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Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found Paperback – September 27, 2005
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“Stunning. . . . A powerful, arresting work. . . . Marvelous.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Narrative reporting at its finest, probably the best work of nonfiction to come out of India in recent years. . . . Mehta succeeds so brilliantly in taking the pulse of this riotous urban jungle.” –The New York Times Book Review
As each individual story unfolds, Mehta also recounts his own efforts to make a home in Bombay after more than twenty years abroad. Candid, impassioned, funny, and heartrending, Maximum City is a revelation of an ancient and ever-changing world.
“What Dickens did for London, what Joseph Mitchell did for New York City, Suketu Mehta has done for Bombay. . . . A candid, extensive, and wholly entertaining portrait.” –San Diego Union-Tribune
“The ultimate insider’s view of Bombay, a roiling and vigorous account that delivers on a seemingly impossible challenge: how to limn the diversity and sprawl of such a place in a single book.” –The Seattle Times
From the Inside Flap
A brilliantly illuminating portrait of Bombay and its people-a book as vast, diverse, and rich in experience, incident, and sensation as the city itself-from an award-winning Indian-American fiction writer and journalist.
A native of Bombay, Suketu Mehta gives us a true insider's view of this stunning city, bringing to his account a rare level of insight, detail, and intimacy. He approaches the city from unexpected angles-taking us into the criminal underworld of rival Muslim and Hindu gangs who wrest control of the city's byzantine political and commercial systems . . . following the life of a bar dancer who chose the only life available to her after a childhood of poverty and abuse . . . opening the doors onto the fantastic, hierarchical inner sanctums of Bollywood . . . delving into the stories of the countless people who come from the villages in search of a better life and end up living on the sidewalks-the essential saga of a great city endlessly played out.
Through it all-as each individual story unfolds-we hear Mehta's own story: of the mixture of love, frustration, fascination, and intense identification he feels for and with Bombay, as he tries to find home again after twenty-one years abroad. And he makes clear that Bombay-the world's largest city-is a harbinger of the vast megalopolises that will redefine the very idea of "the city" in the near future.
Candid, impassioned, funny, and heartrending, "Maximum City is a revelation of an ancient and ever-changing world.
"From the Hardcover edition.
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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?