Sunday, December 7, 2008

Suhetu Mehta's "Maximum City": Book Review.

"Bombay, Lost & Found," as its subtitle pinpoints, covers Mehta's quest as a native who returns there for two years around 1999. His own story's mingled into those told about a pro-Hindu political party, Sena; Sunil, hit man for the Dawood faction; Ajay who turns rogue cop to fight crime better than he can on a force where one officer missed a rampaging elephant at ten feet due to his antiquated rifle; a couple of memorably described "bar girls"-- Honey's a married man who dresses as a woman for his living while sultry Monalisa's skilled in learning what makes men hard and makes them soft in many inventive ways beyond the mere flesh. These precede his interesting but overly detailed experiences as a co-writer of a "Bollywood" film, "Mission Kashmir." This thick volume concludes with a slum family who moves to the exurban instant sprawl of Mira Road, and another family of Jain diamond merchants who renounce their wealth and their marital ties to wander the roads as they seek merit for a salvation that gives up even a belief in God. In this way, they move towards "moksha," the annihilation that they trust will follow a worthy death. This earns the narrative, at last after five hundred dense pages, its most poignant and powerful scenes.

Since Mumbai, as it's been renamed, somewhat spuriously by the Hindu nationalists according to Mehta, has unfortunately earned much attention the past ten days, I decided to read this book, which had been on my "what next" shelf anyway, right away. It's very broad in its scope, insightful but unwieldy, and crammed with minute detail that while it may please or anger those who have lived among its 19 million inhabitants (five hundred more enter the city each day), may test the patience of those, like myself, not up on many terms sprinkled from Indian languages. A glossary could have helped, as only at their initial mention does Mehta give the meaning; often it's contextual and not explicit. This makes for a smooth read if you're familiar with the lingo, but it can challenge the rest of us.

His rationale: he trades stories as his currency, and gains the trust of gangsters, cops, bar girls, a talented college dropout poet who lives on the "footpath," and ambitious filmmakers. What they have in common, he finds late in his account, is their eagerness for transgression. So many citizens live circumscribed by tradition, family duty, work, and the hassles of dealing with "influence"-- without the personal connection or the greased palm, one cannot succeed in a culture that values the collective ties as much as the individual merit. You must cultivate power.

Why does anyone put up with such an overwhelming place? "Your discomfort is an investment" (472); one sacrifices so one's children or cousins will succeed there. The human spirit, nurtured in villages, has yet to catch up to this megapolitan pace. Millions keep arriving; few seem to leave. This adds force to the Jain family's bold decision to "resign before dismissal" in their emigation, their reversal back to begging on the roads. They alone among so many characters turn from the accumulation of wealth that drives, of course, everyone else into the city.

Mehta's at his best in passing observations that support larger points: how two straight men tend to use a restroom if together, how a Bollywood film skips from point A to point Z, how a city of extremities of luxury and squalor manages to make anonymity a retreat for its lovers and loiterers who must copulate and beg and defecate in public. He notes how its residents automatically turn towards the sea, a counter-orientation, whenever they gaze. It's noisy, dangerous, yet within it for endurance, people must re-create their personal connections if they wish to make it there. "Bombay is, like any other Indian city, full of people in search of answers to the question 'Who am I?'" (100) The danger, as Mehta finds when interviewing the Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, "a tired, aging fascist," is that many in this tense environment will then take the interrogation to its next step: "Who is not I?" Analyzing the 1993 riots between Hindus and Muslims, Mehta delves into what's since then become repeated in strife all around the world.

"You own this city by right of your anger," (88) he seethes at one point, dealing with its endlessly labyrinthine networks. The recent terrorist attacks seem predicted, as this telling of roughly a decade ago warns of the Hindu enclave surrounded by Muslims eager to attack the financial core of India. Beneath the wedding-cake Taj Hotel, which we learn was erected in 1902 by a Hindu angered at his exclusion from the British-controlled Watson hotel, the desperation percolates: for the price of a breakfast there, one can afford a maid's salary for a month. A hit-man may murder for as low as his take of $35. Prostitutes may be procured for less than $1.50. "Black-collar workers" in the criminal underground infiltrate the police and vice versa. Mehta finally must retreat from his reporting for this reason that he may be "encountered" by the very officer he has been interviewing. Even with Monalisa, Mehta cannot reveal his family's existence, for fear that he can be traced and tracked as that "bar-line industry" merges with the underworld and back to the cops. It's a terrifying realm of "anti-alchemists," who turn all into iron.

So, this sprawling, uneven, but thoughtful report from the planet's largest concentration of people shows much to marvel at, and lots to mourn over. It takes willpower to keep moving through it, as it repeats the nature of its massive subject. Form follows content. Density's the leitmotif. A 1947 Rent Act keeps much of the housing at rates that even a New Yorker like Mehta's taken aback by. People may pull you on to a train in solidarity, as it speeds past slums less than a yard from the tracks. Bar girls may be showered with rupees, enough to feed hundreds who beg outside the club. The endemic poverty, bribery, and failure of socialism make the untrammeled rout of capitalism all the more fearsome and, for most, appealing. As one actor rues, the success story of one who's made it makes for a hundred disappointments. The villages hear the city emigrant's rags-to-riches tale, magnified in the telling, and the allure of Bombay grows brighter on the rural screen.

Mehta reminds us that by 2015, the population will, unimaginably, again double, "the world outside gradually crowding the world inside." (538) It's a city of extremities, with all on display and nowhere to hide one's inner self except in the ambitions and dreams that compel its natives to yearn for it even if they can afford to leave, and once there-- if less favored-- most probably to cling to its humid yet inviting shores no matter what. Even in this press of people, Mehta holds out for the hope that "they have not yet been programmed."

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

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