Maximum City

By Sunil Kumar

There’s something about the city of Mumbai or Bombay; that engages the public imagination. Bollywood, street dons, glamour, sleaze, sex, alcohol, business the works. With 20 million and counting; more than all of Australia, it can be among the most populous countries in the world.  Suketu Mehta‘s “Maximum City” looks at the seedy underbelly of India’s “urbs prima”. By now the cliched description of the political capital(Delhi) and the IT capitals(starts with a B) have become part of the nation’s folkore; and Mumbai has come on a trajectory of its own making; heaven and hell mixed in the corridors of a sinewy, shadowy bright nightmare.

Mehta is a Gujarati; as he makes abundantly clear in this narrative; written ten years ago. What I liked about “Maximum City” was its brutal honesty in depicting the lives of India’s biggest city. Since I grew up in this heavenly hellhole; I can get some aspects of what Suketu Mehta writes. There is a tendency to go overboard on some facts; in typical style; but what stands out is the visceral descriptions, Bombay’s gut exposed for public consumption. As Mehta’s relatives put it,”Paap Ni Bhumi” or the Biblical city of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Some of the main movers and shakers that were part of “Maximum City”‘s mindscape are no longer with us; Balasaheb Thackeray, Sunil Dutt. Ajay Lal apparently based on the Punjabi-Catholic hybrid Rakesh Maria is now “famous” around the world due to 26/11. The novel is a long expose of what Javed Jaffrey put through in a succinct song; “Mumbhai”. Beer bars, brothels, violent crime, corruption, note “chhapne”(minting money; a Mumbai pejorative). A world away from “normal” existence.

Urban planning is absent in today’s concrete choc-a-bloc city. Mehta talks about his meeting with Rahul Mehrotra, an urban planner whose father-in-law Charles Correa had suggested a plan for decongesting Mumbai as far back as 1964. Big builders who have their names engraved in Nariman Point were responsible for today’s urban nightmarish sprawl; along with the politicians, Mehta avers. Apart from the fact that whoever lives in Mumbai knows; the transport situation could be much better. A change is called for; in infrastructure and psychology of everybody, including the common people. But, it seems for now; the great Indian debate will continue; and nobody will actually bell the cat. Greater TRPs; and regional bs. Egotism and motormouths. The world could be enough, if it was made in my image. Another “desi” invention.

Mehta’s fascination for crass “Bambaiya Hindi”; expletives, gangsters and their molls is typical of what most urban city slickers in today’s Mumbai and people elsewhere in the country in their admiration for this city are like. In fact; Bombay has an unalterable stench on the country’s mindscape; even if other people could(note; a big if) be more respectful and culturally evolved. Again, depends on individual preference. Sneaky South Indians also find their way into Mehta’s discourse. Quite like the clever “bania” Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi whose Hindu identity and overt humanitarianism laid the seeds for modern India’s ambivalent policies. If Mehta could have mentioned somebody from his own community, Vallabhbhai Patel or other great freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh, Lala Lajpatrai, Chandrashekhar Azad or Subhash Chandra Bose. But, then we’re here for understanding “Maximum” city from an urban semi-expat perspective; not the  association we have from Indian experts, media or the intelligentsia.

The various “Companies”; as Ram Gopal Verma and other filmmakers have shown us in various movies; are the oil that greases the most glamorous Indian export of all, Bollywood. As Mehta and various other media personalities have made amply clear; the film industry is a Punjabi-Sindhi post-partition creation. In the past decade; the budgets have grown bigger; the ideas are now transnational, and the internet ensures instant transmission across the world.

When Mehta chats with different people including famous Punjabi and Gujarati film producers, Shiv Sena shakha pramukhs, Muslim dons, Gujarati and Sindhi prostitutes, he is showing us a realistic face of this city. There are many Bombays enconsced in one shell; law abiding citizens, slum dwellers; social climbers and divisions. This is a novel pre-Modi era; so the Gujaratis and Marwaris are shown as effete. He also mentions the hypocrisy of these communites; as well as their closet perversions.  The Mumbai word for “Maharashtrians”; “ghatis” is often used by Mehta; when he attempts to understand the psychology of the chawl; where more often than not he discovers a sordid world; of love affairs, brutal killings, cooperation and animosity.

The Bombay Stock Exchange, in Mumbai, is Asia'...

Visit The Bombay Stock Exchange, in Mumbai, is Asia’s oldest and India’s largest stock exchange (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the beginning of the novel; he mentions his alienation from a different culture; the white, Latin, Arab or African “yobs” that permeate the West; whose understanding of Indian culture; its multiple layers and divisions is mostly peripheral to say the least. As Suketu Mehta would be well aware; since he mentions the Gujarati respect for money; cash will always remain the inner motif; something that drives practically everybody. But; only the intensity is variable; for some of us; it is the sole reason for existence, while others can be guided by other motives.

He also poetically touches upon the love of another place; in his words the citizen of the country of longing. It is something some people like me also experience; when you yearn to be somewhere else; a displacement complex of the mind. The city of Mumbai; the seedy, wartsy, slimy, unhealthy hellhole which is fast, meaningful and trivial in equal measure has been displayed in this narrative. Local trains, “Ghanchakkar” babus. V.T, Lokhandwala in a million movies. When Mehta talks about how his Gujarati uncle is both overtly humanitarian with a restrained communal bias; he seems to be telling us about the nature of the country itself.

Ten years on; Sanjay Dutt is again behind bars; after acting in a “gazillion” more movies. Mehta tells us about his previous incarceration, how Dutt’s troubled life began in  boarding school; where he was routinely picked on. Public admiration and respect for Sunil Dutt is also touched upon. Apart from that; the shifting loyalties of the country’s film stars; as sycophantic and opportunistic as the rest of our national institutions. The Hindi film industry may have become more stratified and corporate; but the influence of the “dons” still remains. Mumbai and India’s citizens suffered a catastrophic 26/11 due to the inept weapons provided to its police forces; and internal corruption. Now many years on; the situation has changed very slightly and still remains almost similar.

In fact; the writer’s words are a reflection of his own inner desires apart from whatever the people around him are saying. Somehow; you are offered an insight into what his earlier life was like, which anybody who grows up in Mumbai’s schools knows about. I studied in a Jesuit institution; which would qualify as a trifle “better” in his narrative; but descriptions of teachers could be universal in Bombay, at least.

However; there is a slight lopsided approach to other parts of Bombay; vis-a-vis the parts where Gujaratis form a substantial proportion. And if everybody here was like in this book; then the city would already have self-destructed. For instance; Mehta tells us about the suburbs of Chembur and Malad; where he managed to find the seediest portions of the city’s existence.

A nod to the Irani cafe is mandatory in any book on Bombay; along with the history of the community. The “Bawa” or Parsi in Mehta’s book is nastier, hornier, expletive-mouthing soul, a truly Gujarati-inspired commercial animal. Narayana Murthy may not be so happy, but then alone who knows! Every kind in the world.

Bombay’s corrupt crotch and its sleazy legs are on ample display in “Maximum” City. (Note; I have attributed no gender to the city of Bombay). It is this sauciness that the city’s admirers say is something which sets it apart. As mentioned here and elsewhere; this could be its biggest failing; a “shot” administered to maim, kill and eventually destroy. Until then, be prepared for “maximum” everything.






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  1. Pingback: I AM SUNIL! | Sunil Kumar: Author, President, Raconteur

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