Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

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9780144001590: Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
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A brilliantly illuminating portrait of Bombay and its people a book as vast, diverse, and rich in experience, incident, and sensation as the city itself from an award-winning Indian-American fiction writer and journalist.

A native of Bombay, Suketu Mehta gives us a true insider s view of this stunning city, bringing to his account a rare level of insight, detail, and intimacy. He approaches the city from unexpected angles taking us into the criminal underworld of rival Muslim and Hindu gangs who wrest control of the city s byzantine political and commercial systems . . . following the life of a bar dancer who chose the only life available to her after a childhood of poverty and abuse . . . opening the doors onto the fantastic, hierarchical inner sanctums of Bollywood . . . delving into the stories of the countless people who come from the villages in search of a better life and end up living on the sidewalks the essential saga of a great city endlessly played out.

Through it all as each individual story unfolds we hear Mehta s own story: of the mixture of love, frustration, fascination, and intense identification he feels for and with Bombay, as he tries to find home again after twenty-one years abroad. And he makes clear that Bombay the world s largest city is a harbinger of the vast megalopolises that will redefine the very idea of the city in the near future.

Candid, impassioned, funny, and heartrending, Maximum City is a revelation of an ancient and ever-changing world.

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About the Author:

Suketu Mehta is a fiction writer and journalist based in New York. He has won the Whiting Writers Award, the O. Henry Prize, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for his fiction. Mehta s other work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Granta, Harper s magazine, Time, Condé Nast Traveler, and The Village Voice, and has been featured on National Public Radio s All Things Considered. Mehta also cowrote Mission Kashmir, a Bollywood movie.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Personal Geography

There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia. Urbs Prima in Indis reads the plaque outside the Gateway of India. It is also the Urbs Prima in Mundis, at least in one area, the first test of the vitality of a city: the number of people living in it. With 14 million people, Bombay is the biggest city on the planet of a race of city dwellers. Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us.

I left Bombay in 1977 and came back twenty-one years later, when it had grown up to become Mumbai. Twenty-one years: enough time for a human being to be born, get an education, be eligible to drink, get married, drive, vote, go to war, and kill a man. In all that time, I hadn’t lost my accent. I speak like a Bombay boy; it is how I am identified in Kanpur and Kansas. “Where’re you from?” Searching for an answer—in Paris, in London, in Manhattan—I always fall back on “Bombay.” Somewhere, buried beneath the wreck of its current condition—one of urban catastrophe—is the city that has a tight claim on my heart, a beautiful city by the sea, an island-state of hope in a very old country. I went back to look for that city with a simple question: Can you go home again? In the looking, I found the cities within me.

I am a city boy. I was born in a city in extremis, Calcutta. Then I moved to Bombay and lived there nine years. Then to New York, eight years in Jackson Heights. A year, on and off, in Paris. Five years in the East Village. Scattered over time, another year or so in London. The only exceptions were three years in Iowa City, not a city at all, and a couple more in New Brunswick, New Jersey, college towns that prepared me for a return to the city. My two sons were born in a great city, New York. I live in cities by choice, and I’m pretty sure I will die in a city. I don’t know what to do in the country, though I like it well enough on weekends.

I come from a family of mercantile wanderers. My paternal grandfather left rural Gujarat for Calcutta in the salad days of the century, to join his brother in the jewelry business. When my grandfather’s brother first ventured into international territory, to Japan, in the 1930s, he had to come back and bow in apology before the caste elders, turban in his hands. But his nephews—my father and my uncle—kept moving, first to Bombay and then across the black water to Antwerp and New York, to add to what was given to them. My maternal grandfather left Gujarat for Kenya as a young man, and he now lives in London. My mother was born in Nairobi, went to college in Bombay, and now lives in New York. In my family, picking up and going to another country to live was never a matter for intense deliberation. You went where your business took you.

Once, with my grandfather, I went back to our ancestral house in Maudha, which used to be a village in Gujarat but is now a town. Sitting in the courtyard of the old house with its massive timbers, my grandfather began introducing us to the new owners, a family of Sarafs, Gujarati moneylenders, for whom Maudha was the big city. “And this is my son-in-law, who lives in Nigeria.”

“Nigeria,” said the Saraf, nodding.

“And this is my grandson, who is from New York.”

“New York,” the Saraf repeated, still nodding.

“And this is my granddaughter-in-law, who is from London.”

“London.”

“Now they both live in Paris.”

“Paris,” the Saraf dutifully recited. If at this point my grandfather had said he lived on the moon, the Saraf would, without batting an eyelid, have kept nodding and repeated, “Moon.” Our dispersal was so extreme that it bordered on the farcical. But here we were, visiting the house where my grandfather grew up, still together as a family. Family was the elastic that pulled us back together, no matter how far we wandered.

* * *

It was the muqabla, the commercial competition, that had forced my father to leave Calcutta. It was the way jewels were bought and sold in my grandfather’s business. A group of sellers would assemble at the buyer’s office with the broker at an appointed time. Then the negotiations would begin. The price was not said aloud but was indicated by the number of fingers held up under a loose corner of the seller’s dhoti, which would be grasped by the buyer. Part of the muqabla was loud abuse of the buyer. “Have you gone mad? Do you expect me to sell at these prices?” In a display of extreme frustration, the seller would storm out of the office, shouting loudly all the time. But he would be careful to forget his umbrella. Ten minutes later he would be back, to pick up the umbrella. By this time the buyer might have reconsidered and they might come to a conclusion, at which point the broker would say, “Then shake hands!” and there would be smiles all around. It was because of this little piece of theater that my father decided to leave the jewelry business in Calcutta. He could not stand the shouting and the abuse; he was an educated man.

My father’s brother had gone to Bombay in 1966, against the will of my grandfather, who saw no reason why he should leave. But my uncle was a young man, and the twilight in Calcutta had begun. In Bombay, he went into the diamond business. Three years later, my parents were passing through Bombay, after my little sister was born in Ahmadabad. My uncle, recently married, suggested to his brother, “Why don’t you stay?” So we did, four adults and two children, one a newborn, in a one-room flat, with guests always coming and going. We lived as a “joint family,” sharing the flat and the expenses, and the space expanded to fit us. How can 14 million people fit onto one island? As we did in that apartment off Teen Batti.

My father and my uncle found their niche in the diamond business. We moved to a two-bedroom flat above a palace by the sea, Dariya Mahal. The palace belonged to the Maharao of Kutch. A family of Marwari industrialists bought the palace and its grounds; they chopped down the trees on the land, cleared the antiques out of the palace, and put in schoolchildren. Around the palace they built a complex of three buildings: Dariya Mahal 1 and 2, twenty-story buildings that look like open ledgers, and Dariya Mahal 3, where I grew up, the squat, stolid, twelve-story stepchild.

My uncle and my father made regular business trips to Antwerp and America. When my father asked what he could bring back from America for me, I asked him for a scratch-and-sniff T-shirt, which I’d read about in some American magazine. He came back bringing a giant bag of marshmallows. I ate as many as I could of the huge white cottony things, and tried to make sense of the texture, before my aunt appropriated them. After one of those trips, according to my uncle, my father had an epiphany while shaving, as often happens when you’re facing yourself in a mirror without actively looking. He decided to move to America. Not for its freedom or its way of life; he moved there to make more money.

Each person’s life is dominated by a central event, which shapes and distorts everything that comes after it and, in retrospect, everything that came before. For me, it was going to live in America at the age of fourteen. It’s a difficult age at which to change countries. You haven’t quite finished growing up where you were and you’re never well in your skin in the one you’re moving to. I had absolutely no idea about the country America; I had never been there. I was certainly not of a later generation of my cousins, such as Sameer, who at the age of sixteen, stepped into JFK Airport fresh off the plane from Bombay wearing a Mets baseball cap and with half an American accent already in place. I traveled, in twenty-four hours, between childhood and adulthood, between innocence and knowledge, between predestination and chaos. Everything that has happened since, every minute and monstrous act—the way I use a fork, the way I make love, my choice of a profession and a wife—has been shaped by that central event, that fulcrum of time.

There was a stack of Reader’s Digests in the back room of my grandfather’s Calcutta house, dark, hot, womblike. There, in my summers, I had read true-life adventures, spy stories of the dastardly Communists, and jokes the whole family could enjoy about the antics of children and servicemen. It was my introduction to America. Imagine my surprise when I got there. I was lucky, though I didn’t know it then, that of all the possible cities my father could have moved us to, he chose New York. “It’s just like Bombay.” Thus is New York explained to people in India.

In the first year after I got to America I sent for its previously inaccessible treasures, the merchandise advertised on the inside covers of the comic books. I ordered, for my friends in Bombay, the joy buzzer, the floating ghost, the hovercraft, and X-ray goggles. A brown box came in the mail. I looked at it for a few moments before opening it; here was what we had been denied all these years. Then the junk came spilling out. The floating ghost was a white plastic garbage-bin liner with a stick threaded through the top; you were supposed to hang it up and wave it around to scare people. The X-ray goggles were a pair of plastic glasses, like the 3-D glasses given out in science-fiction theaters, with a rough drawing of a skeleton on both lenses. The hovercraft was a sort of red fan, attached to a motor; when you turned it on, it really did rise over a flat surface. The joy buzzer was a small steel device that could be worn on the inside of the palm like a ring; you wound it up and when you shook the victim’s hand a knob was pressed and the device vibrated sharply. I looked at the mess spread out on th...

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Book Description Penguin Books India, 2006. Softcover. Condition: New. Suketu Mehta left Bombay at the age of 14. Twenty-one years later he returned to rediscover the city. The result is this stunning, brilliantly illuminating portrait of the megalopolis and its people?a book, seven years in the making, that is as vast, as diverse, as rich in experience, incident and sensation as the city itself. ?Extraordinary . . . the best book yet written about that great, ruined metropolis??Salman Rushdie ?Like one of Bombay?s teeming chawls, Maximum City is part nightmare and part millennial hallucination, filled with detail, drama and a richly varied cast of characters. In his quest to plumb both the grimy depths and radiant heights of the continent that is Bombay, Suketu Mehta has taken travel writing to an entirely new level. This is a gripping, compellingly readable account of a love affair with a city: I couldn?t put it down??Amitav Ghosh ?Bombay gets its Boswell, his chronicle as sprawling and enchanting as his subject??India Today ?A seething, rumbling, deeply compassionate break-dance of a book??Hindu ?Narrative reporting at its finest, probably the best work of nonfiction to come out of India in recent years . . . Mehta succeeds so brilliantly in taking the pulse of this riotous urban jungle??New York Times Book Review ?Mehta?s tales, pounding along in the present tense, read like a modern Arabian Nights, only crueller, more poignant, more real. . .Part memoir, part journalism, part travelogue, Maximum City is a tour de force??The Times ?The mother of all Mumbai books . . . stunningly written??Time Out Mumbai Printed Pages: 600. Seller Inventory # 22194

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Book Description Penguin Books India, 2006. Softcover. Condition: New. Suketu Mehta left Bombay at the age of 14. Twenty-one years later he returned to rediscover the city. The result is this stunning, brilliantly illuminating portrait of the megalopolis and its peopleâ€"a book, seven years in the making, that is as vast, as diverse, as rich in experience, incident and sensation as the city itself. ‘Extraordinary . . . the best book yet written about that great, ruined metropolis’â€"Salman Rushdie ‘Like one of Bombay’s teeming chawls, Maximum City is part nightmare and part millennial hallucination, filled with detail, drama and a richly varied cast of characters. In his quest to plumb both the grimy depths and radiant heights of the continent that is Bombay, Suketu Mehta has taken travel writing to an entirely new level. This is a gripping, compellingly readable account of a love affair with a city: I couldn’t put it down’â€"Amitav Ghosh ‘Bombay gets its Boswell, his chronicle as sprawling and enchanting as his subject’â€"India Today ‘A seething, rumbling, deeply compassionate break-dance of a book’â€"Hindu ‘Narrative reporting at its finest, probably the best work of nonfiction to come out of India in recent years . . . Mehta succeeds so brilliantly in taking the pulse of this riotous urban jungle’â€"New York Times Book Review ‘Mehta’s tales, pounding along in the present tense, read like a modern Arabian Nights, only crueller, more poignant, more real. . .Part memoir, part journalism, part travelogue, Maximum City is a tour de force’â€"The Times ‘The mother of all Mumbai books . . . stunningly written’â€"Time Out Mumbai Printed Pages: 600. Seller Inventory # 22194

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