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.

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Mumbai Attacks

We are currently watching the tv reports about the Mumbai terrorist attacks.  These attacks are very frightening and heartbreaking.  Satya is flipping back and forth between CNN and Indian news stations.  Nobody seems to know much.

To everyone in Mumbai, our thoughts and prayers are with you!!