In Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Suketu Mehta relates the story of modern Bombay, India (or Mumbai, as it has been renamed). The author’s family immigrated to New York for business reasons, and Mehta was largely educated abroad. His return to the city where he spent much of his youth is a search for his own roots but also a study of perhaps the world’s largest city.
Like cities throughout history, Bombay is a magnet for often poverty-stricken villagers. However, what Indians often find in Bombay is less the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but rather a modern version of Dante’s “Inferno,” or so it can appear to an outsider. To Bombay’s fourteen million inhabitants, however, it is the land of dreams and promises, not least because Bombay is the center of India’s motion picture industry, and its “Bollywood” films are not only escapism but also models of reality to be hopefully achieved.
Mehta is literally working with a cast of millions, living in a city where privacy is seemingly almost nonexistent, with one or two rooms perhaps housing a dozen inhabitants, and where the utilities, including the availability of water, operate sporadically. A brilliant reporter, the author obtained first-person accounts from police, corrupt and otherwise, criminal gang murderers, both Hindus and Muslim, budding actors and a youthful poet who sleeps on the streets, a night club singer who dreams of becoming Miss India, a popular transvestite dancer, and a family of Jains who abandon their prosperous material life in the quest for the end to the cycle of rebirth.
Maximum City is an exciting, perceptive, and well-written personal description of one of the world’s great cities. Highly recommended.