Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found | Aamir Khan in Film by Danny Boyle

By B. McEwan

Brooklyn, NY, Dec 8, 2010 (Washington Bangla Radio) This book is aptly titled because everything about Bombay/Mumbai does indeed sound "maximum." Twenty-three million people in a space that should accommodate more like 10 million. People living in extreme poverty, sleeping on the city's footpaths and bathing near an open sewer. Police shooting suspected criminals on sight, in what are euphemistically called "encounters." Commuters falling off the morning train because they are, literally, hanging onto the outside of the car by their fingers and toes. Bollywood film stars consorting with criminal gang members and throwing lavish parties where just the hors d'oeuvres would feed a poor man for a month.

And then, on the other hand, a Jain diamond merchant and his family giving up all their possessions to wander the countryside seeking "moksha." A cross-dressing bar dancer who leads a painful, double life in order to support his extended family. A talented boy from the hinterlands who is happy to sleep in the street and starve so he can follow his bliss writing poetry. These are people living on the edge, right to the max of whatever situation they find themselves in. As I read I was both thrilled and horrified.

Suketu Mehta is a native of Bombay who is now living in New York City. He went back to write about his home town in a perhaps unconscious attempt to find some way to integrate his old world and new world selves. And to acquaint his children with their paternal heritage. The place was very different, and yet oddly the same.

Knowing nothing about Bombay the place at first seemed utterly foreign to me. But as I read I began to see that in some ways it is not unlike my own New York City. A bit more "maximum" perhaps, but don't the police shoot to kill here in New York? Don't the rich throw obscenely wasteful parties (or didn't they before the recent economic meltdown)? Don't we see extremes of wealth and poverty, side by side, every day in Midtown?

We too live in a city of stark contrasts, and yet we have one great asset going for us: a government that is, on the whole, not corrupt and a civil society that enforces the law in a more or less consistent manner. For sure it's not perfect, but if you doubt the importance of citizens being able to rely on the rule of law, try living in Bombay/Mumbai, or half of the other cities in the world for that matter. (Disclaimer: I haven't lived outside of the US, so my views are informed by what I read rather than first-hand experience.)

Good government, it seems to me, is the required bedrock of a great city. It is both precious and elusive. See what Mehta writes about the takeover of Maharashtra state by the Hindu-nationalist Shiv Sena political party in 1995:

"The government took a look at the awesome urban problems
plaguing the city, the infestation of corruption at all levels of the
bureaucracy and the government, the abysmal state of Hindu-
Muslim relations, and took decisive action. They changed the
name of the capital city to Mumbai."

Do people get the government they deserve? Given what I know of Indians (admittedly not a lot), I don't think so. This great civilization and its people certainly deserve a better, fairer and more functional government than what they appear to have now. As India becomes an economic power in this century, perhaps that country will generate the wealth required to lift Mumbai's 23 million (and growing) out of poverty. The question in my mind is, how can we help them, and will we?