Book Review: Maximum City

Maximum City and Suketu Mehta
"How can this possibly be true?  I mean, really? Talking with one of the most feared gangsters in Bombay?  Entertaining killers in your office?  Carousing with bar dancers while having a wife and children at home?" I queried Manisha while reading this book.  "Well, it's true, but it's also a writer's view of Bombay.  He can create his own account of the truth" she replied.  Which makes this book slightly more believable, slightly less disconcerting, but no less fascinating.

Maximum City is the story of Bombay in the late 90's, told by a returnee, Suketu Mehta, engaged in a fierce love-hate relationship with the city.  The book begins with the 1992-1993 communal riots in the city and includes an interview with Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackery.  But to cover the sprawling city of Bombay it quickly branches out.  Mehta delves into the Bombay underworld, interviewing cops and hit men, is enthralled by Bombay's sex industry, talking with everyone from prostitutes to gender-bending dancing girls, explores the making of Mission Kashmir, which he helped write, but most movingly talks about a young college graduate from Bihar who leaves home and lives on the streets of Bombay as an itinerant poet.  

Mission Kashmir
I don't know which was more thrilling... Mehta interviewing gangsters is seedy hotels, then pressing police the next day to explain scores of killings of gangsters while in police custody.  I was rather annoyed with how much space "Monalisa" got in the text.  A bar girl with a rough childhood who cuts, she manages to wrap Mehta around her little finger while he arranges to have a friend take racy photos of her.  Exactly whom is using whom?  But in the making of Mission Kashmir Mehta interviews SRK, who charmingly goes into his host's kitchen to make chai for everyone, and we find out that Hrithik Roshan, who ends up starring in the film, eventually gets paid based on his popularity as the film is finishing production (skyrocketing his take).  

There's a lot of time devoted to slums and the fact that the people who live there are also human (this seems to be a surprising but important point for Mehta).  But it's Mehta's mentor-like adoption of an itinerant poet from Bihar, Babbanji, which is the most touching.  The book ends with a controversial story of an exceedingly wealthy Jain family becoming diksharthis (renunciates)... supposedly due to the overwhelming faith of the father, but most likely to cover some shady business dealings.  The book runs a little long, and at times Mehta is a little too interested in hearing himself write, but it's certainly gripping if not entirely believable on all points.