Maximum City

Mehta grew up in Mumbai but he left after his formative years for the US (New York City, mostly, for 20 years). This book documents a homecoming of sorts. He brings his wife and two young kids back to Mumbai to live for a few years and documents his personal experiences. It’s deeper though than a personal story; he picks a few (semi) famous people and describes their lives in an effort to give the reader a better description of what Mumbai is really like.

Let me first throw out a caveat: I have not dug into the veracity of any of this stuff. Mehta spends time with murderers, gang leaders, strippers, cops, rich people, poor people, friends, foes; you name it. Many of whom he does not paint in a very positive light. In many cases he disguised his intentions. In many cases he was very up front. In all cases, he had access. Some of it is pretty unbelievable. But I’m assuming it was vetted properly because the book was up for a Pulitzer in 2005. Call me crazy.

It’s clear that Mehta has many, many wonderful memories of growing up in Mumbai. Those memories of a kid in the 1970’s give way to the perspective of a guy in his late thirties around the turn of the millennium. Who better to give you a feeling for the place? Mehta shows his Indian home great love, but it’s often tough love, so he doesn’t sugar-coat anything. I loved the book and it makes me want to find a similar style of book for Chicago.

It’s basically a book full of stories about people in Mumbai. He starts out with the story of his move back. He then moves on to a large section on Hindu and Muslim gangs, the police force trying to keep them in check, and the culture of corruption in Mumbai. He lightens things up and transitions to entertainment, discussing local food, strip clubs/dance bars, and Bollywood. He returns to his personal story and recounts his high school class reunion. Then he gives us the point of view of someone from a rural area coming to the big city to pursue their dreams followed by an account of a whole family becoming Jain monks. Finally, he finishes up with some more personal reflection.

They are all great stories. Early on I was riveted by the stories of the 1992-93 riots told to Mehta by people who were there. He even got to meet Bal Thackeray; Mehta has this thought upon shaking the man’s hand:

Then I shake the hand of the one man most directly responsible for ruining the city I grew up in. (pg 97)

That’s what I mean by access and it also highlights the emotional attachment Mehta has to his subject matter.

The Hindu and Muslim strife in Mumbai seems palpable, at least the way Mehta describes it, exacerbated by overcrowding, poverty, and general corruption. Talk about overcrowding:

The Greater Bombay region has an annual deficit of 45,000 houses a year. … Thus these 45,000 households every year add to the ranks of the slums. … The slum population doubles every decade. (pg 117)

Then a little further along:

Prahlad Kakkar, an ad filmmaker, has made a film called Bumbay, a film about shitting in the metropolis. … “Half the population doesn’t have a toilet to shit in, so they shit outside. That’s five million people…” (pg 127)

And about the gangs:

The gangs flourish because they form a parallel justice system in a country with the world’s largest backlog of court cases. Indicative of this judicial paralysis is the fact that as of 2003, a decade after the Bombay blasts, the trial of the plotters is still dragging on. (pg 144)

But it’s not all bad:

Bombay is still a city where I can travel pretty much anywhere at all hours of the day or night. Muggings are virtually unknown. Women aren’t molested like they are in Delhi. …

Bombay’s menace is not street crime. It’s bigger and more organized than that. (pg 145)

I guess you have to take the good with the bad. I think they just get used to it because they don’t have any choice.

The judge/population ratio in the United States is 107 judges per million people; in India it is 13 judges per million. Forty percent of the judgeships in the Bombay High Court are vacant; each judge has over three thousand cases pending. (pg 176)

So you do what you gotta do, according to Mehta:

You have to break the law to survive. I break the law often and casually. I dislike giving bribes, I dislike buying movie tickets in the black. But since the legal option is so ridiculously arduous – in getting a driver’s license, in buying a movie ticket – I take the easy way out. (pg 177)

Despite this, his heart is clearly in India. About half way through he talks about getting things figured out.

The kids stop getting sick all the time, and when they do we don’t worry so much. All the kids in Bombay are sick much of the time. It is the bad air, the bad water, the bad food – and the country still has 1 billion people. One billion thin, often sickly, but alive people, some of them magnificently alive. (pg 255)

I love that passage.

Shortly after this passage he dives into a few hundred pages on the club scene and forges and friendship with a bar dancer (not really a stripper). Here is how he starts things off:

I started going to beer bars because I was puzzled. I couldn’t figure out why men would want to spend colossal amounts of money there. On a good night a dancer in a Bombay bar can make twice as much as a high-class stripper in a New York bar. The difference is that the dancer in Bombay doesn’t have to sleep with the customers, is forbidden to touch them in the bar, and wears more clothes on her body than the average Bombay secretary does on the broad public street. (pg 269)

Hmm. Interesting. He’s still just a journalist though and stays detached, he says about his new friend:

… I haven’t told her about my wife and children. I remember that Monalisa is still under the protection of the don’s grandson. She is of the shadow world; I keep my family insulated from such people. Hit men, dancing girls, rioters: As far as they are concerned, I live alone in the apartment in Elco, which is actually my office. If there is a problem later, if they decide to take a violent dislike to me or what I write about them, it is only me they can hurt. (pg 295)

Then he starts talking Bollywood, a term that they hate in India.

India is one of the few territories in which Hollywood has been unable to make more than a dent; Hollywood films make up barely 5 percent of the country’s market. (pg 349)

I tell ya, it’s a different movie-going experience:

An Indian cinema hall is never the chamber of mass unconsciousness it is in the West. For one thing, you can never tell anyone to shut up. Everyone talks at will, often keeping up a running dialogue with the characters. If a god appears onscreen, people might throw coins or prostrate themselves in the aisles. Babies howl; during a song, a quarter of the audience might get up and procure refreshment in the lobby. Complex dialogue doesn’t work, because most of the time the audience doesn’t hear it. … (pg 366)

Fascinating, huh?

This book gives me a new perspective on the city. You really do need to adjust and pay more attention to your fellow man. We’re all packed into these confined spaces together so let’s just make the best of it. That’s what they’ve figured out in India. That’s why they thrive everywhere, because they can adapt:

Bombay is a fast-paced, even hectic city, but it is not, in the end, a competitive city.

Anyone who has a “reservation” on an Indian train is familiar with this word: Adjust. You might be sitting there on your seat, the prescribed three people along it, and a fourth and a fifth person will loom over you and say, “Psst…Adjust.” You move over. You adjust. (pg 491)

What a lesson, a great lesson for all of us. Most people in Bombay live in one room. According to Mehta, that’s the same room for “sleeping, cooking, eating.” You just make due. You make due not only for the people you love, by letting your extended family stay for months in your smallish place, but for your fellow man on the bus or train.

There’s a vibrancy in the city that I think Mehta sometimes doesn’t feel in the US. It’s like you have to try so hard to retain your individuality within the hugeness of at all, that you become an expert at being an individual.

The battle is Man against the Metropolis, which is only the infinite extension of Man and the demon against which he must constantly strive to establish himself or be annihilated. A city is an agglomeration of individual dreams, a mass dream of the crowd. In order for the dream life of a city to stay vital, each individual dream has to stay vital. (pg 539)

I’m inspired by Mehta, by India, and by the people of Mumbai. This book is a lot deeper than the soundbites I’ve chosen above. Mehta doesn’t gloss over stories or just give informed summaries, he throws his heart and soul at it and let’s it rip. I think I have to see Slumdog Millionaire now.