Genre: narrative non-fiction, memoir, travelogue, reportage, socio-political analysis
Country: USA / India
In italiano : “Maximum City. Bombay Città degli Eccessi”, edito da Einaudi (2006), € 13,80
About the author: Suketu Mehta (born in 1963) is a writer based in New York City. He was born in Calcutta and raised in Bombay until the age of 14, when he moved with his family to the New York area. Maximum City, which is an autobiographical account of his experiences in Bombay in the two-and-a-half years spent to research the book, was released in 2004 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Suketu Mehta also co-wrote the screenplay of Bollywood movie Mission Kashmir with novelist Vikram Chandra. He is currently writing a book about the New York City immigrant experience.
What it’s all about: This book offers a fascinating insight into one of the world's largest, most vibrant and most chaotic cities in the world: Bombay (now renamed Mumbai). It covers everything from organized crime and prostitution to the Bollywood industry, from the political parties that control the city to the religious conflicts and riots between Muslims and Hindus.
Some thoughts: Maximum City is neither a common travelogue nor an average non-fiction book about Indian society; it’s more like an engaging novel with political and social insights. In a whirlwind of unforgettable characters, Suketu Mehta takes you to the flamboyant city of Bombay a.k.a. Mumbai a.k.a. the Gateway of India.
The people encountered by Mehta during his time in Bombay are not the boring people of everyday life, but peculiar, interesting people who could easily come out of a novel, almost to the point that you ask yourself how much of the book comes from firsthand experiences and how much is the result of the author’s re-work of these same experiences. Each Bombayite in the book inhabits his own Bombay: from Sunil, a Hindu nationalist who rises from street thug to Shiv Sena party leader, to Monalisa, a “beer bar” dancer, and Ajai Lal, who claims to be the only non-corrupted policeman in Bombay.
On the back cover of my Italian edition, there’s a recommendation from Salman Rushdie who says that Maximum City is the best book ever written about Bombay. Moreover, travel writer William Dalrymple considers it one of the best city books ever written and he must be right, because this book is excellent! Suketu Mehta is a successor of that tradition of travel writing that has Bruce Chatwin and Ryszard Kapuscinsky as their mentors.
Mehta portrays a city of shocking contradictions, where extreme poverty and opulence live close together. He meets gangsters, hit men, prostitutes, transvestites, policemen, wannabe poets, actors, film directors, aspiring jain monks and every kind of person that makes the incredible city of Bombay as it is. Bombay appears to be built entirely on sex, money and criminality: the aura of spirituality that pervades the western idea of India is completely swept away by the materialism of the people who inhabit the city, from its slums to its richest neighbourhoods. Those who are not part of this materialistic society, like the aspiring poet Babbanji, are crushed by the cruelty of Bombay.