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Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found Hardcover – September 21, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
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.
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From The New Yorker
Modern Bombay is home to fourteen million people, two-thirds of them packed into neighborhoods where the population density reaches one million per square mile. Its official name is now Mumbai, but, as the author points out, the city has always had "multiple aliases, as do gangsters and whores." Mehta, who lived there as a child, has a penchant for the city's most "morally compromised" inhabitants: the young Hindu mafiosi who calmly recollect burning Muslims alive during riots twelve years ago; the crooked policeman who stages "encounter killings" of hoods whose usefulness has expired; the bar girl, adorned with garlands of rupees, whose arms are scarred from suicide attempts. Mehta's brutal portrait of urban life derives its power from intimacy with his subjects. After clandestine meetings with some of Bombay's most wanted assassins, he notes, "I know their real names, what they like to eat, how they love, what their precise relationship is with God."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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And then, on the other hand, a Jain diamond merchant and his family giving up all their possessions to wander the countryside seeking "moksha." A cross-dressing bar dancer who leads a painful, double life in order to support his extended family. A talented boy from the hinterlands who is happy to sleep in the street and starve so he can follow his bliss writing poetry. These are people living on the edge, right to the max of whatever situation they find themselves in. As I read I was both thrilled and horrified.
Suketu Mehta is a native of Bombay who is now living in New York City. He went back to write about his home town in a perhaps unconscious attempt to find some way to integrate his old world and new world selves. And to acquaint his children with their paternal heritage. The place was very different, and yet oddly the same.
Knowing nothing about Bombay the place at first seemed utterly foreign to me. But as I read I began to see that in some ways it is not unlike my own New York City. A bit more "maximum" perhaps, but don't the police shoot to kill here in New York? Don't the rich throw obscenely wasteful parties (or didn't they before the recent economic meltdown)? Don't we see extremes of wealth and poverty, side by side, every day in Midtown?
We too live in a city of stark contrasts, and yet we have one great asset going for us: a government that is, on the whole, not corrupt and a civil society that enforces the law in a more or less consistent manner. For sure it's not perfect, but if you doubt the importance of citizens being able to rely on the rule of law, try living in Bombay/Mumbai, or half of the other cities in the world for that matter. (Disclaimer: I haven't lived outside of the US, so my views are informed by what I read rather than first-hand experience.)
Good government, it seems to me, is the required bedrock of a great city. It is both precious and elusive. See what Mehta writes about the takeover of Maharashtra state by the Hindu-nationalist Shiv Sena political party in 1995:
"The government took a look at the awesome urban problems
plaguing the city, the infestation of corruption at all levels of the
bureaucracy and the government, the abysmal state of Hindu-
Muslim relations, and took decisive action. They changed the
name of the capital city to Mumbai."
Do people get the government they deserve? Given what I know of Indians (admittedly not a lot), I don't think so. This great civilization and its people certainly deserve a better, fairer and more functional government than what they appear to have now. As India becomes an economic power in this century, perhaps that country will generate the wealth required to lift Mumbai's 23 million (and growing) out of poverty. The question in my mind is, how can we help them, and will we?