Friday, October 14, 2011

Maximum City -- Suketu Mehta

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Mumbai. Bombay. One word which spells out a gazillion dreams. And many things more.  Any number of adjectives to describe this city would fall short. A home to millions and a dream city for many. Mumbai means a lot of glamour, glitter. A celebrity infused city for the outsiders looking in and for many people living in the city. But as there is a yang for every yin, a head for every tail on the coin, this scintillating city also has its share of the dark. Suketu Mehta captured a different spirit of the city beautifully. Suketu was born in Bombay and later shifted abroad. He then returned when it became Mumbai, and he saw that it wasn’t just the name that had changed but there was more than what meets the eye. He was disappointed and enraged to see how much the city changed in two decades and sets out to find why the city changed and who all were responsible for the change. His quest to find out the ‘dark’ side of the city led him to many meet a lot of different and ‘invisible’ people residing the city, learnt about the different political-socio-economic  conditions which resulted in ‘Maximum City’.

Suketu visits the much spoken ‘underworld’ people, tries to understand the politics involved behind all their actions, spends time with the police and learn how they operate, meets the slum people and gets the answers to his questions like why they prefer staying in the slums in spite of being able to afford a better place, enters the Bollywood circuit and found out the edited and censored parts of the industry, interacts with the controversial ‘bar girls’, cross dresser, a passionate and struggling poet living on the street, a Jain family and he also manages to have a meeting with the Shiv Sena leader, Bal Thackrey.

His encounter with the varied group of people is fascinating in many ways. Everyone has just heard of all the above mentioned people but Suketu provides a firsthand experience of what it is to be them, be with them.  He narrates a very poignant and enrapturing story of all these people. He smartly included some historical facts (the origin of the name, the Rent Act, etc) which made it a rather interesting read than a boring one. The only unnecessary part I personally felt was the last section where he gave way too many details about a Jain family and their rituals. That section takes you out of Mumbai, which you do not want to read towards the end while you are already so intrigued by the city.  Thought it was interesting to read about that in the materialistic world, there are some people who choose a path of simplicity, had he kept the details short it would have been less cumbersome to read.

No other word could have captured the true essence of what this city stands for, i.e. maximum. Everything is literally maximum here. Maximum people, maximum emotions, maximum drama, maximum tolerance, maximum spirit and maximum in the heart.  (I’m sure every mumbaikar* is nodding ferociously reading this) After reading this book, it is assured that city has a place for everyone who comes to live here, irrespective of whoever they, right from filthy rich people to the slum people; high heeled socialites to a cross dresser who’s willing to change his identity to makes both ends meet; Bollywood glamour exists with struggling dreams of many. Many characters are non-fictional , but nonetheless, every character is intriguing. I found myself googling a lot of things mentioned in the book. In the end Mumbai (or Bombay if you prefer it that way) is portrayed like a person. A person with different personalities, one nurturing myriad dreams, dealing with a plethora of emotions, one having a huge welcoming heart and with an unbeatable spirit. Suketu observed that ‘mumbai suffers from Schizophrenia’. Well, it is true to quite some extent. Here, the reality and fantasy merges like nowhere else.   This soulful city just not stands only for hopes dreams and spirit, but is full of surprises and unexpected twists. In his quest for find out what makes this city so special, he ended up finding a home in Mumbai. His initial anger and frustration turned into acceptance and love. In its own way, like always, the city worked its charm on him and he 'found' and fell in love with ‘Mumbai’ like he used to love Bombay.

Suketu did an excellent job of revealing the unknown and uncovered of the city. He peeled of a few layers and for sure there are many more layers and hidden facets to this city. And that is for everyone to discover on their own. Suketu projected the dark side also in an appealing and glamorous way! If you think you know Mumbai very well, think again. Start digging in, you never know what surprises the city will shower upon you. If you too lazy to do that, well then, just pick up this book and be enthralled.

A highly recommended read.

(P.S: *Mumbaikar: for all those who are unaware, a mumbaikar just isn’t a person who’s residing there. It’s a person for whom Mumbai is the only home, irrespective of being anywhere in the world. Like me :D  ) 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

To Kill A Mockingbird -- Harper Lee

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

This book doesn’t need any introduction at all. If you are a voracious reader you must have read this book already. Those who haven’t read, you may have at least heard about it. If you haven’t even heard about it, it may be safe to tell you to jump off a cliff! Listed in ‘100 books to read before you die’, still in publication after decades of its first copy, you just can't miss this. You might think it’s hyped. Well I thought the same which was why I never picked it up till recently. Take my word, I cursed myself for not picking it up since so long.

One word was commonly used when asked by readers to describe the book. INNOCENT. I never understood how a book can be innocent of all the things!! It can be mesmerizing, captivating, enchanting, even out of the world, BUT innocent!! Well, yea even I’m guilty of using the same word here. The book was the most innocent one I’ve ever read. Enter the world of an 8 year old daughter, sister and girlfriend (:P) , you'll get a book in which innocence is gigantically personified.

The plot is set in Maycomb, Alabama during the Depression Era. Our narrator, Scout stays with her elder brother Jem and father Atticus Finch. Atticus was a well respected lawyer and a single father who was a little laid back yet responsible when it came to raising his kids. This gave many people the perfect reason to blame him for his daughter’s lack of mannerisms that a girl is expected to possess. The relation between Scout and Jem was like any regular brother-sister. They fought, played, grew apart as they grew up but nonetheless, shared a strong bond. The story starts with a description of the siblings’ regular summer vacations. Though one vacation seemed like every other summer, it taught them invaluable life lessons. An unusual case had landed in their father’s lap where he had to defend a black who was accused of raping a white girl. It was a time when the ‘blacks’ were considered to be of a lower strata, that even talking to them was considered unethical. When one of them was accused of rape, the ‘white’ society wanted nothing less than death for him. Atticus didn’t let the society alter his morals, values, opinions and responsibilities. He did what was right and taught Scout and Jem to always do the same, no matter what.  The various incidents of that summer, the rape case and its outcome left a huge,deep effect on the Finch siblings.

A lot has changed since the Depression era. And a lot hasn’t, esp. when it comes to people, society.
Everybody still has that nosy, irritating or fascinating neighbour/relative; a person whom one can totally look upto or depend upon; and then there the infamous and unreasonable society norms and prejudices.  An ‘Atticus Finch’ would be a hard to find in today’s world though. But he’ll never cease to be an exemplary man. He trod very smartly between the thin line of being a lenient, carefree father and a responsible father teaching about various life lessons. He taught his children how to live their lives, how to stand up for what’s right and what they believe in, appreciated their efforts, respected their opinions and thinking and supported them in every way he could. He taught them that it was alright to make mistakes and that everyone makes them, and that sometimes everyone has to do things that they don’t really like doing. In spite of the blaring racial discrimination, Atticus’s household help was a ‘black’, whom he trusted and depended upon a lot. Due to this, the racial and class discrimination was an unknown area for the kids. He provided a perfect, ideal environment for his kids to grow up. He was a living example for them on how to be a good and fair person.

The summer’s episode forced them to step out of their comfort zone and they had to open their eyes to a whole new world. A world where grey existed, where racial discrimination was prevalent; where evil/bad coexisted undeniably with the good; where the society dictated some norms no matter how wrong they seemed;  and there were some things that just couldn’t be changed, irrespective of how unfair it seemed and one had to live with all that. Everyone learns this lesson sometime or the other and Harper Lee did a commendable feat by writing about this very subtly. It doesn’t sound preachy, and doesn’t make it a heavy read. The readers learn something with the siblings, Atticus and other characters of the book.

The title of the book has a lot of significance too. Although, there’s no mention of a real mockingbird throughout, the readers should understand the profundity of this symbolism. Mockingbird can be interpreted as innocence, or a quality of a person. In the story, the innocence of the children was killed due to various events. Mockingbird can be seen to be synonymous with certain characters in the story. Atticus was a mockingbird as he was brought down by everyone as he was fighting and standing up for a ‘wrong’ case; the accused Tim Robinson was a mockingbird for obvious reasons; Boo Radley was also a mockingbird who lived a dead man’s life for the most part due to certain events that marked his life. Like quoted in the book, it is a sin to kill a mockingbird as all it does is sing and make everyone happy. It’s portrayed in the book that people mercilessly kill various ‘mockingbirds’, in spite of being aware of that fact.

Harper Lee has produced a book that transcends different generations and still creates the same effect on readers of different age groups, of different generations. This book will, undoubtedly, remain immortal. If you haven’t read it yet, now is the right time to pick it up. And if you have already read it, maybe it’s time for you to re-read it.