It was with a little hesitation that I started ‘Maximum City’ by Suketu Mehta for I am not much of a non-fiction lover. But, the first person narrative soon drew me in and I was deeply satisfied when I completed it.
The book starts with the longing of the author in his childhood to be back in Bombay. When he does come, he has to adjust to the Indian way of how things move. The manner in which he has described the lack of proper planning of flats offers an insight into how people are duped by the builders and the maintenance staff into paying for stopgap facilities endlessly.
Each of us would have seen many Bollywood movies where the hero comes to the city with high hopes and aspirations and triumphs in the end beating innumerable odds. There is a difference though in the lives of such people one comes across in this book. They are strange, have dreams, tire hard but reality wins ultimately. Gang lords, hit men, politicians, slum heads, police men, actors – one gets a glimpse of their routine and interesting lives in a sense that is totally different form the movies.
Many of us would have come across such characters but it needs the observation of a writer to convey how dangerous and unpredictable a life they lead in a city that cares little for its citizens but ceaselessly accepts many people like them into its fold. As one reads the interactions of the author with such people one gets a vision of Bombay that is chilling, sad and ruthless.
What drives the bar dancers, encounter specialists and the gang lords of the city to behave in the manner they do? How does one change gangs and give oneself up to the demands of his leader? How does a woman begin to love the attention that she gets by dancing even as yearning and hungry eyes watch? What sort of a life does she crave and long for and why does she become susceptible to fits of depression?
How does a superhero come to terms with his sudden imprisonment? How do political parties exploit the poverty and innocence of loyal and ignorant folk? What are the fears of the city’s rich even as they try to hide their wealth for fear of extortion? How do warring gang leaders manage to evade the law? What goes on in the mind of people who abandon their homes and hope to make it big in the cine field? The questions that the author has posed and tried to answer with the help of people he has met are endless…
There are passages in the book in which the human spirit triumphs and there are some in which the characters are doomed to their sorry destinies. On the whole, the book is a great read if one has some patience and interest to know about how lives are lived in India’s most populous city.