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 )