Call it Bombay or Mumbai, the city has been attracting tourists for centuries. Back in the day, the phoren people came by the boat load to buy spices, cotton and an assortment of exotica to stock their houses. Today desis come by the plane load to stock up on the latest Ritu Kumar designs for their cousins’ or siblings’ marriage or to party all night in the city’s booming nightlife. It’s bindaas Bombay yaar. Not dull Delhi.
Suketu Mehta had a totally different reason to go back. (Although, I’m sure he also stocked up on the latest designer duds and I know he knocked a few shots back with Bombay’s glitterati.) A journalist and fiction writer, Mehta wanted to answer the eternal immigrant question – can I go back home?
A Bombay native until the age of 14, Mehta had been living in New York and itching to go back and actually live in the city rather than skedaddling in and out of Bombay for journalistic explorations.
Naturally he jumped at the chance to write a book on his beloved city. The chance came when his article, on the Bombay riots that took place more than a decade ago, caught the eye of Sonny Mehta, the head honcho of Alfred Knopf. Obviously Sonny Mehta liked the sublime blend of the personal and the political in the article published in Granta magazine. Why else would Mehta (the writer) score a two-book contract with Random House? (Mehta is currently working on the second book, a novel.)
So, he packed his family’s effects and had his passport stamped for a year’s sojourn. Seven years later, Maximum City was published.
At 542 pages, the book is a bit of a tome. The first draft, Mehta gleefully chuckles, was more than twice that length. Sonny Mehta refused to speak to him for a short while. But a lot of patient editing later, the compendium of the modern day Mumbai resulted.
“I call the city Bombay,” said Mehta in a recent interview at the downtown Random House office. A black suit offset with an eye-catching mauve shirt hung on Mehta’s tall and lanky frame. He had a slight stoop, as if he’d just emerged from a long night in front of computer, frozen in that posture. His phone rang with various unfamiliar ring tones (I was expecting at least one Bollywood one…) while he displayed polite phone etiquette and asked if he could take some necessary calls.
The city has been christened different names by different communities, Mehta elaborated snapping his cellphone shut. And local Mumbaikars always called the city Mumbai. So the business of re-naming it doesn’t make sense to him, especially since the city was created by the British by filling in the seven islands with sand. So, if anyone, the British should get a chance to name the city. So, Bombay it is.
Besides giving the reader neat little factoids about the city, Mehta takes you on a journey that no travel book on the city will ever give you. Then again, I’m not sure the average travel book is concerned with meeting gangsters or cops who have come up with their own macabre versions of the third degree or dark alleyways where you could get any kink satisfied provided you can pay for it.
The most fascinating characters in the book are undoubtedly the gangsters. Mehta even manages to speak to the ‘don in exile’ Chota Shakeel. (Anyone who’s been keeping a track of fillum star Sanjay Dutt’s various peccadilloes will recognize the name.) And the engrossing explanations of gang histories are also your Coles notes to movies such as Company and other upcoming Ram Gopal Verma ventures. Mehta even initiates you into Bombay underworld slang, which will definitely come in handy for wannabe Bombay wallahs.
For Mehta, who painstakingly researched his subject by networking with the black-collar workers and hanging out at their places of business, chasing gangsters was exhilaration. He had a sample of the sort of rush war correspondents feel, when a joke eased the tension of facing a loaded gun.
Interviewing gangsters and the cop who led the arrest of Sanjay Dutt (for his alleged links in the Bombay bomb blasts) resulted in Mehta’s contribution to the film Mission Kashmir. (His film scriptwriting career was thus jumpstarted and now Mehta is working on the upcoming Merchant-Ivory production Shakti, starring Tina Turner.) While co-writing the movie, Mehta had a chance to speak to various Bollywood types – actors, directors, etc. The most amusing part of this Bollywood interlude has to be the section on Eisshan, a struggling actor in Bombay. (Anyone who wants to make it in Bollywood should definitely read this section, besides watching Bollywood Bound. Not everyone will have the same luck as Shah Rukh Khan.)
The book is a definite must read, especially if you’re planning a Bombay trip. Interviews, mixed with personal and honest observations, as well as well-crafted prose throw the reader into the hurly-burly of Bombay. Telling the stories of his characters, Mehta paints a picture of Bombay that goes much deeper than shopping excursions, meeting family and hobnobbing with celebrities.