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Another interpreter of Indian maladies

By Arshia Sattar

Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found picks up, historically, where V S Naipaul left off -- with the post-Babri Masjid riots and bomb blasts of 1993. Mehta follows the same trajectory of trying to understand the lumpenisation of a great and throbbing metropolis

Maximum City: Bombay, Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta.
Alfred A Knopf, New York: 2004, pp 542, hardback, $27.95

Maximum CityI was reading Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found on an interminable flight into Bombay , and suspended in that impenetrable cocoon of space-and-timelessness, the book filled the vacuum with smells and colours and pictures. As the plane circled over Bombay at noon , the city was covered in a brown haze that seemed to thwart the bright sunlight of the early summer. And when I left the neutral zone of the airport, I tried to look at the city of my youth anew: to look through and past the surface to the shadow world of gangsters and bar dancers that Mehta shines a candle on as he lives for a while, like Jonah, in the belly of the beast.

Mehta begins his examination of Bombay 's inner life after the communal riots and bomb blasts of 1992-1993, events that were the culmination of years of shifting, turbulent undercurrents, and which conclusively changed the city's course and the way it thought about itself.

Suketu Mehta spent his childhood in Bombay and then moved with his parents to the outer boroughs of New York City when he was 14. For this book, he relocates his young family to the city of his boyhood as he explores its underbelly in an earnest quest for how the city lives, works and plays after the polarisation that followed the betrayals, death and destruction of 1993. Mehta shows us a Bombay that we all know exists, but one that we, as the middle class, rarely have the misfortune to experience: a city controlled by goons and thugs, a city where for many young men the only jobs are provided by political gangs and the underworld, a city where the glittering bar dancers of the night are melancholic and suicidal young women by day, where perceived might is the only right, on the street as well as in middle class housing societies. Carefully researched and equally carefully thought through, Mehta confirms every bit of gossip and scandal that animated the Chinese-whispers circles of the city in the 1990s - from Michael Jackson using Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray's toilet to actress Mandakini's relationship with the underworld's Dawood Ibrahim.

Mehta takes us with him when he meets small-time gang shooters in sleazy hotels on the outskirts of the city and when he meets Bal Thackeray in his den as the 'leader' talks about his motivations and desires for the city. We eavesdrop on phone conversations with Chota Shakeel and learn the ethics of another kind of gangster. We follow Mehta to his meetings with the police inspector Ajay Lal, chief investigator for the bomb blasts case, and listen to the tales of torture and punishment. We also visit the Sapphire Bar at night and get involved in Mehta's relationship with the dancers Monalisa and Honey. And we enter the interior landscapes, emotional and physical, inhabited by the rich and famous like actor Sunjay Dutt and filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra. In these encounters, Mehta is not merely our physical guide, but also our moral conscience as with him, we examine our own ambivalence towards 'good cops' who use torture and brutality to get information, towards the 'honour' that exists between men who murder people for small sums of money, towards a system of pimps and whores and johns that respects personal boundaries as its inhabitants dream of true love.

Mehta carries his book close - he is on every page, not as a neutral observer, but as a thinking, feeling, caring and involved writer. Even as he lives the borrowed lives of people as unlike him as apples are from oranges, he also shares his 'real' life with the reader. His wife and two small children provide an oasis of comfort, familiarity and security, a counterpoint to the confusions and torments unleashed by the 'others' of the city. Mehta understands the new world around him through his family, using them and his emotions as a father and a husband as the touchstone of truth and morality. And from this vantage point, he is able to give a credible and sympathetic account of all those he meets even as he maintains his own 'purity'. It is no surprise then, that the book ends with an admiring description of wealthy Jain diamond merchants (Mehta's own community) who renounce all their worldly power and pelf, as well as the bonds of family to wander as monks and nuns, in the world, but not of it, as they seek moksha.

Much has been written (almost all of it positive), in the Western press about this teeming, tumbling, tortuous and (sometimes) tortured account of Bombay , a city that must surely burst with its own contradictions or ooze into the seas that surround it. Mehta has long been an interpreter of Indian maladies for the West. Like V S Naipaul, he, too, carries the precious tag of the insider-outsider, able to understand what the outsider can't and see what the insider won't. In many ways, Maximum City updates Naipaul's India: A Million Mutinies that was published in 1990. Mehta picks up, historically, where Naipaul left off, with the post-Babri Masjid riots and the bomb blasts of 1993. He follows the same trajectory of trying to understand the lumpenisation of a great and throbbing metropolis, of the small man's desire for recognition and power, of who is excluded in the newly emergent tribalisms that dominate the inner life of the city, of who really owns the city and what they intend to do with this magnificent and troublesome possession. Mehta asks himself the right questions and then persuades his subjects to consider providing the answers.

In dealing with this city of dreams, both small and poignant as well as large and outrageous, Mehta touches the obvious ends of the spectrum: the shadow world of the gangster and the dancer and the klieg lights of Bollywood, each a reflection of the other, symbiotically bound in the twilight zone where dreams and reality come together. And yet, there remains something fundamentally male and adolescent about Mehta's account of the city and where he locates its narratives. We can see a boy's fascination for men who carry guns, for glittering, fragile women who live at night, for heroes of the silver screen who get to keep the gun and the woman. While this naiveté contributes, initially, to the book's charm, it begins to wear thin with endless iterations and countless biographies of smaller and larger lives.

Mehta's enterprise and his book also suffer from shades of a new Orientalism - this is the way we think about the chaotic metropolises of the non-West, be they Bombay, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, or even Moscow - as cities run by gangsters and criminals, where the rule of law is not even a Platonic idea to strive for, where real power has moved into the bylanes of criminality and the nether world of amorality. And where the honest, hardworking middle classes are under siege from both dysfunctional governments and an increasingly aggressive underclass.

Nonetheless, Mehta's book is timely, for as we live through the first decade of the new millennium, we need to look back at how and why our finest city has changed over the last century. To balance Mehta's somewhat skewed (though entirely sincere) perspective, Maximum City should be read alongside two other recent books about Bombay - Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar's vibrant and significant compilation of oral histories about Girangaon, the mill district, One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices(Seagull, 2004) and the surprisingly exhilarating 'novel' Shantaramby Gregory David Roberts (Abacus, 2003), an escaped Australian convict who became part of Bombay's underworld in the 1980s. Together, they present a fuller picture of Bombay 's expanding margins and the perilous future that lies ahead as the human and urban cost of that exclusion becomes evident.

InfoChange News and Features, March 2005