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.

Book Review “Climbing the Stairs”

Yesterday I finished reading “Climbing the Stairs” by Padma Venkatraman.  Overall, I would recommend the book.  It is a quick read, but brings up issues relevant to today and the characters are likable, if a bit one dimensional.


Setting:  South India in the early 1940s.  The two main world events are the Freedom Struggle and World War II.  The family is Tamil Brahmin. 


I enjoyed learning about some of the culture.  For example, in her grandfather’s traditional household the men live on the upper floor and the women on the lower floor.  Even married couples live mostly apart.  The only nights they spend together are when it is their turn to use the private bedroom.  I’m guessing that this practice faded out by now and was only for the wealthy when it was in place.


Plot:  How can a young girl come to terms with her father’s life-changing injury?  How can she maintain her identity when her family is forced to move to her father’s ancestral home controlled by unsympathetic relatives?  Will she have to choose between romance and her dreams of education?


Issues the book brought up:  Sometimes I thought Vidya was too modern and too outspoken, but strong women are everywhere and existed in every time.  I don’t know enough about Tamil Brahmins to judge accurately.  The issues she encounters are still current today.  For example, she asks Raman if they can be equal partners in their relationship.  Raman cares a lot about her, but is sometimes extremely clueless about the everyday struggles of women.  The same can be said of men today (and vice-versa.  I don’t pretend to know what it is like to be a man in today’s world). 


Vidya’s impassioned speeches are memorable.  When Raman carelessly joked about how women got a vacation when they were sequestered monthly during their periods, Vidya stood up for herself very well.  I liked how she brought up the point about how women’s bodies are not private, but monitored and discussed by many.


Sometimes I wonder about the position of women in India vs. the U.S.  For upper and middle class women, there don’t seem to be many differences.  India seems ahead in some respects- higher percentages of female doctors, engineers, and computer techs.  Is that true, or only a skewed perception?  Indian women perhaps face more pressure to marry than American women do.  Women in both countries are the main caretakers of children and elders. 


This book was a reminder of the tremendous sacrifices made by freedom fighters and their families during the struggle for Indian Independence.  Satya has told me of some old footage he has seen of freedom fighters lining up to protest.  Men would line up to get bayoneted or clubbed by rifle butts and women would be in the rear with stretchers to give aid to the injured.  I don’t know if I could watch that.  It sounds very chilling, but I’m in awe of the discipline and courage of the freedom fighters.


In school here in the U.S., I watched the Gandhi video starring Ben Kingsley in one class, but we weren’t taught much or anything about the history of the independence struggle or of the partition (learned about that in another book of historical fiction).  Satya is very proud of Gandhi and how India gained its independence.  He says he is a Gandhian and says that real change can only happen through non-violence.


Conclusion: Even though this book is aimed at teens, I think adults may enjoy reading it.  I enjoyed the peek into another culture and time.  The book brings up some important issues and is a reminder to stand up for oneself and one’s beliefs.

“A Good Indian Wife” by Anne Cherian

Yesterday, I checked out from the library “A Good Indian Wife” by Anne Cherian.  At the moment, I’ve only read a few pages, but it is very readable.

Neel (real name Suneel) went to medical school in the U.S. and became an anesthesiologist in California.  He has a girlfriend of three years, a blonde secretary named Caroline.  Neel’s feelings for her seem to be straight out of the modern dating classic, He’s just not that into you.  For example, he forgets their 3rd anniversary.  Neel is 35 and his family is growing tired of him remaining unmarried.  His family gets him to return to India to visit his grandfather-Neel is told he is very sick and near death.  His mother and aunt, however, plan to get him to India to marry him off.

I admit I don’t like his character much at the moment, but hopefully that will change.

Leila seems more likable.  She is 30 years old, teaches literature, and loves to write stories.  She has two younger sisters, Kila who is 8 years old, and Indy who is in her mid-20s.  Leila has seen many suitors come and go.  She had one indiscretion around age 20, but gets passed over because her family cannot offer a dowry.  

The book does touch a lot on the theme of family.  Early on, Cherian writes from Neel’s perspective, “In India it was always family above self, with no one considering his difficulties”. 

On the trip back to India, Neel sits near a mixed couple.  The husband is Indian and the wife is Italian, although at first Neel thinks the wife is also Indian.  He overhears the husband saying, “It is difficult to be neither fish nor fowl in America, and I told Lisa our daughter would be more accepted back home.  I mean, when the British came, our kings greeted them with open arms.  America is not such a welcoming country.” Mr. Rolex agreed, but Neel thought the man was a simpleton.” 

I’m curious to find out what happens once Neel and Leila meet.  What are their first impressions?  How will Caroline deal with it all?  What kind of marriage do Neel and Leila create for themselves? 

Article by Dinesh Ramde  about the book.  Ramde rates the book a B+.