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     Feb 19, 2005
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The soul of a city
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Capturing the essence of a metropolis of the mythic proportions of Bombay (renamed Mumbai in 1995) is no easy task. Journalist Suketu Mehta's debut offering stalks the soul of India's soulless mahanagar (great city) through the medium of the lives of its heterogeneous residents. The Bombay that emerges from Mehta's personality portraits is greater than the sum of its components, a celebration.

Home to 14 million people, Bombay has a "tight claim" on Mehta's heart. When he moved to New York as a teenager, "I missed Bombay like an organ of my body". (p 8) He "re-approximated Bombay" in Jackson Heights, "taking little memory trains" of Hindi films and music. He returned to Bombay on skittish trips to fall in love and marry, but nursed the itch to live in the city of his childhood again. This book is the end product of a nostalgic journey to revisit roots.

Impossible city
Bombay culture is characterized by dhandha (transaction). The ethic of Bombay is quick enrichment. A well-executed scam is considered "a thing of beauty". Mehta's ancestors changed caste centuries ago from Brahmin to Vaisya to adapt to "a naturally capitalistic city - one that understands the moods and movements of money". (p 21) Caste-consciousness pervades the city, with a hierarchy even among upper-middle-class-flat servants. "It is as difficult to move down the caste ladder as it is to move up." (p 37)

In Bombay, Mehta has to relearn how to stand in line to vote, buy a house, find a job, leave the country, make a train reservation or phone call or answer nature's call. In the absence of money or connections, the only way to get anything done here is anger. Bombay air has 10 times the maximum permissible levels of lead in the atmosphere, the equivalent of smoking two-and-a-half packs of cigarettes a day. London and Paris are re-created in miniature among the charmed set of Bombay. "The First World lives smack in the center of the Third." Billionaires and repulsive deprivation abide in the city where violence and muscle power can strike without warning.

Hindu, Muslim
Mehta meets a deputy leader of the Hindu-nationalist Shiv Sena party who took his sick daughter to a Muslim exorcist for cure, a healer of the same community that he massacred and burned during the 1993 communal riots. "For Bombayites, business comes first. They are individually multiple." (p 46) The Shiv Sena goon confesses, "Sometimes I couldn't sleep, thinking that just as I have burned someone, somebody could burn me." (p 48)

The riots provided a recruitment bonanza for the Muslim underworld and set off serial bomb blasts. Most Muslim boys from shanty localities joined the Dawood Ibrahim gang. Mehta interviews Muslim women whose men were shot and stabbed by the police or the Sena. They protest love for their city and country, come what may. "If there is hope for Bombay, it is in this group of slum women." (p 59)

The Sena wrested political power for a Marathi underclass. "The monster came out of the slums." (p 61) The new inheritors were uneducated, unscrupulous and lacking of Bombay's cosmopolitan sensibility. They took the keys to the city from the erstwhile elites - Parsis, Gujaratis, Punjabis and Marwaris - who were left ruing the loss of the "gracious city". Mehta has an audience with Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, a man who is obsessed with Muslims, and who loves big business and Bollywood. He is the remote control that orders young angry men to go out and lay waste whole communities or to render an illegal slum permanent and legal.

Thackeray constantly channels the violent energy of his boys to attack painters, Ghazal singers, filmmakers, cricket infrastructure and Valentine's Day revelers. For the Sena minions, "all the accumulated insults, rebukes and disappointments of life come out in a cathartic release of anger". (p 95) Thackeray opines that Bombay can be saved only through migration control. "Retaliation is our birthright," he thunders. The Sena is primarily a party of exclusion, alleging that this or that group does not belong to Bombay.

Thackeray boasts to Mehta that if he is ever arrested, "India could burn. This is a call for religious riots and everybody should prepare for the consequences." (p 118)

Realty horror
Bombay is choking because of the 1948 Rent Act and the all-powerful tenants lobby. Those who arrive newly have no room to rent because the middle class and rich have a lock on all the best properties. New construction is avoided by builders because of fears of expropriation of property. The annual deficit of 45,000 houses adds to the ranks of the slums. "The city is full of people claiming what's not theirs." (p 128) Reorientation plans to building easterly meet stiff resistance. Bombay's direction is typically westward.

Half the population lacks toilets. The sanitation crisis is compounded by the "national defect in the Indian character - absence of a civic sense." (p 138) Traffic snarls notwithstanding, the roads committee spends its time on a renaming frenzy to pander to political whims.

Mafia kingdom
The Bombay underworld is an "overworld". Gangsters refer to bases in Karachi, Dubai and Malaysia as upar (above) and Bombay as neeche (below). Dons and hit-men engage in international ping-pong games of murder. "The culture of gang war is intrinsic to the culture of the city." (p 156) Bombay is the bull's-eye of cross-border economic aggression, pumped by Islamabad-printed counterfeit Indian-currency notes. "If India has to be hit financially, crippling Bombay is a must." (p 170)

Only 60% of the city's police have housing, making it impossible for a constable to evict a slumlord. Police are given the worst lawyers to prosecute crime syndicates, while gangs have the best. Police torture is a "necessary spur in the absence of a functioning judiciary". (p 198). One daring cop tells Mehta, "The judicial system is so tilted in favor of the accused that he is not at all afraid." Gangs thrive in Bombay to make up for judicial inadequacies. Police chiefs are themselves beholden to the dons. They call up gangsters and ask ransom for releasing arrested sharpshooters. In 1999, a senior Bombay judge himself approached the underworld to recover dues from a debtor.

A hit-man of the "D Company" gang appraises the benefits of his work. "If someone shoots me, at least one lakh [Rp100,000, about US$2,300 at the current exchange rate] will come to my home. I only have to open my mouth to get money. If I want a car for a while, it is arranged." In jail, the company sends Rp7,000 a month for personal expenses and Rp10,000 for his family. A budding don hiding in Dubai says that the bhai (gang lord) cares for his family in Bombay through thick or thin.

Underworld figures are god-fearing. "God is the biggest bhai." (p 226) One shooter maintains, "God is like smelling money that you've earned." The bullet business is God's game. In Mehta's talk with Chotta Shakeel, the D Company lodestar, the latter displays a heavy sense of involvement in wrong. "What is wrong is wrong. A sin is a sin." (p 267) Hit-men, like the Sena boys, feel more powerful by killing. They imbibe their victims' power. Their "character is defined above all by narcissism, that complex mix of egotism and self-hatred". (p 247)

Epicure's city
Bombay is the vadapav (local fast food) eaters' city. It is the lunch of chawl dwellers, cart pullers, street urchins, clerks, cops and gangsters. The bar-line world of nightclubs is unique to Bombay. In this most commercial of cities, the beer bar is the definitive place where the color of money talks. Customers sustain an illusion of individuality by starring in their own custom-made Hindi chartbuster in which dancers pretend to be in love with them. Inferiority complexes and false-man egos are satiated in the bars, where money is liberally debased. Dancers feel guilty for this profession, since they "exploit men's human need for comfort". (p 317). They are caught between two worlds, one they aspire to and one they wish to leave but cannot.

The city hums and throbs with sexual energy and the frenzy of a closed society. No one need be lonely or frustrated here. "Bombay has a service for every need." (p 490) Mehta observes a "tremendous current of homosexual desire in the metropolis that lies to itself about its origins". (p 362)

Reel world
Bollywood is fundamentally a "mass dream of the audience, and Bombay is a mass dream of the peoples of India". (p 457). Through the movies, Indians have been living in Bombay lifelong without having to set foot into the mahanagar. Millions of Indians dream of a future in Bombay celluloid. Audiences take their films seriously and can ransack theaters. Directors cannot afford subtlety lest it go over the heads of the irascible viewers. India now deals with threats to its integrity through Bollywood's outlandish scenes of bombings and terrorists in league with cap-toting politicians. War onscreen is not all that serious. "There will always be a break in the fighting for love and song." (p 449) Sensitive films on communal tensions get hobbled by Censor Board "A" (adult) certificates.

Bollywood music today relies on electronic instruments, African rhythms and voices. "Like Hinduism, all who come to invade it are absorbed, digested and regurgitated." (p 403) The secular film industry is dominated by Punjabi and Sindhi entrepreneurs and financed by movie-besotted bhais. Without the underworld, Bollywood would be "nowhere near as extravagant, as violent, as passionate." (p 454)

The city's pulse
As a child, Mehta recalls the monsoon's onset as the only event in Bombay weather. Clouds carried "dispatches from someone unknown to us to somebody whom we could never talk to". (p 468) On a visit to his school to come to terms with "nine years of my ghost time", he is afraid that a boy might bump into him in the corridor and "see himself". Starving waifs on the roads evoke a desperate sadness in the author. "In Bombay, every day is an assault on the individual's senses." (p 508)

The sidewalks and slums of Bombay are strewn with little lives that share sparse room for living, sleeping, cooking and dining. Invisibility is bestowed upon them, though privacy is unthinkable. Battles over the footpath are battles over rights of pedestrians, hawkers, vehicle owners and the homeless. The poor speak of the very poor with vehemence and the ascending classes feel those below them have "too much power". One professor remarks that in Bombay, "you are always comparing yourself with others". (p 527)

Bombay may be hectic and breakneck in nature, but not competitive. In apartments or commuter trains, Bombayites have no option but to habituate and adjust. They shrink personal space to expand collective space and retain empathy for fellow inmates. The sense of community that binds the city is rural. "Bombay is a collection of people from villages who seek to recreate the village." (p 549). It is not a dying city, but one filled with incandescent life force. It allows people to live close to their "seductive extremities" and still merge into a singular consciousness.

Suketu Mehta's travelogue through the mahanagar is as sweet and tangy as the city itself. Flavored for readers of every taste just like the crispy vadapav, Maximum City is a magnificent achievement.

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta. Penguin Books India, New Delhi, September 2004. ISBN: 0-67-004921-2. Price US$13.25; 585 pages.

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