2004, 497 p.
Good grief. What on earth was my son thinking when he suggested that I (a middle-aged, inexperienced world traveller) read this book before visiting Mumbai?
The author Sekutu Mehta was born in Calcutta, and moved to Bombay where he lived for nine years. He left Bombay to move with his parents to America in 1977 at the age of fourteen. In the intervening twenty one years, he lived in New York, Paris, London, Iowa City, New Brunswick and New Jersey. He returned in 1998 with his wife and two young children to find that he was viewed as American rather than Indian. After struggling to find accommodation and to have services connected and after an altercation with his neighbours over his parking space he explodes:
This f*cking city. The sea should rush in over these islands in one great tidal wave and obliterate it, cover it under water…Every morning I get angry. It is the only way to get anything done; people here respond to anger, are afraid of it…Any nostalgia I felt about my childhood has been erased. Given the chance to live again in the territory of childhood, I am coming to detest it. Why do I put myself through this? I was comfortable and happy and praised in New York… I have given all that up for this fool’s errand, looking for silhouettes in the mist of the ghost time. Now I can’t wait to go back, to the place I once longed to get away from: New York…I am an adulterous resident: when I am in one city, I am dreaming of the other. I am an exile, citizen of the country of longing. (p. 28-9)
A working journalist, he is drawn to the Muslim/Hindu riots of 1992-3 that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya, leading to over 2000 deaths, 900 of which occurred during the gang-led Bombay riots.It is this event, and the networks of power that spread web-like from it, that are explored in the first two-thirds of this lengthy book. In Part I, ‘Power’, he talks with both members of Shiv Sena, the far-right Hindu political party, and with members of D-Company led by gangmaster Dawood Ibrahim, who orchestrated a series of retaliatory bombings on March 21 1993. He interviews Ayay Lal, the policeman charged with solving the 1993 bombings who walks (and perhaps falls over) a very fine line between justice and criminality himself. This is nasty, violent stuff that made me ashamed to feel compelled to keep reading. In Part II, ‘Pleasure’ he explores the world of bar-girls and Bollywood, transvestism and prostitution. It, too, is a nasty, violent, squalid world. It is only in Part III ‘Passages’ where he focuses on individuals who skirt these worlds without being swallowed into them, that I felt somewhat less voyeuristic and complicit.
This is a very long book of nearly 500 pages. Its journalistic structure means that it could, theoretically, be any length by adding or culling yet another interview. Despite its three parts and 500-odd pages, I found it hard to find any particular argument in it, except perhaps the rather limp view that
A city is only as thriving or sickly as your place in it. Each Bombayite inhabits his own Bombay. (p. 493)
For a good 2/3 of the book, I felt annoyed by the book’s bagginess and self-indulgence. I resented the time it was taking to read it, but I couldn’t stop doing so either. Yet while in Mumbai I found myself constantly citing this book and small things that I had learned through it. My travelling companion Jesse must have inwardly sighed as I started “In that book I was reading…” because I did so, often.
But I didn’t want to see the Mumbai (Bombay- his choice of ‘Bombay’ in the title is significant) described in this book. It frightened me. To use a bland local example, it was like advising a visitor to Melbourne to watch the full series of Underbelly. Yes, you would learn quite a bit about the Melbourne criminal culture, but you might view the Victoria Market, St Kilda and the Western Suburbs quite differently. I doubt if it would add to your enjoyment of Melbourne.
So my recommendation? Yes, read Maximum City but do it long before you go there, or soon after- but just don’t read it while you’re there!