Book Review: Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta; Part One: Perspectives

I’m only about a third of the way through this long book, but it has brought up so many impressions and memories that I feel I must write them down.  So this is not so much a review of the book itself but a prelude to the review.

I lived in Bombay (or Mumbai in modern terminology) for almost six months back in the late seventies.  With five other young people I shared an apartment in the Colaba area, which is right at the tip of the peninsula.  I say peninsula, but Bombay is actually a group of islands with the gaps between filled in.  This apartment was miniscule, with just one small bedroom, bathroom, and living room, and a cubbyhole of a kitchen.  The bedroom we left for couples who wanted to – you know, do it – and so most of us slept on the living room floor.  The place was old and musty, and when the monsoons came we had to wade through waist-deep filth-laden water to get to the front door.  The rats normally residing in tunnels underground would climb up the outside walls and invade – enormous rodents who would crawl over our sleeping bags or blankets in the night, scaring the shit out of us.  Colaba was a very crowded area.  The Taj Mahal Hotel was nearby, on the waterfront near the Gateway to India, and behind it were tiny streets full of thieves and peddlers and beggars and drug dealers and families sleeping on the streets.  Bombay was an overwhelming experience back then, as it must still be now.

The author describes a Bombay that in the early 2000s was still squalid, destitute, corrupt, full of pandemonium and confusion and crime and disparity of rich and poor.  Having experienced it almost three decades earlier, I can believe it.  Something that broken just doesn’t easily get fixed.

As I read Mehta’s description of the slums and the crowded makeshift shacks, tiny rooms full of whole families, it brought back other memories.  After that first residency in Bombay I came and went from time to time, never living there for any extended period, but I recall one time staying with an Indian friend and some of his friends and cousins in what was probably considered a lower middle class area.  In the apartment in Colaba we had been all foreigners, but here all were Indians but me, and we all slept side by side on the porch of my friend’s parents’ ground-floor apartment.  It was surrounded for protection by thick wire mesh, and we slept crammed in side by side on the bare concrete floor, at the mercy of all kinds of strange creatures crawling over us and buzzing around.  And back then, it did not seem strange.  I had been traveling for years and was used to all sorts of oddities.

Nowadays, however, I look back and marvel at what I went through on my long journeys here and there.  I have a wife and kids and home and job, and I go through different types of adventures.  Sometimes I get tired and fed up with the teaching job and the housework and long to be back on the road – but not really.  I am responsible for the lives of others; I have chosen to be.  It is my destiny, for now.  Things may change in the future, but at present I would not have it any other way.

Reading about the squalidness and crowdedness of the homes of millions of families in Bombay made me appreciate what we have here.  It might sound trite or cliché, but it’s true.  For example, it was only after we bought this house near Thessaloniki, Greece that we realized that the crooked contractor had installed a septic tank a third of the size stipulated in the contract – one which has to be emptied about every five weeks.  This has forced us to keep buckets for wash water waste in the bathrooms and to periodically dump those buckets out into the street.  Guess who ends up doing most of the water hauling?  But then I read about families in Bombay who have no running water and no toilets, who must stand in line for hours to fill buckets at the one community tap, and wait in long lines too for a chance to use the disgustingly filthy community toilets.  It makes me carry my own buckets with joy, I tell you.  We have it good here.

More on Bombay soon, as I read onward.

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