Sunday, April 15, 2007

Maximum Bombay

Before I came to the US in 1989, I had been to Bombay only once, for four days. It rained the whole time. Buckets of water poured down in sheets. I was marooned on the IIT campus where I was staying. The only sights I saw were the campus buildings and those visible from the local train that took me to and from Dadar railway station. The much-celebrated city of dreams was a stranger to me when I was living in India.

I have visited Bombay several times since then, staying for a week or ten days in New Bombay, where residents repeatedly tell you that it's much cleaner than Bombay. I took the local train to VT from the Vashi railway station on the harbour line several times. In the 1990s, the Vashi railway station, quite amazingly for an Indian railway station, used to be spotlessly clean. From there, the cleanliness went downhill on the one hour ride to VT. You couldn't avoid the horrors of Bombay even if you wanted to. About half way to VT, the slums begin to appear. For kilometers on end, shanties line the tracks. The rudimentary dwellings of mud, brick, tin and tarpaulin are barely a few yards away from the rushing trains. Mounds of garbage and open drains abound. The extent of the slums, the number of people who live there and the dire living conditions are overwhelming. There is no alternative but to block it out of your mind.

I have been wary of the common stereotypes of slums, poverty and ugliness tagged on to the cities of India (and the rest of the country by extension). I used to live in the middle of the country, away from the cities, in a government-built township for employees of a public sector firm. While living in India, I had rarely encountered the dire poverty and sheer ugliness of the cities that travel writers described. Unfortunately, my visits to Bombay in the 1990s convinced me that there wasn't much exaggeration in these accounts.

And then there is the other Bombay. A city of wealth. A city of glamour. A city of gangsters. People in the rest of India read about the outrageous lifestyles of the rich and the beautiful. With awe and fascination, they hear about the exploits of the dons of the underworld. Back in the 1980s, the now defunct Illustrated Weekly of India featured regular reports on the dons - I recall in particular a picture of Varadarajan Mudaliar, a somewhat unlikely Tamil don, gazing out to sea.

Suketu Mehta's Maximum City is an attempt to record and capture many of these aspects of the city. His book is unlike any other book featuring Bombay. It is not a work of fiction, but many parts of it are far more fascinating than fiction. It has been described as a travel narrative, but Mehta does not travel much. In as much as a city can be said to possess a character, Mehta exposes it. And what he exposes is not pretty.

The book is peopled by a diverse cast of characters - along with the vicious murderers and political goons are gangsters and brutal cops, bar-room dancers, movie stars and directors. You have to keep telling yourself that all of this is real. Mehta spends a considerable amount of time with each of these people and soon we get to know them as well as it is possible to know any literary character. Many of these people are despicable. Others, like the bar-room dancer, are not wholly admirable either. Even someone Mehta paints with some sympathy, like the police commissioner Ajay Lal, comes across as a tyrant who lets his underlings do the dirty work for him. There is hope, however, in the form of the naive teenage runaway from Bihar, an aspiring poet with a delicate sensibility.

What is remarkable in all of this is Mehta's ability to report things without pronouncing judgement. His powers of observation are acute, but he lets his characters do all the talking. But because he chooses what to write about and what to tell us, his voice is unmistakably present throughout. Mehta's stupendous achievement is thus ultimately journalistic. He shows us aspects of life and human behavior that we suspected all along did exist, but had no means of knowing anything about.

Most of the book is set in the late 1990s. It seems to have been in production for many years, finally being published in 2004. I remember having read an early excerpt in Granta back in 1997, in which he described a Shiv Sena goon's account of burning another human being alive. This is perhaps the most ghastly thing you will encounter in the book, but other depravities come close.

Maximum City is a truly Dickensian book. It is unlikely to be surpassed as a picture of late 20th-century Bombay.


Anonymous Shunya said...

I've not read the book. But in your interesting review, I was struck by your admiration for Mehta not pronouncing judgment. I wonder why you consider this a virtue? Implicit here is that judging is bad, independent of the judgment itself. Is this a case of one neutral observer admiring another? :-) On the other hand, neutrality is not too evident in your other posts.

Hannah Arendt once wrote, "There exists in our society a widespread fear of judging that has nothing whatever to do with the biblical "Judge not, that ye be not judged," ... behind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence the doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done. The moment moral issues are raised, even in passing, he who raises them will be confronted with this frightful lack of self-confidence and hence of pride, and also with a kind of mock-modesty that in saying, Who am I to judge? actually means We're all alike, equally bad, and those who try, or pretend that they try, to remain halfway decent are either saints or hypocrites, and in either case should leave us alone."

Just wondering.

4/19/2007 8:17 PM  
Blogger VP said...

You raise a very good point. I am definitely not averse to judgments and I am also in full agreement with Hannah Arendt's ideas as reflected in the excerpt.

I found Mehta's restraint in pronouncing judgement remarkable precisely because it would have been hard for me to be like him if I had come across the people in his book. For the purposes of the book, this was a good thing, since Mehta's goal was to understand what drives despicable people. It wouldn't help to keep emphasizing just how despicable they are.

4/20/2007 12:51 PM  

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