Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Charming book on Mumbai

Suketu Mehta's Maximum City came out a while ago but I got a chance to read it only recently. It deserves the acclaim it has received.

Mumbai is packed with people. A small piece of land supports millions who toil to get the most out of it. Hence the title.

Mehta, an NRI, comes down to Mumbai and takes up residence there along with his family in order to understand better the city in which he grew up. (His family left for the US when Mehta was in his teens). He gets acquainted with Shiv Sena activists who took part in the riots of 1993; with hired shooters from the underworld; with bar girls; with police officers; with Bollywood personalities; with a Jain family that takes diksha or renunciation; and with sundry others who hope to realise their dreams in Mumbai.

Through these characters, the city comes alive. Politics, crime, business, films all come together in the book and the dividing lines between these are not always clear. There is much that is depressing: for instance, one set of rules for the rich and the powerful and another for the have-nots. If you have money and muscle, you can get away with anything.

But there is also a sense of community, -among the slum- and pavement-dwellers, for instance- a willingness to share and help, tremendous grit in the face of very hostile living conditions and, above all, hope. Mumbai holds out the hope that if you struggle and fight it out, things will work out. That is what draws millions to Mumbai.

The nexus between crime and politics is always present as also the lawless ways of the law-enforcement agencies (such as faked encounter killings). There are places where you get the impression India is another banana republic: anything and anybody can be bought.

This is one of the negatives about the book. It dwells so much on the seamy side of Mumbai that you can easily forget that there are thousands who make an honest living, that there are large businesses in the public and private sectors that are not necessarily run with the patronage of the underworld. It is people who belong to this part of Mumbai who need to read the book because they will have no idea of the other part to which Mehta devotes so much attention.

Mehta has a wry sense of humour and a keen eye for pretence and the narrative never flags although the book is nearly 500 pages long. His book raises the troubling question: how does one sort out the governance mess that is Mumbai? I think I asnwered this question in another context in another post. Writing about the terror attack of November, I suggested that we need alternatives to the dream city that is Mumbai. Making Mumbai better won't help because it will simply draw in people in greater numbers and worsen the governance problem.


gaddeswarup said...

"...that there are large businesses in the public and private sectors that are not necessarily run with the patronage of the underworld." If you also include the patronage of politicians like Bal Thackersay, I wonder how many are left? Are there any quantitative studies?

Kanan Jaswal said...

Talking of alternatives to Mumbai, in the country we have more than 600 district head quarters, which, if developed to provide employment to just an additional 10% of the working population, can take the load off not only Mumbai but also Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangaluru and Hyderabad. But then for that the powers that be first have to overcome their metro fixation.