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Maximum City:

Bombay Lost and Found

By Suketu Mehta

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Knopf, 542 pages, $39.95

In December, 1992, a Hindu mob destroyed the Babri Masjid, a mosque in Ayodhya, because they believed it had been built over the birthplace of Rama, hero of that great Indian epic, The Ramayana. As a result, a Hindu family of six was burned alive, Muslims were slaughtered in a state-sponsored killing spree; finally, the Muslim underworld set off 10 bombs that targeted, among other places, the Stock Exchange and the Air-India building. By March, 1993, 1,400 had lost their lives. That was when Bombay died and Mumbai was born -- fascist, without conscience -- though the city was officially renamed only in 1996.

Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found is much more than a travel book, it is an autopsy of a city that is morally dead. And the Calcutta-born, Bombay-raised Mehta conducts a brilliant examination by exhuming the underworld dons, street thugs, policemen, politicians, judges, movie stars and bar girls of this city, which, by the year 2020, will be the world's most populous, with 28.5 million inhabitants.

Mehta has written a stunning hybrid of memoir, travelogue and social inquiry; above all, he has captured the psyche of the city. The politicians themselves set the tone. When Mehta speaks with the anti-Muslim, pro-Hindu Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, it becomes clear that Thackeray inspires militant loyalty from the youth of the city. He says of them: "Young blood, young men, youngsters without jobs are like dry gunpowder. It will explode any day." In a world where politicians resort to rioting to stay in power, perhaps it makes sense for judges to approach underworld dons for justice. Incidents like these reflect the hopelessness of the city, its schizophrenic nature.

There will be those Bombayites who feel that Mehta paints too grim a picture. But others will acknowledge that Mehta is realistic. Moreover, Mehta himself admits to focusing on people who are "morally compromised." His book does not help one discover Bombay so much as to uncover it. It is a look at a netherworld that is very much on top.

Even so, it is the very bleakness of a place like Bombay that inspires stories of heart. One arrives in the form of young Babbanji, a runaway poet who left Bihar to sleep on Bombay footpaths. He writes of the city: "What intoxication could there be in this earth that the naive and innocent come to this crossroads of rushing and thieving?" It is the Babbanjis who give the city soul, who fight tiny battles that replenish Bombay's tough spirit.

Mehta demonstrates that perhaps the most essential tool for survival in a maddening city is humour. "There is water everywhere," he writes, "except in my taps." He writes with a novelist's eye for detail, and at times his portraits of Bombay's inhabitants are as compassionate as Rohinton Mistry's. But unlike another chronicler of India, V. S. Naipaul, who maintains his position as an outsider, the New York-based Mehta strives to be accepted. By the time he has finished this book, he is a Bombaywallah.

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It is interesting to note that Mehta feels most of his Bombay characters live free lives, "unencumbered by minutiae," not bound by tax forms or relationships. That might be true to some extent, but one cannot help but notice that the common thread among almost all his characters is the fact that they are not free. They do not represent freedom so much as the illusion of it. The movie star Sanjay Dutt wants to leave the country and set up a steak house in New York, but cannot because he is a detainee under Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, known as TADA; Ajay Lal has thoughts of quitting the police force, but worries about his family's safety once police protection is lifted; Monalisa, a bar dancer, seeks acceptance into society, but knows it is an impossible dream; Sevantibhai, a wealthy Jain diamond merchant, renounces both his family and wealth so that he does not have to be reborn. These are not the thoughts of free men and women. They are the yearnings of the trapped.

Mehta has been in India promoting this book. One hopes that the politicians and hit men he has portrayed so beautifully shared his audacious sense of humour. After all, these are men who kill simply to satisfy an itch. Maximum City is undoubtedly one of the most important books ever written on Bombay. It is brave and insightful, one man's love affair with a ruined city. Perhaps it is fitting that Mehta's family was in the diamond business. He has produced a gem.

Bombay native Anosh Iran's novel, The Cripple and His Talismans, was published this year.

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