If you believed Suketu Mehta, you’d think that Bombay, India’s most populous—and popular—city, was a festering swamp of crime, squalor, lust, corruption, police brutality, Bollywoodmania, abject penury, and extreme affluence, all coexisting in a precarious balance that, at the slightest nudge, could ignite into murderous communal conflagration and mob hysteria. To do so, however, would not be naive, because it’s true. The city, once a peaceable macédoine of communities, classes, faiths, and languages, exploded into one of modern India’s most vicious anti-Muslim riots in January 1993, when a Hindu family living in a Muslim-dominated slum in Bombay was burnt alive, the atrocity itself a reaction to the razing of a disused mosque by Hindu fundamentalists in a faraway northern Indian town. Instigated by the fascist leader of the notorious Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party, Bal Thackeray, Hindu mobs went on a state-supported murderous spree, irrupting into Muslim neighborhoods and stabbing, raping, and burning alive over a thousand men, women, and children. Muslim mobsters responded by exploding 10 bombs in different parts of the city, killing and maiming hundreds. It was the year the world changed—for Bombayites, at least, who had always considered their tolerant and progressive city apart from the rest of the nation, just as most New Yorkers view their own in contrast to the rest of the U.S.
In Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Mehta, a New York–based writer and journalist, digs deep into the bursting metropolis’s many layers, wading mucker-like through its netherworld. He befriends a kedgeree of characters—rioters, victims, instigators, entertainers, gangsters, protectors, and more—gaining their confidence and garnering their stories. He drinks cognac with Sunil, a Shiv Sena member who boasts of killing Muslims in the riots, then does business with the surviving ones; and he gains the trust of Satish and Mohsin, rival Hindu and Muslim “shooters,” remorseless hit men steeped in religious zeal and patriotic fervor. He becomes confidant to Monalisa, a “ladies bar” nautch girl who dances for gangsters and businessmen who literally shower her with money as she writhes seductively on the dancefloor. He bonds with Ajay Lal, a senior police officer celebrated as much for his unwavering honesty as his ruthlessness in interrogating suspects (torture is routine), and eats sweetmeats with Inspector Vijay Salaskar, Bombay’s most celebrated specialist in “encounter” killings, where gangsters are bumped off in setups—the police department’s casual circumvention of an inept judiciary. He communes with fellow Gujarati Sevantibhai Ladhani, a multimillionaire diamond merchant who resolves to take diksha, the renunciation of all material things, weaning himself and his family from the trappings of wealth, culminating in a lavish ceremony of hurling cold currency toward the frantic grasps of eager villagers before finally embarking—nearly bald, barely covered, with strange new names—on their monastic paths to salvation.
Maximum City is at once paean and lament to the megalopolis that Mehta was wrenched from in his formative years, when his family moved West. In this remarkable collection of stories, he observes with the unsullied eye of an inconnu and the familiarity of a homeboy, coupling Pico Iyer–style travelogues with the narrative nuance of fellow dislocated Bombayites Salman Rushdie and Rohinton Mistry. If any criticism can be made, it’s that the aperture to Mehta’s lens is not open all the way, his attention focused by his own admission on the lives of, “for the most part, morally compromised people.” But it remains a compelling account of a thriving city on the decline, faltering under the weight of its own success, even as it refuses to sink as it finally must. Currently 18 million strong, Bombay’s population, if it continues to grow at its current pace, will rise to 55 million by 2015—to be accommodated within an approximate area of 239 square miles. (In 2000 New York’s stood at just over 8 million people on around 303 square miles of land.) Afflicted with pollution, sewerage, traffic, and real estate problems that rival the world’s worst-affected cities, Bombay—according to many—is at its end. But Mehta rejects that notion: “When five hundred new people come in every day to live, Bombay is certainly not a dying city. A killing city, maybe; but not a dying city.” If Mehta’s to be believed, it’s a hell of a fascinating place.