“Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us.”
So begins Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, a riveting picaresque adventure and epic paean to the sprawling post-modern megalopolis of his childhood, an “urban catastrophe” now rechristened Mumbai and which, by 2020, will be the most densely inhabited city in the world, with a population of 28.5 million.
Born in Calcutta, raised in Bombay, London, and New York, Mehta returns after a nineteen-year absence for what becomes a two-and-a-half year “visit.” He obsessively wanders Bombay’s wide avenues and teeming chawls; he is trolling for stories and like a fabulous fruit, this beautiful ruined city opens itself to him. He makes strange friends, extraordinary and often inaccessible people who talk to him; he in turn, in a style that rattles along like gunfire in the present tense, passes them on to us. No one eludes his radar: underworld dons, hit men, warring Hindu and Muslim gangs, corrupt judges and scam artists, fabulously wealthy businessmen, bar-girls, prostitutes, cross-dressing male dancers, top cops, politicians, Bollywood movie stars and the crime syndicates that finance their films, and a family of billionaire diamond merchants who renounce their worldly treasure to become wandering ascetic Jain monks.
“All big cities are schizophrenic,” Mehta says, quoting Victor Hugo, “[but] Bombay has multiple personality disorder.” The stories of the rich on Malabar Hill and the poor who, crushed beneath the boot of history, live in squalid slums without electricity, safe drinking water, plumbing, or privacy, the people of the night and those of the day, the powerful and the exploited, the deadly and byzantine network of Muslim extremists who follow orders from abroad, the continuous din of traffic, the crushing heat, the stench of fish drying on stilts in the open air, “the searing heat of garlic chutney on [your] vadapav sandwich,” all weave a dense and glittering fabric of a city where everything is “maximized.” It is also a deeply disturbed city, where passions simmer just below the explosion level, but where a man who lives in the worst slums of Dugeshwari, who has no running water, no toilet, and no job, can still tell Mehta: “Bombay is a bird of gold.”
Maximum City is narrative non-fiction at its most compelling. Mehta combines the investigative sophistication and precision of the journalist with the novelist’s ear and eye. He has the outsider’s critical distance and the insider’s familiarity; the result is a gripping work which defies genre: part memoir, part travelogue, part tragedy and psychological thriller, cultural anthropology, urban ethnography, and nightmare. As Dickens is to London, Wharton and James to New York, and Amos Oz to Jerusalem, so does Mehta explore the fractured psyche of Bombay, bringing to light each kaleidoscopic piece of this city of extremes.
“I’m a fiction writer masquerading as a journalist,” the award-winning Mehta once told an interviewer. Maximum City is not only a fabulous chronicle of his return but a shimmering filmic portrait of a city where, like the cinema, which is “fundamentally a mass dream of the audience, Bombay is a mass dream of the peoples of India.”
I couldn’t put it down.
Reviewed by Abby Pollak