Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction last year. Its topic — Mumbai, aka Bombay — is a fascinating one. But although there are promising images along the way, Maximum City falls short in several dimensions. It's excruciatingly first-personal; the author's mantra might well be "ego, ergo sum" as he constantly stands in the way of his subjects. The book is also senselessly potty-mouthed, crude, and voyeuristic, not to mention disorganized. It includes what appear to be gross exaggerations, presumably for dramatic effect. Without support or qualification, strings of superlatives ("biggest city on the planet", "world's longest constitution", "world's largest backlog of court cases", etc.) become distractions or worse. How can "... workers inject granite into the spiderweb of fissures in the building's walls, shoring them up", when granite is a solid igneous rock? Can there really be as many actively murderous gangsters as Mehta claims to rub shoulders with? How much of the obtrusive sexuality here is real, as opposed to literate fantasy? Credence boggles.

And yet! And yet, in spite of all obstacles, at intervals the people of Mumbai succeed in sneaking onto the stage of Maximum City and manage to say a few words or strike a memorable pose. There are slice-of-life moments, as when Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan goes into a movie director's kitchen to make tea during a script conference, or when the author's younger son Akash takes his first steps, or when we glimpse people on the edge of existence in Mumbai's sprawling slums. And there are cultural flashes, such as a tempting recipe for "masala Coke" (in Part II, "Pleasure", chapter "Vadapav Eaters' City"):

... This is the same old Coca-Cola you know, the same fizzy brown liquid, but with lemon, rock salt, pepper, and cumin added to it. When the Coke is poured into the glass, which has a couple of teaspoons of the masala waiting to attack the liquid from the bottom up, the American drink froths up in astonished anger. The waiter stands at your booth, waiting till the froth dies down, then puts in a little more of the Coke, then waits a moment more, then pours in the rest. And lo! it has become a Hindu Coke. The alien invader has come into the country. It has been accepted into the pantheon of local drinks but has a little spice added to it, a little more zing. ...

Maximum City is a mess of a book, without index or adequate maps. (Problems extend to the physical volume; my copy mysteriously repeats pages 243 through 258.) Chunks of it were previously published in various magazines; perhaps that accounts for its patchwork feel. And yet! Like the great metropolis itself, it has scenery and spirit, struggle and sound. But like a too-slow bus tour, not quite often enough.

(cf. AnkhMicholi (12 Jul 2002), TiffinWallah (14 Jan 2004), LoveWindsAndFanService (2 Feb 2004), NavyBlueOfIndia (19 Apr 2004), MarryTheOne (20 May 2005), SoundOfBangles (24 Aug 2005), DeathOfVishnu (14 Feb 2006), ...)

TopicLiterature - TopicEntertainment - 2006-04-20

(correlates: FishingForAnAnswer, SoundOfBangles, DeerHuntingWithJesus, ...)