Book Review–Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

For the past few weeks I’ve been reading this on lunch breaks and on the train.  First off, it is a long book 560+ pages!  Secondly, I can see why some love this book and some hate it.  Mehta is a great writer who writes with beauty and power.  Some of the pages brought tears to my eyes-describing the street children, interviewing those who burned Muslims during riots, etc. 


I think the reason people hate the book is because Mehta does not spend much of his book talking about ordinary, middle-class people.  Instead, much of the book is given over to gangsters, rioters, bar dancers and their customers, Bollywood, and slum dwellers.   Do these people make Mumbai unique?  Are the middle classes the same as everywhere?  Perhaps not, but maybe Mehta wanted to focus on people who are far from ordinary or maybe he wanted to find out “why?”  Why do gangsters become gangsters?  Why would a girl choose to be a bar girl?  Why would someone leave their comfortable village life for a crowded room in a slum that they’d share with their spouse and 3 children?  How could someone marry someone only 4 weeks after they met for the first time and never having met their future spouse alone?  I think Mehta does answer all those questions well.  Maybe Mehta is calculating-he focuses on those people because those are the people that people in the West know about, wonder about, and want to read about.


Another reason people might not like the book is that Mehta does not do much to change Western stereotypes about India.  The India he chronicles is (mostly) the India that Westerners see on tv commercials that ask for donations to help feed starving children.  The India in the book is mostly dirty, poor, and chaotic.  Or it is fantastically wealthy draped in gold, diamonds, and silks.   Perhaps if Mehta had chosen to write about more mundane characters perceptions would change a bit or if he’d chosen to write about other parts of India. 


I read parts of the book to my husband.  He does not have fond memories of Mumbai. Each time his family visited or passed through, they would get ripped off.  The “Mumbai for Mumbaikers” mentality doesn’t make it more popular with him or his family.  Also, the city is very crowded, loud, chaotic, corrupt, and dirty.  He takes umbrage at Mehta’s assumption that all Indians aspire to Mumbai and that Mumbai is the future of India.  He prefers to think of Bangalore as the future and as a Gandhi follower, thinks most people are better off in villages.  Strangely enough though, he doesn’t think Mumbai is any more corrupt than NY or any other huge metropolis.  To him, all big cities are the same.  For those that have read the book and visited both cities, do you think they are equally corrupt?


Reading this book did not make me long to visit Mumbai.  I can see why people love it-relying on personal networks to get things done rather than on “the system”, the excitement, etc.  Despite the corruption, in some ways Mumbai is a very safe city.  For example, if you walk alone at night you are not likely to be robbed, raped, or killed.  People are still kind to each other and accommodating-even the people in the insanely crowded commuter trains will make efforts to make room for each other and to help others catch the train if they are running late. 


Some parts of the book were fascinating and I think very relevant to today.  Mehta clearly describes why Mumbaikers rip off each other and everyone else possible and why gangsters are so powerful there.  He also clearly makes the connection between gangsters and terrorists. 


I enjoyed reading the book a lot.  It did help explain why some things are the way they are.  Mehta wrote a great book.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Vikram
    Dec 26, 2008 @ 22:37:29

    Thank you for reading this book. I am a Mumbaikar, and trust me, this book describes Mumbai better than a ‘mundane middle-class’ Mumbaikar like me could ever do. In fact middle and upper classes only make up about 35-40 % of Mumbai’s population.

    Before anything, Mumbai is a city where people come to find work. That work might be done to just help one’s family survive or to try and become fabulously rich (mostly something in between), but thats the fundamental importance of the city.

    It is not a tourist city, not geographically appealing or a major cultural centre (before Bollywood). Its not the kind of place, one ‘visits’. Its a place of hope for the impoverished heartland of India, which uptil recently had been mired in caste conflict, political instability and neglect.

    If India does become a successful nation in the future, then Mumbai will be a huge part of that story. I dont think Mehta means that India aspires to be like Mumbai physically. I think he is referring to the basic equality among people there is among migrants in Mumbai. You could be a Brahmin from Bihar or a Dalit from Karnataka, in a way ‘success’ in Mumbai will mostly depend on your common sense and wits, not your caste or connections.

    By the way, Slumdog Millionaire is another cultural exploration of the Maximum City, which again shows what a big part of the Indian story Mumbai is.


  2. Gori Girl
    Jan 11, 2009 @ 21:24:15

    I haven’t read this book but I greatly enjoyed both my visit to Bombay (Didi lives there) and Slumdog Millionaire, which, as Aditya says, is very much a Bombay story. If we moved to India, Aditya has said that Bombay would be his second choice only to Delhi, and from what I’ve seen of India (not much), I’d agree.

    I would have thought that you and Aditya would head towards Kolkata since he’s Bengali. Why does Aditya like Delhi? Satya just tells me it is violent especially towards women. Maybe it is a North-South thing? Satya’s first preference would probably his home town, a medium sized university city in Karnataka, followed by Bangalore because it is one of the most liberal cities (so he says anyway), has lots of jobs, and he has many friends there.

    Anyway, life would definitely not be boring in Bombay!

    I still haven’t seen Slumdog Millionaire.

    Do you agree with Vikram that Bombay is pointing the way towards an Indian meritocracy?


  3. Gori Girl
    Jan 13, 2009 @ 03:19:44

    Aditya hates Calcutta. It was the capital of India during the British Raj, but the city’s politics have led to it slowly slipping further and further behind other metropolitan areas. It’s more polluted than other cities, and the people are poorer – you can really notice the difference in the ratio of scooters to cars as compared to other Indian cities. The weather is pretty sucky, too, except in the winter.

    He did his high schooling in Delhi, so it’s the city he’s most familiar with. I don’t reckon Delhi is any worse in crime than any other major international city – if you aren’t an idiot, then your chances of getting in trouble is rather low. Anyways, Delhi and Bombay (and to a lesser extent, Bangalore) would be the best for our careers.

    I don’t know enough about Bombay to have an educated opinion on whether it’ll lead the way to an Indian meritocracy. I do know that when we finished watching Slumdog, I turned to Aditya and said, “that seemed like a very American success story, rags-to-riches and all that.” He replied that he could see that angle, but it was the exact same features that made it seem like a very Bombaian tale.


  4. Vikram
    Jan 19, 2009 @ 01:19:28

    Just to follow up on this discussion, this article in the NYT is relevant in the context of ‘Gori Girl’s’ comment above.

    Thanks for the article link Vikram!

    I think the article makes a great point…in the U.S. in general now people are seeking to be more tied to community and family and in India people are seeking to loosen those bonds. Maybe everyone is seeking balance?


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