Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found 
by Suketu Mehta.
Review, 512 pp., £8.99, September 2005, 0 7472 5969 0
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Like Suketu Mehta, I was born in Calcutta, a city ‘in extremis’, in Mehta’s words, and, like him, grew up in Bombay. His father, who worked in the diamond trade, and mine, then a rising corporate executive, probably moved to Bombay from Calcutta for the same reasons; to do with the flight, in the 1960s, of capital and industry from the former colonial capital in the east to the forward-looking metropolis in the west, in the face of growing labour unrest and radical politics in leftist Bengal – the troubled context that ‘in extremis’ presumably refers to.

By the early 1970s, Calcutta had ceased to be a major centre of commerce and industry. Howrah, just outside the city, where the factories were once located, became a purgatory for small enterprise, with businesses – among them my uncle’s – waiting, sometimes for years and years, to die. The lights went out in Calcutta, literally: ‘load-shedding’, or power rationing, became frequent, until, in the early 1980s, the city had occasionally to make do with only eight hours of electricity a day. Jyoti Basu, the astringent, unsmiling Communist chief minister of West Bengal, a barrister from London and a bhadralok (that is, a member of the liberal, patrician middle class), whose first name means ‘light’, began to be called Andhakaar, or ‘Darkness’. Bombay, on the other hand, began to dazzle; I have no memory of it ever not dazzling. From the 12th-floor apartment in the not altogether extravagantly named Il Palazzo where I grew up, in Bombay’s most exclusive locality, Malabar Hill, I could see the row of lights on Marine Drive known as the Queen’s Necklace, fluorescent and aquamarine (they’re now a pale golden sodium), and, further on, great neon signs saying ORWO and BOAC and other things. It was an existence remarkably open to breeze, birds and rainfall, to the arrival of daylight and evening, and it was also strangely, unselfconsciously, enclosed. It was not Suketu Mehta’s Bombay.

For all this, I knew, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, that Calcutta was India’s one great modern city. Its pioneering 150-year-old tradition in literature and the arts, and the way its history was deeply implicated in the traumas and awakenings of colonial and nationalist India – all this was embodied in its heat and noise and architecture. It possessed the contradictions, the shabby grandeur, of modernity, and the volatile energy that the great cities of the world had before globalisation; I could sense this during my visits as a child. The Bombay I knew was, in comparison, safe, orderly and a bit crass.

By the 1980s, the rise of the BJP in India and its alliance in Maharashtra (the state of which Bombay, now officially ‘Mumbai’, is the capital) with the Shiv Sena, a once minor fascist party of Marathi and then Hindu identity, changed Bombay seemingly for good, taking away its cosmopolitan self-image. It was at this time that the ‘maximum city’ – burgeoning, and in the process pulling down the barriers that had kept the middle-class employee and the entrepreneur on the make, governance and criminality, politics and religion, in distinct physical and mental spaces – recorded so thoroughly, even lovingly, in Mehta’s book began to become visible to those who’d ignored it earlier.

I left then, for England; and my parents moved the next year to the Christian suburb of Bandra (one of the train stops at which a bomb went off on 11 July), an area on the brink of transformation in 1984, but still possessed by, and offering, a sort of enchantment. My parents lived here for five years before selling their flat and moving to Calcutta in 1989. The discovery of Bandra, with its churches, its low houses built on Portuguese lines, its lanes named after Christian saints, meant a great deal to me then, especially in connection with the transition I was making, from the anonymous itinerant at University College London to the aspiring writer with secret ambitions. It was in Bandra, too, that I discovered, as did my parents, the desire to return to the city proper in which I’d grown up and which I’d always wanted to escape, and in which my father had spent most of his working life; to embark on the hour-long journey by car to Churchgate or Dhobi Talao, a journey that would be almost impossible to make regularly now, given the traffic.

An obscure set of motives and compulsions drives people towards the hub of Bombay, or towards some place from which that hub is reachable. One of the compulsions, and a pretty basic one, is to breathe its air. An upper-class woman who grew up in Bombay and now lives in Calcutta told me she had just returned, invigorated, from a trip to Bombay. ‘When I first land there,’ she said, ‘I inhale deeply. It revives me.’ The air, though, isn’t necessarily pleasant or clean; in some places it’s bracing, with the odour of dried fish; in others, it’s full of (odourless) chemical pollutants. What we’re speaking of, then, is an addiction, such as the 20th century was to Martin Amis’s John Self; something corrosive but indispensable to the addict. The need I first felt for that particular air, without being at all aware of it, in Bandra (the addict never knows, except in hindsight, that what he or she thinks is interest or curiosity is really an obsession) is what makes me restless and resentful when I find myself invited to other cities, but with no excuse to go to Bombay. It’s presumably what drove Mehta, who moved to New York when he was 14, to go back. It’s what made the poet Arun Kolatkar, author of the classic Jejuri, set out every Thursday from his small apartment in Prabhadevi on the 45-minute trip to Kala Ghoda, Bombay’s arts and commercial district, and sit there writing, drinking tea, meeting up with friends from the advertising world he was once part of. When, to everyone’s dismay, his favourite café, the Wayside Inn, was replaced by an upmarket Chinese restaurant, he moved to the Military Café, not far away.

The multiplicity of cafés, food-stalls and restaurants in the city, and the continual acts of eating and drinking, seem to represent an appetite for the city itself: the hunger for it, and the persistent, difficult-to-appease desire to ingest it and consume it. I don’t know if it’s this sense of hunger that’s called, especially after every trauma including the last one, the ‘spirit of Mumbai’. Certainly, there are enough deterrents, besides the fear of explosions, to prevent people from piling into train compartments or getting into their cars to make the journeys they do, to and within Bombay. Often the energy and tenacity – the noisy excitement of the stockbrokers on Dalal Street, and the diamond merchants in Zaveri Bazaar (where bombs went off in 2003) – seem to be the result of a neurological reaction, like a ‘high’ with its necessary, complementary ‘lows’. Sometimes the highs and lows seem married to one another, eerily inextricable and indistinguishable, as in the case of the touching but strange ‘laughter clubs’, in which people congregate in open spaces for periods of time, manically breaking into rehearsed laughter as a therapy for tension.

Travelling from Bandra to the centre of the city by car was expensive, even in 1984. That’s when I began to take the ‘local train’, as it’s called in Bombay, from Bandra to Churchgate, emerging with a stream of commuters into the area where I went to school. The first-class compartments of seven such trains were ripped apart by the recent explosions. The trains, even during a normal rush hour, are a frenetic and excessive mode of travel. Mehta writes well about them and their passengers and their daily exacerbations; the Darwinian conflict among people scrambling to get a seat, and the contradictory, incongruous human impulse to give a fellow commuter a hand. For him, these people milling about Churchgate and Victoria Terminus and other stations are the ‘crowd’, a synecdoche for the city. His book, like other significant works about Bombay – Midnight’s Children and Love and Longing in Bombay – ends with a Whitmanesque, necessarily sentimental vision of the crowd: ‘All these ill-assorted people walking towards the giant clock on Churchgate: they are me; they are my body and my flesh. The crowd is the self, 14 million avatars of it, 14 million celebrations. I will not merge into them; I have elaborated myself into them.’

The observation ‘I will not merge into them’ introduces a Naipaulian, anti-democratic glitch before flowing again into the Whitmanesque wonder at free movement and free mingling. It reminds us that Naipaul’s response to the same crowd in the 1960s was one of anxiety, an anxiety about his own sense of self being swamped and smothered: ‘And for the first time in my life I was one of the crowd. There was nothing in my appearance or dress to distinguish me from the crowd eternally hurrying into Churchgate Station.’ Those who use these trains daily and who examine the experience, crystallising something that’s amorphous and resistant to crystallisation, will admit to having felt a little of both the anxiety and the wonder. Generally, though, I avoided rush hour, and my journeys became an extension of my flâneur-like activities in the city on my visits from London and Oxford. I travelled both second and first-class. A second-class ticket cost two rupees, first-class 17 rupees. In second class, you usually had people in part-time employment for companions; in first class, whose interior was usually identical to second class, upwardly mobile traders, small businessmen and accountants. A group of diamond traders, who commuted habitually with their pockets stuffed with gems, were killed in the explosions.

It was in the mid-1990s that I gradually came round to believing that Calcutta had ceased to be India’s most interesting metropolis; that it was Bombay that had begun to display the contraries, the unexpectedness, and the capacity for self-renewal that characterise the great cities of the world. Globalisation had acted on it like alchemy. I’d grown up scorning it and had viewed my parents’ move to Calcutta with indifference and even satisfaction, believing that it wasn’t possible for me to have any emotional attachment to Bombay, but I remember stopping one day at a window of a bookshop in Oxford and staring for about a minute at a page of Raghubir Singh’s book of photographs, Bombay: Gateway to India. It was a picture obviously taken from the balcony or window of an apartment on Malabar Hill, such as the one I had lived in. One of the attractions of these apartments is their view of the sea and South Bombay, and also the curve of Marine Drive, the astonishingly thick clusters of skyscrapers and low buildings, looking a bit charred in the daylight, with the Arabian Sea on the right, and then visible again on the left behind the densely inhabited landmass, the smudges of the islands of Elephanta and Trombay that I used to see morning and afternoon from the balcony and, closer, the back of an apartment with potted plants on the terrace. All this was contained in the picture, qualified only by the wobbly lines of skeletal bamboo scaffolding: the building from which Singh had taken the photograph was being painted.

Each time I passed by, I stopped at that window: the window of the shop and the one in the photograph. I was moved by the clarity of the poor but sturdy bamboo, by the way it both impeded and framed the view. Later, I studied the book more carefully, photograph by photograph, as Naipaul, in the odd but excellent conversation that comprises the introduction, says you must. For me, this is still the most expressive work on Bombay I’ve encountered, deeply moving for the shift in sensibility it registers in the work of an already established and gifted photographer, a shift made not too many years before he died suddenly, and one that represents a conundrum, a moment experienced by all artists formed by modernity and Modernism who now found themselves faced, in their backyards, by the globalised world. Singh’s previous major work on a metropolis had been a book on Calcutta, where his pictures show the influence and the quirky humanity of Cartier-Bresson, Satyajit Ray and, indeed, the sort of aesthetic that Calcutta itself had represented for a century and a half, one concerned with uncovering, through a Modernist paradox, the intimate and the natural in urban disrepair and industrial decay, with recuperating the secretly familiar and quickening in the shabby and inhospitable.

In the new book though, as Naipaul observes shrewdly, the recurring metaphor is glass, the glass of a shop window, or of a door to a department store or hotel: glass, which introduces an element of surface and polish, which skews the photographer’s image by producing its own, which at once separates and gives access. It’s not quite possible to feel ‘at home’ in the city of these pictures. Glass invents the city it encloses, reveals and reflects, and also the photographer taking the picture – Singh said to Naipaul that he was quite content to become part of the frame, his outline and flash contained in the glass. In many ways this book explained why Bombay’s time had come and Calcutta’s passed. It was not just to do with the failure of one city and the success of the other: ‘failure’ itself had been an integral part of Modernist creativity. It was to do with the onus of creativity passing, in the globalised world, from the individual to a variety of scattered sources, to a terrain that marginalised the artist and reproduced its own images. In India, Bombay had become that terrain; and Singh’s book is a way of acknowledging what that subtle but decisive change means to the photographer, to the witness and bystander. ‘The writer just sees a few details, and he has to look hard at these,’ Naipaul said to Singh, ‘while the photographer has to see it all.’ To which Singh responded: ‘No. The writer does too,’ and pointed out to Naipaul a scene from his own India: A Million Mutinies Now.

Mehta’s book has the silent intrusiveness, the busyness and ubiquity, the voraciousness of a book of pictures, as well as the largesse that prose gives. But he doesn’t stand at the crossroads at which Singh found himself when confronted with Bombay. The shift has already occurred, and we are in a new world with Maximum City: the book is a giant embrace not only of a city but of hope – and its more complex, earthly incarnation, desire – in the age of the free market. It performs this embrace brilliantly and passionately. It is not, really, a nostalgic book, in spite of all it says about loss, displacement and the act of returning; its elegiac notes are its most strained. It has the hard-headed exuberance of a 19th-century novel, a fascination with the spirit of compromise and with survival skills, a complete understanding of the importance of the mercantile and the pecuniary. All this it engages with not by examining the lives of major industrialists, as it might have, but by looking at low-life – the dancing girls in bars, the whores and transsexuals, the hit-men, the lowly cadres in political parties who do the dirty work during riots. Like the elephant-headed Ganesh, who transcribed the Mahabharata as the sage composed it aloud, Mehta sits uncomfortably close to garrulous hit-men, typing their memories and impressions of murder into his laptop.

But he’s also very good at capturing the speech-rhythms, inflections and mannerisms of leaders of dubious organisations, political and criminal, at teasing out their sinister discourse made up of edict, threat, autobiography, emotional turbulence and Reader’s Digest homilies. This is from his conversation with Bal Thackray, the leader and father-figure of the Shiv Sena:

I start. ‘I am writing a book about Bombay . . .’

‘Mumbai,’ he corrects me.

‘Mumbai,’ I agree.

He speaks to me in fractured English. He is a thin, bony man of average height, with a suspiciously jet-black crop of hair, wearing very large square spectacles.

‘“Mumbai,” I agree,’ Mehta says, though we know, from the title of his book and what’s in it, that Mehta does not agree with the enforced renaming, by the Shiv Sena, of his city. The book’s subtitle, then, is a small act of revenge and this little scene, deftly plotted, dramatises the importance of deferred rebellions and immediate compromises in Bombay. Towards the end of the meandering interview, Mehta asks this dangerous man what accounts for his charisma. Thackray turns lyrical: ‘If you have a flower in your hand and it has a typical fragrance, how can you say that where is the fragrance, where does it come from? A fragrance cannot be seen; a charisma cannot be explained.’ From Chotta Shakeel, gangster on the run and expatriate ‘don’ of Bombay’s underworld, Mehta extracts, among other things, a repetition of the famous statement by John F. Kennedy: ‘“My intention is: What can I do for my country? Not, what has the country done for me?” Then he adds, “Think about that.”’ I don’t think Mehta is laughing at these people, whose actions are partly responsible for the incendiary, ever returning disruptions that Bombay suffers today; I think he’s carefully recording the defensively opaque speech of people for whom violence and self-love are interchangeable with patriotism. As with the 19th-century novelists, respectability and the desire for it is, to a considerable extent, Mehta’s unexpectedly pertinent subject. Even Chotta Shakeel wants to be respectable. So does the city I grew up in; like a heroine of dubious origin and inexhaustible energy, it keeps inventing and reinventing itself, bruising itself as it looks for acceptance – and it’s to this drive, this desire, that Mehta’s book is so exceptionally attuned.

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