitzer Prize short-listed “Maximum City” to digest over a week’s worth of beer and curry at Café Leopold during a recent trip to Mumbai.
Before reading this book and visiting the city my knowledge of Mumbai was scant and stereotypical. The home of Sachin Tendulker, slums and street food; my impressions of Mumbai were two dimensional at best. To be honest, it wasn’t exactly at the top of my list of places to head to for a city escape – I’d only ended up there as a result of the quirks of discount travel. However, after reading “Maximum City” I knew that I’d have a life-long fascination with this eternally complex, seething mass of humanity.
It’s been said in many past reviews of this book, but it’s worth saying again here: Suketu Mehta’s “Maximum City” is a genuine tour de force. To produce such a masterful, detailed and sprawling biography of a city of such economic, religious, political and cultural extremes is truly an extraordinary achievement.
As, Mehta notes when introducing the book, Mumbai is truly a colossus of a city:
“There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia. Urbs Prima in Indis reads the plaque outside the Gateway of India. It is also the Urbs Prima in Mundis, at least in one area, the first test of the vitality of a city: the number of people living in it. With 14 million people, Bombay is the biggest city on the planet of a race of city dwellers. Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us.”
Mehta skilfully explores the energy and conflict that teems throughout the city through a series of detailed portraits of the daily lives of some of its more interesting characters. What gives these portraits a real sense of immediacy is that Mehta immerses himself in the lives of his subjects and tells their story from the perspective of a participant in their lives. Mehta describes the process of writing the book as being:
..like a kid in a candy store. People opened up to me on incredibly personal, private matters. It was the kind of access I couldn’t dream of getting in New York, like meeting a killer who liked the Backstreet Boys and the sound of a Mauser firing. His friend, another hitman, said that he always kept strictly vegetarian, for it kept his mind calm while he was working. The police invited me to watch them torture suspects; the biggest Bollywood film stars were telling me about their sex lives. They thought I was writing a novel, but I always said I wasn’t.
Over the seven years he spent writing the book, Mehta befriends and socialises with subjects as diverse as a slum dwelling gangster, a Bollywood director, a murderous police officer, a cross-dressing ‘bar girl’, a homeless poet and a Jain monk. Mehta’s subjects come and go from the narrative and overlap with his own life giving the book itself the feeling of a crowded and bustling city street.
This approach puts Mehta into some quite extraordinary (and I’m sure dangerous) situations. Some of the most interesting sections of “Maximum City” are the portraits of those involved in the religious/political conflicts in the city’s slums and parliament. Mehta’s interactions with many of the protagonists in the 1993 Bombay bombings and resultant riots are fascinating (and horrifying) to the uninitiated. His conversations with the malevolent Hindu extremist Hindu party Shiv Sena and its puppet-master Bal Thackeray are a revealing insight into the corrupt underbelly of the city.
One particularly memorable encounter involved Mehta’s gangster friend setting up a meeting for him with Chotta Shakeel, a Mumbai mafia don and close associate of Dawood Ibrahim, the gangster widely believed to be behind this year’s Mumbai terrorist attacks. At the conclusion of Mehta’s discussion, his gangster friend offers him the ultimate in fringe benefits:
Any trouble you have in Bombay. One work [murder] free. Bhai [brother] said so.
Similarly, in one of the saddest stories in the book, (the married with children) Mehta becomes very close to a damaged Mumbai ‘bar girl’ named Monalisa. It’s a testament to Mehta’s intimacy with his subjects that he felt compelled to justify his relationship with her in an interview promoting the book as such:
I became involved with her in a way that was more intimate than sex. I never did sleep with her. I realized if I had slept with her, all the stories would have been cut off. Then I would have been just another customer. I was at once a voyeur and her best friend.
While his relationship with Monalisa was probably closer than his relationship with any of his other subjects, the level of intimacy described above is fairly representative of the access he had to each of his subjects. The fact that Mehta left Mumbai after the book was published is hardly surprising.
My favourite portrait in “Maximum City” was also one of the shortest – the story of the teenaged, street dwelling poet, Babbanji. As the Financial Times review of the book describes him:
He has migrated to the city and lives on its footpaths simply because he believes Mumbai has the best stories of all. Babbanji encounters people singing on the train and follows them home to their shanty town by a sewer. “The sewer was overflowing with all kinds of plastic – plastic bags, plastic bottles – and Babbanji thought of his school science project,” of turning plastic into petrol. “And I thought, this is a treasury,” says the poet, whom it is hard not to see as an alter-ego of Mehta