Maximum City

The book has been on my radar for at least a couple of years now. Finally, I got it and finished in one week of  furious reading. And, I have never been more ambivalent about a book. Now that I have finished it, I find it hard to judge it within the scales of 0 to 5 stars.

Long time back, I had read a book on Calcutta by Geoffry Moorhouse ( a book that I later gifted to Ambi thatha), and it was structured the way I expected a book on a city to be structured, detailing its history from its birth.  Maximum City,  on the other hand, is like the mix-mash Bollywood movies, flimsily held together by a theme- Love, Fear, Metro etc. It tells us the stories of a few Mumbai-kars, a Shiv Sainik goon turned businessman, a dance-bar girl, couple of underworld hit-men, a honest days working family from the slums, Bollywood director, an honest policeman, a struggling actor, and a world-renouncing former successful businessman turned into a sadhu. All the stories, held together by the city, in which every one has a chance to flourish.

The concept was interesting, the stories that Suketu Mehta chose to tell was not the unexpected. Ask anyone about eccentric Bombay stories, and you will be hardly be surprised to listen to one of the above, and the unique rags-to-riches Bombay story. The Bombay dream is so much like the American dream!

But the execution made the book ambivalent to me. The book begins with the author’s struggle to settle back in the Bombay, and from the beginning,  I could feel the background of the picture he would be painting all book. My first reaction was that the author is another among the scores of people who are writing about India to appeal to Western, developed country readers, much like Arvind Adiga’s White Tiger, which I read a few days back or the Slumdog Millionaire movie. And, I don’t think I was much wrong, as the same attitude to describing the city, through the unhygienic slum toilets, the power-cuts, the beggar girl begging for food, the narrow lanes and the shanties. Even descriptions of the middle-class apartments were given the same treatment, almost making one believe that there is no nice apartment available in Bombay. There are frequent allusions of how much better America is in providing a nice habitat for human survival.

Much through most of the book, the author, sees Bombay through a pessimistic viewpoint, as a city on the verge of collapse, which to me was rather unsettling. I think a person totally unknown to India and Bombay, will hate the city if he ever thinks about it after reading the book. If not hate, it will surely enhance his vision of India and Bombay to be an exotic wierd city.

Ah! the word I was looking for: Condescending. Add to it Narcissistic. Suketu Mehta does not distance himself from the stories he is telling. He is there everywhere in the story, and his attitude to the story is best captured by the two words. For example, his story about the bar dancer Monalisa, much after making his point, he keeps mentioning that how everyone’s head turns at him and her whenever they go anywhere or the million times his protagonists call him to discuss what they are doing, as if getting his permission to do the thing that they would have done anyway. And, in most of the stories, he never fails to show his “richness”, like pointing out that he pays 100,000 rupees as rent for his South Bombay sea facing apartment (the description of which is so horrible in the first chapter, you would wonder why he stays there), to contrast a 50 rupees that he gives to a beggar.

I failed to understand the devotion of a few pages to his school, and his attempts to paint a sad childhood for him, when from the attempts it did not look he had one. It was  really boring, and really presumptuous writing, he (an young student) would bang into Suketu, and look up to see himself, in the school. The story of the businessman giving everything away was needless. It just added to the exoticity of Bombay.

The only redeeming story, after I got bored with the eccentric story, is that of a middle class family, which after spending most of its time in a slum, moves into a middle class suburban flat, and sees hope.

For a city as vast and with so many personalities, the book, hovers around the negative for most of its time. Descriptions of Bollywood is restricted to how the Underworld governs it, to the travails of the director with the bureaucracy and the story of the struggling actor, the police force description is restricted to failures of  police, the atrocious investigation tortures, the pending cases in the court, the failures of the police to protect people. The gangsters covered are poor people who take into killing for 50 to 1000 rupees, the sex-workers have a similar story.

While all this are true, there is much hope and optimism and positive success stories in the city, that makes it a dream for millions to call it home, and because of which millions more are in love with the city. For anyone, who loves the city, it is like listing all the shortcomings of your lover, but not telling why you love her despite all those shortcomings.

A good book, a good read (but could have had better editing, even I could find typos and grammatically incorrect sentences here and there), but a book on Bombay could have been so much more better. And the easiest route would have been to remove  a few of the negative stories for positive ones.

My twitter updates on the book, sums up my feelings as I read the book

Maximum City is gripping, after a sluggish start…feeling sleepy but dont want to put the book down! Passes my test for a good book 🙂

The underworld and bylanes of bombay keep me awake for the second night running…Maximum City is unputdownable

These updates when I was lost in the underworld that is pretty much everywhere in Bombay, and got a picture of the slums that I have never been to.

But a bit later, I wrote this, which was my eventual feeling for much of the last 250 pages of the book

maximum city is getting One dimensional…What about the Bombay I know about…will he ever get to that?

————-

I also finished Vernon God Little. Before reading about the slums of Bombay, I was in the world of a poor city in Texas where young Vernon is accused of aiding the murder of 16 school kids. Narrated from the point of view of a 16 year old, the first thing you notice is that his favorite adjective is fuck! It is fast paced book, with scenes shifting from Texas to Mexico to court house and jail. It is also a satire on the media, as a failed journalist is responsible for all the troubles to Vernon, and ends up beaming his trail on TV, and starting a reality show of death-row convicts. I read it in one go, till around 7 in the morning, battling drowsy eyes to finish it, and I need to read the last 40-50 pages of the book, to get the hidden message, the philosophy.

—————-

I also read White Tiger, and I am sure it will be a movie soon. Nothing new in the story.

——————

This is the summer of books! On my reading list now

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  1. #1 by Vinay on June 10, 2009 - 7:26 am

    I always have this hunch about Indian writers writing about India or life in India. Most of them are probably trying for a Booker or Pulitzer. So it is important for them to impress the western readers and reviewers. What they forget is that they have an audience in India too and if they focus on these, they are still going to be successful. Writing such novels won’t get them the fame that R.K. Narayan, P.L. Deshpande or Saradindu Bandopadhyay have received. They have concentrated more on entertaining their regional/national audiences first and are loved and idolised their regions.

    I don’t think anybody would idolise Suketu Mehta, Arvind Adiga or Arundhati Roy.

    • #2 by Kaushik on June 10, 2009 - 1:27 pm

      I read a short story by Adiga on the NY times site, and it was also much the same…I actually liked God of Small Things, but after not many of her articles.

  2. #3 by bhel on June 10, 2009 - 11:40 am

    Hey Kaushik – good post. If you haven’t already, read “Shantaram” and “Sacred Games”. Together with “Maximum City”, they make up the Bombay Trilogy.

    • #4 by Kaushik on June 10, 2009 - 1:28 pm

      I haven’t read them yet…but I am guessing it will be of the same flavour…looking for something different now…Sacred Games has been on my list of to-read for quite some time now. I also want to read Amit Varma’s My friend Sancho…it is also set in Bombay…

  3. #5 by sachita on June 10, 2009 - 12:06 pm

    i have sort of resigned myself that books on india will focus on india’s poverty. But maximum city even though badly written, did expose me lot of areas I didnt know about.

    • #6 by Kaushik on June 10, 2009 - 1:32 pm

      Ya! Maximum city did expose me to a lot of areas I had no idea about…but after a while, I wanted to read about the areas I know about too.

  4. #7 by moi on June 10, 2009 - 2:34 pm

    whatever little I have read of Indian writers, I have a mixed bag of my own personal reactions to it…..though I do think that we get overtly critical of Indian writers ‘coz we have our own pre-formed notions/opinions about whatever premise they choose to write on….it’s bound to happen: we are bound to feel strongly just about anything that’s even remotely related to India we have grown up in or know personally. It’s easier to enjoy and not criticize authors from another country ……let alone a culture very different from ours…I mean, what do I know about growing up in Afghanistan to find a flaw with the “the kite runner”??? Regarding foreign authors choosing to write about India…..we are rather forgiving as long as they do not touch a raw chord somewhere……..my 2 cents 🙂

  5. #8 by Kaushik on June 10, 2009 - 4:03 pm

    “I mean, what do I know about growing up in Afghanistan to find a flaw with the “the kite runner”?”

    Very valid. Thanks for this “different” opinion. Never thought at it that way. Probably Kite runner was a success because it reinforced our views of Afghanistan.

    Many of us loathe Bollywood movies because they are just not real, and we don’t like many Indian authors because they try to sell our poverty, which probably gets too real for us…

    But with the book, I knew what to expect in Bombay…for much of the book, the truth hits you hard, and I thought about all the people in the slums and their lives, people I would generally not think about. But after sometime, he just went on repeating himself. The slum dweller cannot sleep in a quiet room, he needs 20 people in his room….this comment came up so many times….

    That is the issue I found with the book. He just goes on talking about the negatives. For a little too long…

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