Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

4.4 9
by Suketu Mehta

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A native of Bombay, Suketu Mehta gives us an insider’s view of this stunning metropolis. He approaches the city from unexpected angles, taking us into the criminal underworld of rival Muslim and Hindu gangs; following the life of a bar dancer raised amid poverty and abuse; opening the door into the inner sanctums of Bollywood; and delving into the stories of


A native of Bombay, Suketu Mehta gives us an insider’s view of this stunning metropolis. He approaches the city from unexpected angles, taking us into the criminal underworld of rival Muslim and Hindu gangs; following the life of a bar dancer raised amid poverty and abuse; opening the door into the inner sanctums of Bollywood; and delving into the stories of the countless villagers who come in search of a better life and end up living on the sidewalks.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Stunning. . . . A powerful, arresting work. . . . Marvelous.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Narrative reporting at its finest, probably the best work of nonfiction to come out of India in recent years. . . . Mehta succeeds so brilliantly in taking the pulse of this riotous urban jungle.” –The New York Times Book Review

As each individual story unfolds, Mehta also recounts his own efforts to make a home in Bombay after more than twenty years abroad. Candid, impassioned, funny, and heartrending, Maximum City is a revelation of an ancient and ever-changing world.

“What Dickens did for London, what Joseph Mitchell did for New York City, Suketu Mehta has done for Bombay. . . . A candid, extensive, and wholly entertaining portrait.” –San Diego Union-Tribune

“The ultimate insider’s view of Bombay, a roiling and vigorous account that delivers on a seemingly impossible challenge: how to limn the diversity and sprawl of such a place in a single book.” –The Seattle Times
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"Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us," writes Mehta, in this startling, provocative look at "the biggest, fastest, richest city in India." Mehta spent much of his childhood in Bombay (now Mumbai) before moving to New York with his family. As an adult, he returned there only to be confounded as he sought to reconcile the city of his youth with the teeming, filthy, and yet sometimes alluringly exotic metropolis before him.

What he finds is a city where one always waits in line, yet one is always in a hurry. Where one cannot function without complicity in an intricate system of bribery. Where one must learn (precisely) in which place commuters must stand to exit a train, lest they be trampled by the hordes rushing into the car before it speeds away.

Through Mehta's eyes, readers observe the individuals who call Bombay home, including the writer himself. We meet a dancer who works in Bombay's sex industry and a director navigating the complex world of Bollywood. Corrupt officials parade by, as do gang members who nonchalantly affirm their murderous pasts. As a traveler to Bombay, Mehta felt he was watching the "extreme" of life. Fortunately, readers can share his wildly entrancing journey back "home" from the comfort of their own, more tranquil households. (Holiday 2004 Selection)

Akash Kapur
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.
— The New York Times
The New Yorker
Modern Bombay is home to fourteen million people, two-thirds of them packed into neighborhoods where the population density reaches one million per square mile. Its official name is now Mumbai, but, as the author points out, the city has always had “multiple aliases, as do gangsters and whores.” Mehta, who lived there as a child, has a penchant for the city’s most “morally compromised” inhabitants: the young Hindu mafiosi who calmly recollect burning Muslims alive during riots twelve years ago; the crooked policeman who stages “encounter killings” of hoods whose usefulness has expired; the bar girl, adorned with garlands of rupees, whose arms are scarred from suicide attempts. Mehta’s brutal portrait of urban life derives its power from intimacy with his subjects. After clandestine meetings with some of Bombay’s most wanted assassins, he notes, “I know their real names, what they like to eat, how they love, what their precise relationship is with God.”
Publishers Weekly
Bombay native Mehta fills his kaleidoscopic portrait of "the biggest, fastest, richest city in India" with captivating moments of danger and dismay. Returning to Bombay (now known as Mumbai) from New York after a 21-year absence, Mehta is depressed by his beloved city's transformation, now swelled to 18 million and choked by pollution. Investigating the city's bloody 1992-1993 riots, he meets Hindus who massacred Muslims, and their leader, the notorious Godfather-like founder of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party, Bal Thackeray, "the one man most directly responsible for ruining the city I grew up in." Daring to explore further the violent world of warring Hindu and Muslim gangs, Mehta travels into the city's labyrinthine criminal underworld with tough top cop Ajay Lal, developing an uneasy familiarity with hit men who display no remorse for their crimes. Mehta likewise deploys a gritty documentary style when he investigates Bombay's sex industry, profiling an alluring, doomed dancing girl and a cross-dressing male dancer who leads a strange double life. Mehta includes so-called "Bollywood" in his sweeping account of Bombay's subcultures: he hilariously recounts, in diary style, day-to-day life on the set among the aging male stars of the action movie Mission Kashmir. Mehta, winner of a Whiting Award and an O. Henry Prize, is a gifted stylist. His sophisticated voice conveys postmodern Bombay with a carefully calibrated balance of wit and outrage, harking back to such great Victorian urban chroniclers as Dickens and Mayhew while introducing the reader to much that is truly new and strange. Agent, Faith Childs Literary Agency. (Sept. 26) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Bombay-born Mehta, a screenplay (Mission Kashmir) and fiction writer, was transplanted to New York at age 14. In 1998, he returned to Bombay (now Mumbai) for two years and this is his account of the people who make up this mega-city (it will have 55 million inhabitants by 2015). The cover pictures a crush of passengers alongside a suburban train, and one wonders who they are. Mehta gets beneath their skin, so that they spring to life more vividly than any fiction character. He introduces the leader of a branch of the Shiv Sena, gangsters from Mumbai's underworld, a bargirl from the demimonde, slum dwellers, police officers, a movie producer, a struggling actor, and a 17-year-old runaway poet who lives on the pavement. Although his characters do not really represent a cross-section Mehta merely skims the middle and upper-middle classes his book is utterly fascinating. Essential for anyone wishing to understand present-day Mumbai. Ravi Shenoy, Naperville P.L., IL Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious portrait of the megalopolis-one that, like its subject, contains worlds but is too big and too crowded for comfort. Bombayite-turned-New Yorker Mehta, a writer of fiction and film scripts, returned to his native city for a two-year stint in 1998, and his experiences form the heart of this excited report. "Bombay," he writes, "is the future of urban civilization on the planet." He adds: "God help us." From its birth as an entrepot, the island city-its booster considering it the next Singapore, "relieved of having to bear the burden of this tiresome country," Mother India-has swelled unimaginably; the population in 2005 is expected to reach 27.5 million, and "by 2015, there will be more people living in Bombay than in all of Italy." Much demand and little supply yields challenges-Mehta had to pay $3,000 a month for a so-so apartment-but at least, Indians say, no one starves in Bombay, which is why the place adds 500 residents every day of the year. Mehta can be both learned and obscure-at one point, he writes, "I chase plumbers, electricians, and carpenters like Werther chasing Lotte"-but also very funny. Yet, when he wanders from the leafy, comfortable districts into the criminal and sexual demimondes of Bombay, he is transfixed and a-swoon, as when he writes of one batch of gangsters: "Why am I not tired of listening to them? Why do the nine hours pass by effortlessly, as with a new lover?" Similarly, his account of the making of a Bollywood film contains plenty of interest and humor (Hollywood demands that a musical's song fit the plot, he writes, but "Hindi movies face no such fascist guidelines"). Still, at 80 pages alone, it goes on much too long. Bombay is the only cityin India, Mehta observes, where more people want to lose weight than gain it. Though this overlong work could stand to shed a few pounds itself, it's rich with insight and unfailingly well-written. Author tour

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Read an Excerpt

Personal Geography

There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia. Urbs Prima in Indis reads the plaque outside the Gateway of India. It is also the Urbs Prima in Mundis, at least in one area, the first test of the vitality of a city: the number of people living in it. With 14 million people, Bombay is the biggest city on the planet of a race of city dwellers. Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us.

I left Bombay in 1977 and came back twenty-one years later, when it had grown up to become Mumbai. Twenty-one years: enough time for a human being to be born, get an education, be eligible to drink, get married, drive, vote, go to war, and kill a man. In all that time, I hadn’t lost my accent. I speak like a Bombay boy; it is how I am identified in Kanpur and Kansas. “Where’re you from?” Searching for an answer—in Paris, in London, in Manhattan—I always fall back on “Bombay.” Somewhere, buried beneath the wreck of its current condition—one of urban catastrophe—is the city that has a tight claim on my heart, a beautiful city by the sea, an island-state of hope in a very old country. I went back to look for that city with a simple question: Can you go home again? In the looking, I found the cities within me.

I am a city boy. I was born in a city in extremis, Calcutta. Then I moved to Bombay and lived there nine years. Then to New York, eight years in Jackson Heights. A year, on and off, in Paris. Five years in the East Village. Scattered over time, another year or so in London. The only exceptions were three years in Iowa City, not a city at all, and a couple more in New Brunswick, New Jersey, college towns that prepared me for a return to the city. My two sons were born in a great city, New York. I live in cities by choice, and I’m pretty sure I will die in a city. I don’t know what to do in the country, though I like it well enough on weekends.

I come from a family of mercantile wanderers. My paternal grandfather left rural Gujarat for Calcutta in the salad days of the century, to join his brother in the jewelry business. When my grandfather’s brother first ventured into international territory, to Japan, in the 1930s, he had to come back and bow in apology before the caste elders, turban in his hands. But his nephews—my father and my uncle—kept moving, first to Bombay and then across the black water to Antwerp and New York, to add to what was given to them. My maternal grandfather left Gujarat for Kenya as a young man, and he now lives in London. My mother was born in Nairobi, went to college in Bombay, and now lives in New York. In my family, picking up and going to another country to live was never a matter for intense deliberation. You went where your business took you.

Once, with my grandfather, I went back to our ancestral house in Maudha, which used to be a village in Gujarat but is now a town. Sitting in the courtyard of the old house with its massive timbers, my grandfather began introducing us to the new owners, a family of Sarafs, Gujarati moneylenders, for whom Maudha was the big city. “And this is my son-in-law, who lives in Nigeria.”

“Nigeria,” said the Saraf, nodding.

“And this is my grandson, who is from New York.”

“New York,” the Saraf repeated, still nodding.

“And this is my granddaughter-in-law, who is from London.”


“Now they both live in Paris.”

“Paris,” the Saraf dutifully recited. If at this point my grandfather had said he lived on the moon, the Saraf would, without batting an eyelid, have kept nodding and repeated, “Moon.” Our dispersal was so extreme that it bordered on the farcical. But here we were, visiting the house where my grandfather grew up, still together as a family. Family was the elastic that pulled us back together, no matter how far we wandered.

• *

It was the muqabla, the commercial competition, that had forced my father to leave Calcutta. It was the way jewels were bought and sold in my grandfather’s business. A group of sellers would assemble at the buyer’s office with the broker at an appointed time. Then the negotiations would begin. The price was not said aloud but was indicated by the number of fingers held up under a loose corner of the seller’s dhoti, which would be grasped by the buyer. Part of the muqabla was loud abuse of the buyer. “Have you gone mad? Do you expect me to sell at these prices?” In a display of extreme frustration, the seller would storm out of the office, shouting loudly all the time. But he would be careful to forget his umbrella. Ten minutes later he would be back, to pick up the umbrella. By this time the buyer might have reconsidered and they might come to a conclusion, at which point the broker would say, “Then shake hands!” and there would be smiles all around. It was because of this little piece of theater that my father decided to leave the jewelry business in Calcutta. He could not stand the shouting and the abuse; he was an educated man.

My father’s brother had gone to Bombay in 1966, against the will of my grandfather, who saw no reason why he should leave. But my uncle was a young man, and the twilight in Calcutta had begun. In Bombay, he went into the diamond business. Three years later, my parents were passing through Bombay, after my little sister was born in Ahmadabad. My uncle, recently married, suggested to his brother, “Why don’t you stay?” So we did, four adults and two children, one a newborn, in a one-room flat, with guests always coming and going. We lived as a “joint family,” sharing the flat and the expenses, and the space expanded to fit us. How can 14 million people fit onto one island? As we did in that apartment off Teen Batti.

My father and my uncle found their niche in the diamond business. We moved to a two-bedroom flat above a palace by the sea, Dariya Mahal. The palace belonged to the Maharao of Kutch. A family of Marwari industrialists bought the palace and its grounds; they chopped down the trees on the land, cleared the antiques out of the palace, and put in schoolchildren. Around the palace they built a complex of three buildings: Dariya Mahal 1 and 2, twenty-story buildings that look like open ledgers, and Dariya Mahal 3, where I grew up, the squat, stolid, twelve-story stepchild.

My uncle and my father made regular business trips to Antwerp and America. When my father asked what he could bring back from America for me, I asked him for a scratch-and-sniff T-shirt, which I’d read about in some American magazine. He came back bringing a giant bag of marshmallows. I ate as many as I could of the huge white cottony things, and tried to make sense of the texture, before my aunt appropriated them. After one of those trips, according to my uncle, my father had an epiphany while shaving, as often happens when you’re facing yourself in a mirror without actively looking. He decided to move to America. Not for its freedom or its way of life; he moved there to make more money.

Each person’s life is dominated by a central event, which shapes and distorts everything that comes after it and, in retrospect, everything that came before. For me, it was going to live in America at the age of fourteen. It’s a difficult age at which to change countries. You haven’t quite finished growing up where you were and you’re never well in your skin in the one you’re moving to. I had absolutely no idea about the country America; I had never been there. I was certainly not of a later generation of my cousins, such as Sameer, who at the age of sixteen, stepped into JFK Airport fresh off the plane from Bombay wearing a Mets baseball cap and with half an American accent already in place. I traveled, in twenty-four hours, between childhood and adulthood, between innocence and knowledge, between predestination and chaos. Everything that has happened since, every minute and monstrous act—the way I use a fork, the way I make love, my choice of a profession and a wife—has been shaped by that central event, that fulcrum of time.

There was a stack of Reader’s Digests in the back room of my grandfather’s Calcutta house, dark, hot, womblike. There, in my summers, I had read true-life adventures, spy stories of the dastardly Communists, and jokes the whole family could enjoy about the antics of children and servicemen. It was my introduction to America. Imagine my surprise when I got there. I was lucky, though I didn’t know it then, that of all the possible cities my father could have moved us to, he chose New York. “It’s just like Bombay.” Thus is New York explained to people in India.

In the first year after I got to America I sent for its previously inaccessible treasures, the merchandise advertised on the inside covers of the comic books. I ordered, for my friends in Bombay, the joy buzzer, the floating ghost, the hovercraft, and X-ray goggles. A brown box came in the mail. I looked at it for a few moments before opening it; here was what we had been denied all these years. Then the junk came spilling out. The floating ghost was a white plastic garbage-bin liner with a stick threaded through the top; you were supposed to hang it up and wave it around to scare people. The X-ray goggles were a pair of plastic glasses, like the 3-D glasses given out in science-fiction theaters, with a rough drawing of a skeleton on both lenses. The hovercraft was a sort of red fan, attached to a motor; when you turned it on, it really did rise over a flat surface. The joy buzzer was a small steel device that could be worn on the inside of the palm like a ring; you wound it up and when you shook the victim’s hand a knob was pressed and the device vibrated sharply. I looked at the mess spread out on the floor. I had been had before in Bombay; I knew the feeling well. Nonetheless, I sent the package to my Bombay friends, with a letter suggesting possible uses for the gags; the ghost, for instance, could be lowered on a string to flap outside the balconies of the lower floors, possibly scaring small children in the dark.

I knew my gifts would be welcome. Whatever their quality, they were “imported” and therefore to be treasured. In our house in Bombay, there used to be a showcase in the living room. It displayed imported objects from Europe and America, the spoils of my uncle’s business trips: Matchbox cars, miniature bottles of spirits, a cylinder of long matches from London shaped like a Beefeater with a furry black hat as the top, a little model of the Eiffel Tower. There were toys, also, for the children—a battery-powered Apollo 11 rocket, a police cruiser with a blue revolving light, a doll that could drink and wet her diaper—which were almost never taken out for us. The kids in the building would assemble around the showcase and look up at the toys inside—toys we weren’t allowed to touch for fear of breaking them.

In America, too, we had a showcase in our house. In it were kept souvenirs from India: a pair of grandparent dolls, Dada dressed in a dhoti, Dadi in a cotton sari; a marble statue of Ganesh; a wooden mask of Hanuman; a little model of the Taj Mahal with a light that glowed from within; a bharata natyam dancer whose head moved sideways on her neck; and a bronze clock shaped like the official map of India with all of Kashmir reclaimed from the Pakistanis and the Chinese. When the new baby was born he wasn’t allowed to open the showcase and play with these objects. They were too fragile; he would hurt himself. He spent his time splayed against the glass door of the showcase, staring at his heritage, like a wasp at a window.

When I moved to New York, I missed Bombay like an organ of my body. I thought that when I left Bombay I had escaped from the worst school in the world. I was wrong. The all-boys Catholic school I went to in Queens was worse. It was in a working-class white enclave that was steadily being encroached upon by immigrants from darker countries. I was one of the first minorities to enroll, a representative of all they were trying to hold out against. Soon after I got there, a boy with curly red hair and freckles came up to my lunch table and announced, “Lincoln should never have freed the slaves.” The teachers called me a pagan. My school yearbook photo shows me looking at the camera with the caption, “It’s so strong I can even skip a day,” referring to an advertising slogan for a brand of antiperspirant. This was how the school saw me: as a stinking heathen, emitting the foul odors of my native cooking. On the day I graduated, I walked outside the barbed-wire-topped gates, put my lips to the pavement, and kissed the ground in gratitude.

In Jackson Heights we reapproximated Bombay, my best friend Ashish and I. Ashish had also been moved from Bombay to Queens, at the age of fifteen. The happiest afternoons of that time were when we went to see Hindi movies at the Eagle Theater. With one letter changed, it had formerly been the Earle Theater, a porn house. The same screen that had been filled with monstrous penises pullulating in mutant vaginas was now displaying mythologicals of the blue-skinned god Krishna; in these films not a breast, not even a kiss was shown. Maybe it was being purified. But I still scanned the seats carefully before sitting down on them.

Meet the Author

Suketu Mehta is a fiction writer and journalist based in New York. He has won the Whiting Writers Award, the O. Henry Prize, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for his fiction. Mehta’s other work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Granta, Harper’s magazine, Time, Condé Nast Traveler, and The Village Voice, and has been featured on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Mehta also cowrote Mission Kashmir, a Bollywood movie.

Brief Biography

Brooklyn, New York
Place of Birth:
B.A., New York University; M.F.A. (Fiction), University of Iowa Writers¿ Workshop

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4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Vermillion_Bear More than 1 year ago
I've read this book three times and I still love it as much each time I read it. Suketu Mehta definitely brings out the different lifestyles and things happening in Mumbai. Gangsters, movie stars, dancing girls, politicians, murderers, slum dwellers, and others are included in this book. There are so many interesting topics covered in such a small book.
ravens_path More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be very well written and very thought provoking. It explains not only the mega city of Mumbai, but in a general way, all the large cities in India and perhaps also many of the mega cities throughout emerging countries. Very good book for those wanting to understand politicial and socio-economic issues for urban India.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mehta has accomplished a feat: the book is sweeping and deep. There are so many stories and so multi-layered with history, politics, religion, economics and personal demons. Bombay is the main character: crazy, illogical, mesmerizing, charismatic.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Suketu Mehta has described the vibrancy, dynamism, color, and culture of Bombay like no one has before. He brings it together under one book until the last chapter when it seems, in my humble opinion, that the book comes to an abrupt end. I grew up in Bombay, have visited it several times and the picture he paints is very appropriate. Of course, I never knew or was in touch with the characters that he weaves. But certainly the people who live in Bombay or know those that reside in the most fabulous city have heard about the incidents that he refers throughout the book. Lastly, MUMBAI is not the same as Bombay. Therefore, Viva Bombay!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Like Suketu Mehta, I spent my formative years in Bombay before moving to the United States. I invite you to visit the city. It will enchant you, excite your senses and change your perspective on life. Life in Bombay is a conflunce of eastern philosophy, poverty, technology and western pop culture which produces a unique harmony full of hope and despair, and no one has described it better than Mr. Mehta. Mehta's engaging narrative shows how an individual's desire for a better life keeps the spark of hope alive for millions of people who overcome huge obstacles daily to strive for a better life. This point is amply illustrated in his description of an encounter between a cleaning lady and a local politician before an election. The foremost concern on her mind was an opportunity for her child to have a good education even though she made less than 50 cents a day with no job security and lived in conditions that would have been deemed horrendous by US standards. So, she asks the politician to get her daughter a slot in a prestigious school instead of something for herself. He expertly captures the unique dynamics in India society that can instantly alter the balance between emotional feelings and rational thought to create an unpredictable outcome in a mundane everyday situation. Mehta describes how he is able to get a local gas company bureaucrat to grant him an exception on a gas cylinder for cooking by appealing to her as a mother of a child after all rational appeals have failed. In this book the real heroes are the residents of Bombay. They welcome into their midst with open arms anyone from anywhere who is willing to dream about the good life and work hard to pursue it. This 'melting pot' attribute serves to make Bombay very different in character from other Indian cities. Mr. Mehta's decription of this city is both accurate and timely. It provides urban policy makers with a roadmap of what could happen if the institutions and infrastructure in our urban centers are allowed to detriorate. It also provides an insight into the Indian urban mindset for business executives planning to enter into business ventures in a country what could be the next Asian tiger.
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