‘Maximum City’: Bombay Confidential
Source: The New York Times, November 21, 2004
Bombay Lost and Found.
By Suketu Mehta.
542 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95
BOMBAY is a claustrophobe’s nightmare. Over 18 million inhabitants are crammed into its 169 square miles, and in parts of the city the population density exceeds a million per square mile. Soon Bombay (now renamed Mumbai) will have more people than all of Australia. On his first visit, V. S. Naipaul, overwhelmed by the masses, worried he ”might sink without a trace into that Indian crowd.”
In ”Maximum City,” the journalist and fiction writer Suketu Mehta, newly returned from New York and searching for a way to understand the place he left as a youth, is similarly overwhelmed. ”The greatest luxury of all is solitude,” he writes. ”A city this densely packed affords no privacy.”
The gentle — and genteel — world of Mehta’s remembered childhood no longer exists. Mumbai is overpowering, exhausting, violent and chaotic — an unrelenting megalopolis that embodies John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous (and patronizing) description of India as a ”functioning anarchy.” Giving depth and shading to such a complex subject, ”Maximum City” is narrative reporting at its finest, probably the best work of nonfiction to come out of India in recent years — at least since the start of the miniboom in Indian writing for export, which has been notable mostly for its fiction.
”Why do people still live in Bombay?” Mehta asks in frustration. ”Every day is an assault on the individual’s senses, from the time you get up, to the transport you take to go to work, to the offices you work in, to the forms of entertainment you are subjected to.” The literary landscape this description brings to mind is Dickens’s London. Take some 19th-century European urban blight, throw in a little tropical sea breeze, sex and Islamic terrorism and you have Mehta’s Bombay — ”a city in heat,” as he memorably calls it. Part history, part travelogue, part memoir, his book illuminates this supercharged world through its people, presenting a meticulous documentary of living — and struggling — on a teeming island that always seems about to slip into the ocean.
In character sketches that extend over pages and months, Mehta, a brave and persistent reporter, sheds light on the darkest (and most bizarre) corners of the city. He befriends underworld terrorists and visits (stretching the limits of intimacy) with beautiful dancing girls. A Hindu fundamentalist speaks to him nonchalantly of burning Muslims during the religious riots that shook Bombay in the early 1990’s. A policeman famous for breaking the resistance of suspected terrorists describes some of his horrifying techniques — then, suddenly turning sentimental, tells Mehta he’ll miss him when he returns to New York. (”We got used to having you around.”)
The precision of these portraits is impressive, at times overwhelming. But if the accumulation of surface detail does occasionally threaten to distract, the depth of Mehta’s evocative and beautiful prose keeps things lively. Indeed, Mehta’s most impressive skill lies not in his documentary prowess but in the psychological acuity of his writing: we come away from his encounters feeling we know the inner lives of the people he has depicted. In this sense, ”Maximum City” is more than a consideration of the material limits on urban living; it is a profound meditation on the existential (and even spiritual) longings that persist despite those limits.
There is, for example, the dancing girl who dares to dream of escaping her sad existence in a seedy bar by winning the Miss India beauty pageant. And then there’s the unemployed young migrant worker from Bihar, one of India’s most backward states, struggling to establish a career as a poet. Mehta may ask why anyone would come to Bombay, but people like these have an answer: The cramped city still gives them room to dream, still allows them to live, as Mehta puts it, ”closer to their seductive extremities than anyone I had ever known.”
Alongside the cops and terrorists and call girls, there’s another character seeking his seductive extremity: Mehta himself. Both a public and an intensely private book, ”Maximum City” is not just about a city but also about one man’s search for himself in that city. This negotiation between Mehta and Bombay works best in the book’s details — when, say, Mehta’s narrative weaves between his part in writing a Bollywood script and his larger quest for acceptance in India after living abroad. It is somewhat less effective when applied to the framework of the book as a whole: Mehta’s passage to and from Bombay seems a little forced, a structural gesture inserted to impose some order on a busy narrative.
”Maximum City” doesn’t need that sort of structure. If the book sometimes feels sprawling, then that’s just a reflection of its topic — and the reason, moreover, that it succeeds so brilliantly in taking the pulse of this riotous urban jungle, conveying the essence of a place that could never be captured by a linear narrative.
This is not a book to be read in search of a single story line. Instead, ”Maximum City” is best encountered at random, by dipping in and out of scenes, pausing occasionally on a striking detail — just as you would gaze upon faces in a crowd.