Just Landed

An Outsider’s Perspective From The Inside

  • About Just Landed

    Just Landed is a part of the ever-expanding Blandings Media Empire.
  • Write Me

    justlanded AT blandings DOT com
  • Archives

  • Categories

Book Review: Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

Posted by anandrr on January 3, 2009

I first visited Bombay as a young teenager, and it was a case of love at first sight. There is an energy to Bombay that other Indian cities can only aspire to, indeed the only other city anywhere that seems to have a similar energy is New York. There were many other things that were unique and lovable about the city: it never seemed to sleep, people were going about their business and shops and restaurants seemed to stay open late late in to the night; the people I was visiting with lived in (compared to Bangalore) cramped flats but this seemed to foster a much greater sense of community among the families who lived there; the Bhel puri was a revelation; and I didn’t look at the generally run-down condition of the buildings and cringe, like an infatuated teenager I only thought it made it look more beautiful. When I visit Bombay today, almost all of that is still true, of course I continue to love the city, it is still one of a select few that I could imagine living in, the huge piles of garbage do make me cringe, but I’ve learned to ignore that in India, I continue to be amazed by the vast slums, and the most amazing thing about Bombay is that the taxi/auto drivers don’t seem to want to fleece me and people stand in line to get into a bus (but not to get into a local?). There are times of the year when I hate the weather there, but I’m beginning to learn that there are few places in India that a Bangalorean can go to and not complain about the weather.

This general love-affair with Bombay was why I was rather looking forward to reading Maximum City. I was eager to learn a lot more, I had only glimpsed Bombay in brief 1 and 2 day stints, what was I missing? And more importantly, make me love it more. The title aptly captures my concept of Bombay, it is truly a maximum city, not only is every thing bigger and better: they have the largest slums and Ambani’s $1B home, more people migrate there than anywhere else, every form of industry known to man seems to operate in some corner of Bombay, some of the richest Indians live there and certainly some of the poorest, they have more gangs per capita than anywhere else, and more ingredients in their melting pot than the rest of the country.

And so it was that the book itself fell short of my expectations. The biggest problem with the book was that it felt more like a buffet than a banquet. You get to pick and enjoy your dishes, but there is no unifying theme, you don’t come away with any greater appreciation for Bombay and what makes it tick than what you already imagined.

There are three distinct voices in the book: immigrant Mehta, literary journalist Mehta and ironic Mehta. Immigrant Mehta gets us kicked off with a personal note about his return to Bombay after an absence of some 20 years during which time he has lived around the world. This is of course an experience I appreciate myself, and his visceral notes about Bombay (generally true of any where in India, natch) ring very true. He neatly and concisely captures the culture shock of a returning Indian and continuing amazement that the “system” works nevertheless. Bombay (as the rest of India is also) emerges as the city of No, a city where change is the only constant where even the footpath today is not what it was last week, and will never be a usable footpath.

Literary Mehta disappoints. This section of the book comprises long (think New Yorker length and more) essays about different facets of the city: the 93 riots, the beer bar dancers, the gangs and so on. Mehta’s method here is to immerse himself in the lives that he wishes to document and then write about them in mini-novellas. But this leads to three problems: first, and somewhat trivial perhaps, his is not a writing style that lends itself to such long pieces. His writing style feels Economist, his writing length says New Yorker, this often left me tired as I reached the end of a marathon that I had expected to sprint through. Second, this method has an inbuilt shortcoming: there are only so many lives you can document, and you come away feeling that you have not had a complete picture, what about the lives of the local train engineer, the taxi driver, the stock broker, the high flying industrialist, the iron smelter in Dharavi, all of these people contribute to making Bombay maximum also, but they are conspicuous by their absence. Finally, by insinuating himself into their lives what starts as an apparently journalistic investigation of someone’s life and work quickly turns gushingly sympathetic, all Mumbai cops are corrupt and immoral except the one whom Mehta has chosen to portray, all Bombay beer bar dancers are really just looking to swindle their next “boyfriend” except the one Mehta befriends (and I’m so not buying the chastity of that relationship), and on and on.

Finally, we read Ironic Mehta. When he turns a detached (and somewhat snobbish perhaps) eye at Bollywood, his school, the Jains in search of salvation, Mehta turns the irony dial to 11 and doesn’t disappoint. He is unfailingly energetic throughout the book but now he channels it well showing us how few things in India are what they appear to be on the outside. This turns out to be especially true in that city of dhandha, and Mehta documents this exceedingly well. A different Bombay comes together at this point in his book, it might or might not be the real Bombay, but is certainly the most credible portrait, and it is as well that he leaves us with this picture, a little something to wash down the earlier silliness.

Advertisements

3 Responses to “Book Review: Maximum City by Suketu Mehta”

  1. Vaidu said

    Hey Anna,
    this is my first trip to your blog and i am commenting like a goody goody girl see.

    I can say without dispute i can catch the pulse of bombay more than you because that was the place where i was born and bought up. however that line about all cops being corrupt i want to bring in a note.

    everybody who has every tried to showcase the “real india” to the west shows that its full of slums, villagers, malnutrioned kids, cheats, desperate men and the list goes one. I mean india has that no doubt but that is not india is it. India is different and better. It has values, ethics, brains, perseverence, almost everybody doing random acts of friendliness naturally without thinking of it. From automatically butting into a conversation when someone is giving the wrong directions to doing the more publishable things like the Mr. Saraf who is quietly responsible for every bench for public use in Bombay. I would love to read or see or have anything that shows India this way too

  2. keating said

    Bangalorean?

    Perhaps Bengaluroid is a tad more eccentric?

  3. […] Games appears to be a companion volume to Maximum City. But that is doing Maximum City too many favours, and Sacred Games a grave disservice. Games is the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: