Wednesday, September 30, 2009

28. “Maximum City. Bombay Lost and Found” by Suketu Mehta

Year of first publication: 2004
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.
By reading this book, I think I came to understand what writers such as Salman Rushdie (another Mumbaikar!) mean when they say that in a country like India “magical realism” is reality and not just fantasy: the violence that spurts out of Bombay is so shocking that it seems unreal to the reader of this book, sit in his comfy chair in a Western living room of a first-world country.
After reading this book, I almost came to the conclusion that I don't want to set foot in Mumbai whatsoever. Let's see if some other Bombayite book is going to make me reconsider this.


  1. This is interesting and your thoughts are lovely. But please don't discount Bombay because of this, though I have never been there before. Well I never knew Bombay and Mumbai are the same. hahaha...a little education that would have disgraced me elsewhere...thanks very much.

    By the way please pass by and vote for your favourite book of the quarter if you have not done so already. Thanks.

  2. Ahah, that comment about not wanting to go to Bombay in reality is a desire to read something more... er... let's say "uplifting" about big Indian cities.

    And yep, Bombay was renamed Mumbai a few years ago by the nationalists. From what I understand, Mumbai has always been the way locals called it when speaking in local languages, whereas Bombay was the English name and thus used only by English-speakers. I wonder if the middle and upper-classes of Bombay/Mumbai still refer to it as Bombay (especially if they tend to speak English at all times) and if calling it Mumbai now has nationalist connotations. If some Indian or some "Mumbai expert" reads this I'd like to know the answer... :-)

  3. Nice review. I have added the book in my reading list. To answer your question about the name, there are different opinions. The nationalists feel it was a good move. Personally, I sometimes say Bombay and sometimes Mumbai. I don't think names are that important.

    I am always a little bit sceptical about the portrayal of India done by Indians living abroad. If they have not spent a long time in India, then they are mesmerized by the obvious contradictions that are inherent part of India. But in doing so they sometimes miss the big picture. For instance, in Slumdog, I did not like the way poverty was dramatized. It was a gimmick, albeit a very successful one.

    As far as criminality goes, Mumbai is as safe/dangereous as Chicago or Paris. Sex and criminality are not the only things there, they are as much a part as in any big city.
    So I think you should reconsider your opinion about Mumbai :-)

    Cool blog, by the way. I will be a regular visitor now. :-)

  4. I loved this book too (and I read it just before landing in Mumbai!).
    But I agree with Raj that Mumbai/Bombay is much more.
    It is not just sex, money and criminality: "the boring people of everyday life" are much more human, spiritual and friendly if you meet them on our way walking around Bombay.
    And it is a very safe city.

    Some more books based in Mumbai that I would recommend are:
    - Sacred games by Vikram Chandra (I loved that one even more!)
    - No god in sight by Tyrewala Altaf
    - Shantaram (not one of my favourite books, but it does give a much more human view of the people of Mumbai)
    - Such a long journey by Rohiton Mistry

    You can find the reviews on my blog:

    And you can find my feelings about Bombay on the blog I wrote while I was there:
    (well, not quite a Pulitzer finalist, but...)


  5. Wonderfull Stefania,
    Metha is one of my best writer. The image of Mumbay is very strong. i agree with you but....Mumbay is..strange city, is...full of people, full of life, full of shine, full of love and death. Honestly i prefer Delhi because there is more traditional place. Mumbay is too much hot! Do you know one thing about Metha?
    He have had problems like Saviano and Rushdie......poor Metha!

  6. @RAJ: Yes, names are not that important. Like Shakespeare said: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet".

    It is probably true what you say about non-resident Indians. They might not get "the big picture", as you say, but sometimes they notice little things that locals don't, like foreigners do. Claming to be Indian but not having lived all your life there might lead to miscomprehensions and misunderstandings. I know that Salman Rushdie has also been criticized a lot for being an expatriate and thus not understanding some things about his own country. I've just finished reading "Midnight's Children" and I was astounded by the amount of criticism of Indian politics (especially against Indira Gandhi), seen that Rushdie has spent most of his life abroad.
    Regarding "Slumdog Millionaire", it is true that poverty was dramatized Bollywood-style. "Maximum City" is nothing like this, being a non-fiction book. It is very realistic and down-to-earth, but of course it's impossible to grasp the true essence of such a complex city as Bombay.

    @SILVIA: I'm happy to know that Bombay is as safe as any other big city! I had already skimmed through your other blog on your experiences in Mumbai but now I'm going back to it and read it more carefully!

  7. @SONIA NEPALESE: So maybe I'd prefer Delhi too, because I don't like hot places (I should go to Nepal, not India!) and I like old things!

    I didn't know that Mehta had had problems after writing this book, but now that you told me it seems obvious. I've heard his podcast interview (he has such a thin voice and quite a strong Indian accent, despite his "Americaness") and actually he mentioned that he was scared in a couple of occasions. Really, poor guy, I hope he's safe now!

  8. Oh Stefania, Nepal is my big passion. Unfortunately There isn't a good literature in italian language about Nepal. i remember only "Forget Kathmandu" and also onother book about drugs in the is not so interesting because today Kathmandu is very different.
    Nepal is wonderful because is old and full of spirituality.....oh..i miss so much this land....and i came back only one month ago.....:(

  9. I hope to go to Nepal one day. I miss living in London, there I could find literature about any country, even Nepal, in the bookstores. I have put "Forget Kathmandu" in my reading list!

  10. Hey, you should add at least one book of Naipaul's on your "to-be-reviewed" list. I would recommend "India--A Million Mutinies Now".

  11. @Paritosh: Thanks for the advice, I really want to read that book, even though I've been told that Naipaul has been criticized a lot for the way he sees India and Indians.

    I have read in Silvia's blog (Indian words) that you are about to publish a novel. Congratulations! I have read some of your short stories from your blog, they are really nice! I'm going to read some more tomorrow. :-)

  12. Thanks for your appreciation. Yes, Silvia is a generous friend :-)

    Naipaul has written three books on India spread over 25 years--An Area of Darkness, A wounded civilization, A million mutinies now. You can see how his sympathy for India grows as he understands it better (actually you can say from almost aversion to sympathy).

    I agree Area of Darkness is bitter and sarcastic and that caused a lot of heartburn in India when it was published. But I think he does best in a million mutinies now. Read his non-fiction for his writing style, if for not other reason!