If You Can Make It There

Book cover
Maximum Cityby By Suketu MehtaKnopf. 543p $27.95

India has turned into something like the center of the world. Forever touted as the world’s largest democracy, it is now about to become the world’s most populous country. The achievements of its scientists, artists and writers, many of them émigrés, are astonishing. The thoroughly modern Indians, computer programmers for the planet, are also thoroughly traditional, the most devout and religiously diverse nation on earthnot just Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis, but Muslims (140 million, about the number of Arabs in the Middle East) and Catholics (17 million, about four times as many as in Ireland). And talk about problems: interested in studying ethnic violence, government corruption, oppression of women, pollution and AIDSbut not hungeron an overwhelming scale? Go to India.

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If you do, the logical place to disembark would be Bombay/Mumbai, which is the subject of Suketu Mehta’s sprawling, obsessive, splendidly written memoir of a tough-minded, two-year sentimental journey back to the city where he was raised (1969-77), before leaving for New York and a career as a fiction writer, journalist and academic. Maximum City has been heaped with critical laurels and may well prove to be the book on India for a generation or so. Considering the competition (V. S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie, among others), that is a pretty auspicious start.

Mehta was born in Calcutta, in 1963. Six years later his family (diamond-cutters by profession) moved to Bombay, which he loved at first sight. A generation later, having spent as much time in Jackson Heights, N.Y., as in the Dariya Mahal neighborhood of Bombaynot to mention the months and years in London, Paris and Iowa Citythe question is: can you go home again? The answer is yes and no.

No, because in some ways the Bombay Mehta knew has been destroyed by the fanatical Hindu party, the Shiv Sena, which, apart from silly but harmless nationalistic gestures like renaming India’s cities, has launched a series of horrific, murderous attacks against Muslims and raised India to another bad eminence as the gang warfare capital of the world.

But Mehta is not content with chronicling this crime wave from a safe distance. He not only meets the evil kingpin himself, Bal Thackeray; he befriends a bunch of ruthless killers. Like mafiosi preening before Mario Puzo, they are only too glad to tell Mehta, who goes nowhere without his laptop, what it’s like to burn a Muslim alive with kerosene (no problem).

There are Muslim hit men too; but their bosses generally have to call in their orders by cellphone from exile in Dubai or Pakistan. And then there are the cops. Mehta becomes good buddies with a brilliant, hard-nosed police inspector he calls Ajay Lalnaming real names could easily result in assassination. With a freedom that Dirty Harry would envy, they torture prisoners and their relatives and execute scores of bad guys on both sides in ambushes politely known as encounters.

While levels of Hindu-Muslim violence have ebbed somewhat since the bloody riots of 1992-93, the gangs have stretched a web of extortion across the entire city. The Bombay High Court has declared that payoffs are a tax-deductible business expense, and every sphere of public life has been invaded by the gangs. Upper-class wedding invitations often disguise the site of the reception to throw uninvited mobster guests off the track.

There is, in fact, no corner of Bombay too scary or seedy or grungy for Mehta to explore: the dance bars, the brothels, the slums, the latrines. (Readers who have seen a lot of Air India ads may be disconcerted to learn that in this, the richest city in the country, some 5,000,000 people are forced to relieve themselves every day without even the most primitive facilities.) He becomes deeply, but platonically, intimate with a gorgeous but desperately troubled demimondaine dancer he calls Monalisa and another ravishing performer, Honey, who upon leaving the bar is transformed into an earnest married man named Manoj. In the longest section, which should have been judiciously pruned, Mehta ventures into the crazy realm of Bollywood (India leads the world of cinema too), and winds up co-authoring a successful movie, Mission Kashmir. Any resemblances to that other film capital, by the way, are purely coincidental: here glamour and profits take a back seat to bizarre mythmaking, frenzied religious piety, extortionagainand scheming with censors.

At the end of this wild saga, Mehta goes home to the United States; but he has, after all, found what he was looking for: a beautiful (despite the squalor), fantastically varied (despite the hatreds), warm (despite the fiendish discomfort) human nest; a still-standing Tower of Babel, whose inhabitants communicate in a dizzy mix of Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Urdu, Tamil and a unique brand of sometimes cockeyed English. In an Irani (Zoroastrian) restaurant, Mehta comes upon signs like this one over a washroom sink: Do not write letter/ Without order refreshment/ Do not comb/ Hair is spoiling floor/ Do not make mischiefs in cabin/ Our waiter is reporting/ Come again/ All are welcome whatever caste/ If not satisfied tell us/ Otherwise tell others/ God is great. Compared with India, public space in the United States is a monolingual, monochromatic, monotonous desert. No doubt simply having to negotiate this weird welter of languages and cultures helps to make so many Indians so smart. (Ask any American high school teacher or college professor.)

Ultimately Maximum City is clotted with ironies and contradictions, which are precisely what make it work. The murderer and small-time slum lord Sunlil is afraid to sleep all by himself. The crime boss Thackeray officially bans St. Valentine’s Day. As Sanjay Dutt, a film star, gun nut, felon (like a large minority of the Indian parliament) and suspect in terrorist bombings, drives around from studio to studio on his busy schedule, he touches his eyes and lips and prays on sight of each temple en route. A billionaire Jain family are so well adjusted that they decide to renounce everything, split up for goodthe father heads off alone with his two sons, the mother with her only daughterand become penniless, head-shaven wandering monks called diksharthis. Mehta brings his son Gautama to India so he can grow up among his own kind, but in the end Gautama misses his American family and demands to be taken home.

The book is an absorbing spectacle and an instant classic. Given its unusual structure, it might turn out to be, like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, an unmatchable tour de force. But Mehta and his audience can worry about that later.

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