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

In the first part of this review I shared some of the memories of my own time in Bombay that the reading of this book evoked.  It’s a long book, and whether you have lived in Bombay or not, it causes you to plunge into the city, to experience it’s immensity and complexity vicariously.  Mehta tells the story of Bombay as the journalist he is:  he profiles in depth various people, and in the details of their lives the city itself is exposed.

Something to keep in mind is that though Suketu Mehta was born and raised in India he is a New Yorker.  He moved back to Bombay with his family for a few years in order to rediscover the city he grew up in, but his perspective is as an outsider.  What shocks us shocks him as well.  This distance is valuable in objectively discovering the city; on the one hand he can see it as a foreigner, from the outside looking in, on the other hand as an Indian he can become intimate with those who would never open up to one they would consider not one of their own.  In the beginning he describes arriving in Bombay, renting a flat, acquiring utilities and amenities, becoming used to the day-to-day habits and cultural peculiarities in which every little detail, every little task, has its designated official or unofficial overseer.

He studies politicians and criminals, often the same people.  Gangs are rampant in Bombay, and their affiliations often are delineated by religion or politics, although just as often individual criminals are wooed by the highest bidder.  As in other cities around the world, extortion, drugs, prostitution, and assassinations are rife, gangs are continually fighting for spheres of influence, and police have limited ability to do anything significant to eliminate the threat.  In many areas gang leaders have more power than politicians to effect change, and the common people go to them with their problems.  Mehta also profiles an anomaly:  an incorruptible policeman.  This man has been fighting the gangs his entire professional life, has received many death threats to himself and his family, is constantly surrounded by bodyguards, but nonetheless continues his seemingly unwinnable war.

Then Mehta delves into the Bombay sex industry by focusing mainly on two individuals who dance in the Bombay “beer bars” – establishments where fully-clad women dance to Hindi movie tunes as men throw their money at them.  One, with the pseudonym of Monalisa, is a gorgeous woman, lovely as a film star, wooed by gangsters, businessmen, Arabs, and so on, and the other a cross-dresser with the stage name of Honey, who was one of the most popular dancers in Bombay until jealous fellow-dancers revealed that she was a man.  Mehta reveals how the beer bars become an outlet for the sexual adventurous in the otherwise conservative Indian culture.

Mehtu also goes into the Bombay film industry, which rivals, indeed surpasses, Hollywood in output.  But Hindi films are very idiosyncratic.  They all must follow a formula, with a certain number of song and dance numbers no matter what type of film it is.  Filmmakers must cater to their audience, which is largely rural India in search of escapism and idealism.  If a film does not meet its expectations, if it has some sort of strange or overly complex plot, the audience is likely to riot, tear out the seats in the cinema, and possibly even burn down the theater.  One peculiarity which I have observed firsthand is the fact that as soon as Indian audiences sense that a film is near ending, even if crucial plot points have not yet been resolved, they will get up and walk out of the cinema.  I have had to watch the closing scenes of films standing up because all those around were already vacating the theater.  Indian filmmakers compensate for this by resolving Hindi films long before the end, and including a final song and dance routine just before the closing credits, or some sort of anticlimax which it is not necessary to see in order to grasp the film’s overall storyline.  Filmmakers, of course, have problems with financing, with red tape, and so on, but to an exaggerated degree which would stymie a western filmmaker.

One of the most fascinating profiles is that of a young poet from Bihar who left his home, traveled to Bombay, and lived on the streets in order to gather material for his poetry.  This spoke to me because I did something similar when I left my hometown and my home country and traveled the world, including India, often broke and sleeping anywhere I could lay my sleeping bag for the sake of finding myself as a writer.  This young man, still a teenager, slept on the sidewalks, endured poverty in one of the poorest, most crowded cities in the world, and yet considered it a glorious creative experience.  His father, however, began to search for him from city to city in despair; the young man finally wrote to his family and his father came to get him.  This was a touching reminder of the close family ties on the subcontinent, where many consider family more valuable than worldly fortune.

Then Mehta writes about a rich Jain family, diamond merchants, planning to renounce their riches, separate into male and female groups, and wander the countryside as mendicants, in hopes that this will earn them salvation.  They travel to Gujarat for an elaborate ceremony where they give away their worldly possessions and commence their wanderings.  There are all sorts of laws of behavior that must be observed; for example, they are not allowed to step into puddles, or use electricity, or brush their teeth for fear of killing bacteria, or bathe more often than once a month.  They cannot shave or cut their hair, so every six months it is pulled out by the roots.  They must accept whatever vegetarian food that is offered to them, but they are not allowed to complement the cook or enjoy the meal.  And they are forbidden from returning to Bombay, which is considered the epitome of evil.  Supposedly this is the extreme of non-violent behavior required of anyone who hopes for salvation, but to me it smacked of incredible self-righteousness.  In their craving for cessation of desire they forget what it is to be human, to be children of God.  I was reminded of The Swede’s daughter Merry in Phillip Roth’s “American Pastoral”, who embraces an extreme form of Jainism after the guilt for the bombing she has helped perpetrate has consumed her.  She lives in appalling filth and has all but lost her mind.  I won’t go so far as to say that there are not many possible paths to salvation, but it was very difficult for me to see any merit in this family’s choice.  The children, in fact, seemed to have been influenced in their decisions by their parents.  What if they wake up and want to live normally again?  What will they do?  What recourses will they have?  This is a facet of the Indian mind that it is very difficult for a westerner to comprehend.

Overall, the reading of this book is a great experience.  For someone who has never been to India it is a visit to a place so bizarrely different from the West that it is like entering a fantasy world, although not a fairy-tale land.  There is the glitter too, if you know where to look, but mostly there are crowds and crowds of people living amongst filth and pollution and corruption and decay who nevertheless consider the strange, enigmatic city of Bombay to be the land of their dreams.

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