The Enigma of Return
In the largest exodus in recorded history, millions of refugees migrated across the brand new border after India was partitioned in 1947. A few months later, in January of 1948, a scriptwriter named Saadat Hasan Manto left behind Bombay, as the city was then called, and moved to Lahore, Pakistan. At the time of his departure from India, Manto was working for the well-known studio Bombay Talkies.
But Manto's main claim to fame was as a short-story writer. During his years in Bombay he had written with great relish about film stars and prostitutes and drinking. The horror of the partition compelled Manto to write about violence in a critical and graphic way. He had been tried for obscenity before, but in the new country where, like many Muslims, he had settled, Manto was called into court for what he had written about rape during the riots. By 1955 he was dead, just before he turned 43. But even during his difficult last years, suffering from persecution and poverty, Manto continued to write with nostalgia and affection about Bombay, the place from which he had been exiled: "That was the city I loved. That is the city I still love."
It is Manto's Bombay--a world of dirty realism with the lights shining on its painted surface--that is Suketu Mehta's inheritance. Mehta is a young writer who lives in New York, but Bombay is where he grew up. "When I moved to New York," he remembers, "I missed Bombay like an organ of my body." It might be nostalgia that led him back to Bombay, but Mehta's Maximum City, part reportage, part memoir, is more a narrative of discovery. The writer discovers the city of his past through the people who make up its present; he also gleans signs of what might be our global collective future. Mehta writes, "With 14 million people, Bombay is the biggest city on the planet of a race of city dwellers. Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us."
The book, like the city it describes, has multiple personalities. It is a documentary about a modern metropolis with its own signature features, starting with the sheer number of its inhabitants. On its opening page is the declaration: "There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia." Mehta is an urban ethnographer with an acute sensitivity to the peculiarities of his city. "The notion of what is a luxury and what is a basic need has been upended in Bombay," he writes. "Every slum I see in Jogeshwari has a television; antennas sprout in silver branches above the shanties. Many in the middle-class slum have motorcycles, even cars. People in Bombay eat relatively well, too, even the slum dwellers. The real luxuries are running water, clean bathrooms, and transport and housing fit for human beings."
Maximum City is also a memoir of migration across cities. At one point, Mehta describes how when he was in high school, his father had shouted at him, "When you were there, you wanted to come here. Now that you're here, you want to go back." This was in New York, but it doesn't really matter; it could have been Bombay. The episode made Mehta aware of a truth about himself: "It was when I first realized I had a new nationality: citizen of the country of longing."
But more than ethnography or memoir, Maximum City serves as a record of a writer's engagement with what is ordinarily regarded as low humanity. Mehta presents his empathetic accounts of meetings with what he calls "morally compromised people"--the gangsters of the Bombay underworld, rioters, brutal cops, murderers and prostitutes--alongside encounters with the city's rich and famous, including many well-known figures from the Bollywood film industry. Like Manto, Mehta finds his truths in the ways of a world that many other writers would find lacking in respect. Consider the Bombay beer bars where "fully clothed young girls dance on an extravagantly decorated stage to recorded Hindi film music, and men come to watch, shower money over their heads, and fall in love." The world of the beer bar is unique to Bombay, Mehta writes, "and for me it is the intersection of everything that makes the city fascinating: money, sex, love, death, and show business."
It is in a bar named Sapphire that Mehta befriends Monalisa, a fabulously beautiful and popular dance girl from Bombay's slums. Mehta writes that he was puzzled by the beer bars and couldn't understand why men spent such large amounts of money there: "On a good night a dancer in a Bombay bar can make twice as much as a high-class stripper in a New York bar. The difference is that the dancer in Bombay doesn't have to sleep with the customers, is forbidden to touch them in the bar, and wears more clothes on her body than the average Bombay secretary does on the broad public street."Monalisa provides an answer to that puzzle, and much besides. She draws him into her world, telling him of her failed tryst with the son of a Bombay don and explaining the tattoo of slash marks on her wrist. Monalisa says her dream is to win the Miss India pageant, so she can make a speech with millions of people watching. The speech would be in English, a language that she is working hard to acquire. She is going to say to the respectable audience, "I am a girl from the bar line. Now you can take back all your prizes, all your money, but I wanted to prove that I could get to this point. That we in the bar line are also part of society."
As much as the beer bar on any night in Bombay, Maximum City is full of stories of desire and vast wealth, sweat as well as liquor, beautiful bodies, scarred bodies, excitement and bright lights, and, of course, immense filth.