Dhaka Diary: Bombay Blues

by Fakrul Alam

Like the city that it focuses on, Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found ( Delhi:
Viking Penguin, 2004, 584 pages) is a big, sprawling book.  The result of a two and a half year stay by someone who had once grown up in the city and who is now a journalist and fiction writer based in New York—an even more gargantuan metropolis—the book is an intense, sustained look at a unique city. Reading it, one becomes aware that the city is humongous and contains multitudes. No two people will see it the same way though any one who has visited the city even once will see it even more vividly how unique it really is through Mehta’s book.

I myself have been to the city twice. The first time I saw it as a tourist who had stayed a couple of days in it while on a trip to view the treasures of Ajanta and Elora. I remember coming to the city close to midnight, unsure of where to go and stay, but finding a helpful taxi driver who managed to take my wife and me to a conveniently located and reasonably priced hotel. Of the visit, I remember most a ride on a speedboat across the city’s harbor and the visit to Gandhi’s Museum where mementos of his extraordinary career are kept in exemplary manner. I remember, too, the generally helpful people I met throughout my stay. The second occasion I was in the city was for an academic conference. On this occasion, too, I came to the city close to midnight but from the airport. This time also the taxi driver who drove me for over an hour through mostly deserted streets charged me the exact fare and surprised me with his helpfulness (ever experienced haggling with a taxi driver in Dhaka’s airport?). On this occasion I stayed first in a YWCA lodging close to the city centre for two days and then with a gracious academic couple for a night in the outskirts of the city. This trip I got the chance to meet at least a few middle-class Bombay citizens who appeared to me no different from us in their friendliness and liveliness.

The Bombay I saw is not certainly Meheta’s Bombay. He had spent his childhood in the city, left it as an adolescent who grew up in the United States and who came back to it twenty-one years later. Like Salman Rushdie, he is addicted to the city of his teens; hence his refusal to call it by the name given to it by the Shiv Sena—-Mumbai. But he is also bent on coming to term with the megapolis as it now is. Roaming the length and breadth of the city, interviewing its rich and poor, noting down details of his conversations with the city’s children, police, politicians, stars, prostitutes, gangsters, as well as “ordinary” people, he attempts to give his readers a massive testimony not only of his love of Bombay but also of his anguish at the way it is hemorrhaging.

Why does Mehta title his book MaximumCity? Consider some of the statistics that he offers. It is a city of 14 million people living in what is essentially one island. Some parts of the city “have a population density of one million people per square mile”. “Two-third of the city’s residents are crowded into just 5 per cent of the total area.” The city pays 38 per cent of India’s taxes. 8 million of its citizens are homeless and yet because of the Rent Act and Urban Ceiling Act there are 400,000 empty residences in it. 500 new people come to live in the city every day. By 2015 it is projected to have twenty-three million inhabitants! It is the financial capital of India and impacts on the rest of the country in innumerable ways

Mehta is able to show us a city full of riveting individuals as well as one of swarming multitudes, crammed quarters, and metropolitan nightmares. At the heart of MaximumCity, thus, we have some vivid portraits of its intriguing citizens. Some of them are the type that fills one with fear and loathing but some also attract because of their contradictions, vulnerability and resilience.

Among the repelling characters we come across in Mehta’s book is Sunil. He is a Shiv Sena zealot who boasts about killing Muslims in the 1993 riots that transformed the city forever from a place of communal harmony to one of perpetual suspicion. And yet Sunil has no qualms about going to a Muslim holy man for water from a dargah that he believes cures the sick or about doing business with Muslims (Mehta’s aside: “Bombayites understand that business comes first”). To Mehta, Sunil’s rise to power is a symbol of the way the city has suffered because of the ascendancy of Maharashtran thugs and the decline of the cosmopolitan sensibility. Much more reprehensible than Sunil is Bal Thackeray—the thug supremo who launched a movement through which the Maharashtians—the “Sons of the Soil”— wrested power from the Gujratis— seemingly decisively (Mehta’s quip: “Actually, the soil in Bombay, much of it between the original seven islands, was filled in by the British”). Thackeray comes across as xenophobic, brutal, and shrewd—the ultimate small-minded fascist. Particularly chilling for the Bangladeshi reader is his panacea for Bombay’s problems: “Migration has to be controlled. The Bangladesh Muslims to be driven out, not only from Mumbai but outside the country, back to Bangladesh.” On the Muslim side is the goon Mohsin, who has killed “seven and a half” people and is a member of D-Company (D for the notorious gang boss Dawood Ibrahim) and who exults in his prowess in the “head shot.” Then there is the Sikh hit man, Mickey (the names are, of course, Mehta’s; Thackeray’s is real!), full of bluster and spouting quotable quotes such as the following: “We are anti-alchemists. What ever we touch turns to iron.” “Now there is only one business left: the bullet business.”

The task of containing these gangsters for a long time lay with the police officer called Ajay Lal. He is more than a match for the thugs and the goons that infest Bombay, although successful police officers of the sub-continent like him sooner or later get transferred from their jobs as he does in the course of Mehta’s narrative—victims of their own success. Lal points out why gangs prosper in Bombay: they are destined to thrive in a country where the “criminal justice system has totally collapsed.”

If Mehta is bent on exposing the violent nature of Bombay in his book, he is also intent on highlighting its seamy side. To Mehta, it is a “city in heat,” “humid with sex.” He takes us to Bombay bars because they are the “intersection of everything that makes the city fascinating: money, sex, love, death and show business.” He features two bar dancers, the beautiful, desirable Mona Lisa and the tantalizing Honey (not real names, of course). According to the fashion photographer Rustom, Mona Lisa typifies the women of the tinsel town that is Bombay: “moon-faced, filmi-looking, non-threatening.” But when Mehta looks at her up close she appears to be vulnerable, anguished; one of “a city-wide sorority” of women who have “slit their wrists and survived,” sad inhabitants of a “shadow world” who lead precarious lives. Even more amazing than her tale is that of Honey, the “Tendulkar of the dance bars, “ someone who is “not a transvestite, or a homosexual, or a cross-dresser,, but a man who dresses as a woman out of economic necessity” and who goes through a silicone transplant operation to have breasts but is delirious with happiness the day he finds out that he is going to be a father.

No book on Bombay would be complete without a longish chapter on Bollywood and in this respect, as in other ways, Maximum City, does not disappoint. In a long chapter, titled, “Distilleries of Pleasure” Mehta highlights the Bombay film industry. True to his technique of getting really involved in his subject to make it authentic and enthralling, he decides to become part of a film unit in writing about the world (the dust jacket of the book credits him with being the co-writer of Mission Kashmir). He respects it as a formidable force in the region (“Who is a South Asian? Someone who watches Hindi movies”). As in the other chapters he has an eye for the telling statistic (“worldwide, a billion more people a year buy tickets to Indian movies than to Hollywood ones”). As in the other sections he fills this one with compelling characters such as the director of Mission Kashmir, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who would like to be Vinod the “committed film maker” and barely avoids being “Vinod the Bollywood hack.” Star directors like Mahesh Bhatt and megastars like Amitabh Bachan make cameo appearances in the book. We get to read of Sanjay Dutt’s traumatic experience of a life lived in prison in between his acting stints and stardom But we also get to see the stragglers and the makers of the B films as well as the super hits. As ever, one notes Mehta’s ear for the pungent observation (“The Hindi film industry has always had the secularism of a brothel. All are welcome as long as they carry or make money”) or the absurd (“What do you think to play with the chastity belt? Is it the culture of any country?”) or his eye for the paradoxical (Sanjay and Hrithik Roshan, the two heroes of Mission Kashmir, both “under the shadow of the underworld”; Sanjay “for his connections to them” and Hrithik whose father is shot at because of his instant success!)

All these stories are framed by chapters describing Meheta’s own return to Bombay from New York to write this book and his eventual departure. Why did he return? “I went back to look for that city with a simple question: can you go home again? In the looking, I found the cities within me.” In America he had always felt the loss of the city and carried his memories of it everywhere. But the city was the fixed point of the compass for his family and he kept returning to it for visits and for his marriage. Then in 1996 he spent 60 days in Bombay to write about the Hindu-Muslim riots and decided that he would write a book about it to rediscover the city he had stored away inside him. What he finds out subsequently is that it was “a maximum city”, “the biggest, fastest, richest city in India” and the trendiest, but also the most crowded, violent, seamiest, and trickiest to negotiate and among the most polluted and frenetic places in the world. It is no surprise, therefore, that the book concludes with Mehta leaving the city behind and moving on with his life. He is not totally pessimistic about its future and decides that while it maybe a “killing city” it is not “a dying city”. In fact he ends the book by telling us about a vision he has in it when one morning in the middle of a crowd he feels that it has “elaborated’ into him, even as he had become part of it: the equivalent of Walt Whitman’s vision in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme.”

Let me, however, conclude my review of Meheta’s spellbinding and deftly written book by saying how reading it as a Dhakaite I had a feeling of deja vu again and again. Whether it was Mehta’s snide comments on a dysfunctional city (“At the age of fourteen I had experienced a miracle. I turned on a tap, and clean water came gushing out’”) or the plain descriptions of the rituals of its citizens (“Every morning, out of the windows of my study, I see men easing themselves on the rock by the sea”) or the sickening details of the city police’s unlawful short-cut ways of disposing off criminals by killing them in custody through trumped up causes or in fabricated “encounters” (‘crossfires”!) I am sobered by the thought that we share so much with Bombay. We in Dhaka are, Mehta’s book induces me to believe, Bangladesh’s “maximum city”; the more is the pity!

September 9, 2005
Fakrul Alam is on leave from the University of Dhaka and now teaches English at East West University, Bangladesh.