Title: Maximum City: Bombay Lost & Found
Author: Suketu Mehta
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2004
Every city has a fascinating history that lies beneath its imposing concrete edifices. It is the history written on invisible pages by people who will never appear in the actual history books, people like gangsters and prostitutes. And the person on the street too. Suketu Mehta’s magnum opus unravels that invisible history of Mumbai in a gripping narrative that reads almost like a novel.
The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, titled ‘Power’, constitutes almost half of the book and is about the people who actually wield the power in the city. The book speaks about the Mumbai of 1990s and hence this part begins with the riots that assailed the city soon after the Babri Masjid demolition in Dec 1992. The Muslims in Mumbai reacted against the Babri Kasjid demolition and Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena was quick to exploit the situation for political gains. In Jan 1993, Thackeray’s goons systematically massacred the Muslims in the city. Thackeray soon found his match in the Muslim mafia dons who detonated ten bombs one after the other in March. The Hindu-Muslim divide became total. Now, religion determined “how often you will bathe, where you will shit” because the water supply to the Muslim areas was curtailed and the toilets became unusable.
Life thrives even if you cut off basic amenities. Life will find its own ways of moving on. But crime becomes an integral part of such existence. Mumbai became a city of increasing crimes. The communal divide forced the Muslim youth to find occupations in the underworld which was dominated by Muslims. Mehta gives us a detailed description of the Mumbai underworld. We meet the gangsters belonging to Dawood Ibrahim and Chotta Rajan as well as of the lesser ones like Arun Gawli and Chotta Shakeel. The writer shows us that a gangster is essentially a narcissist with a deadly mix of egotism and self-hatred. At the same time, we also learn that the politicians are bigger criminals than the gangsters. “We fight among ourselves, but these people (the politicians) are ruining the whole world,” says Chotta Shakeel. It is quite true too because the gangsters never attack innocent people (except indirectly in bomb blasts or similar situations) while the politicians pervert the people’s psyche.
The book shows how the police are either helpless or are in cahoots with the gangsters. The police also employ the same strategies of the gangsters and make use of encounter killings to eliminate certain people. “The police, the newspapers, and the courts all keep up the fiction of the encounter killing,” says Mehta. The encounter drama is an open secret.
Titled ‘Pleasure,’ Part 2 presents the dance bars and red streets of the city. We are given detailed life stories of Monalisa, a bar dancer, and Honey who is actually a man but dances as a woman in a bar. This section gives us enlightening peeps into Bollywood and its inevitable connections with both the underworld and the red street.
The last part deals with immigrants. People from all over the country gravitate towards Mumbai. Once again we get some moving details about certain individuals who tried to make their life in the maximum city. What I found most fascinating in this section, however, is the story of a Gujarati diamond dealer who suddenly gave up his lucrative business and took to religion. He, along with all his family members, renounced the family’s fabulous wealth in order to become Jain monks. Mumbai is paap ni bhoomi, land of sins, according to him. He had committed his share of sins already, a fat share, in fact.
The book is a masterpiece. Very few writers would do the kind of research that Suketu Mehta did. He spent more than two years with the gangsters and dance girls, with the immigrants and other strugglers, before writing the book. He met people who matter too, people like Bal Thackeray, police officers, Amitabh Bachchan, and a host of others. Mehta is never judgmental. He tries to put every person into perspective; we see each one of them from various angles and feel pity rather than contempt or hatred. We understand them better. We understand why some people are what they are. And that’s precisely the greatness of the book.
A warning for the weak-hearted: you may find the book highly disturbing in many places.