The Enigma of Return
The seething mob is a character in Maximum City: "All the accumulated insults, rebukes, and disappointments of life in a decaying megalopolis come out in a cathartic release of anger.... All of a sudden you feel powerful. You can take on anybody. It is not their city anymore, it is your city."
This movement of the masses can be threatening. An earlier visitor to Bombay, V.S. Naipaul, wrote in An Area of Darkness that he had found the crowd there unsettling. "There was nothing in my appearance or dress to distinguish me from the crowd eternally hurrying into Churchgate Station." Naipaul, born in Trinidad and educated in England, found that he was indistinguishable from the people in the crowd around him in Bombay. He felt faceless and felt he needed to set himself apart but didn't know how.
Mehta has a different epiphany, coincidentally at the same railway station. Although he also feels his individuality being crushed by the endless rush of bodies, Mehta discovers a vision of belonging. "All these ill-assorted people walking toward the giant clock on Churchgate: they are me; they are my body and my flesh. The crowd is the self, 14 million avatars of it, 14 million celebrations." It is tempting to view such a declaration as a direct response and even a resistance to the fear about the loss of the self amid the "white stream in and out of Churchgate Station" that Naipaul had described with such nervous accuracy. But it is just as probable that Mehta's response is overdetermined by Bombay's own recent history. After the razing of a mosque by Hindu zealots in a town in northern India in December 1992, riots broke out in Bombay. In January 1993, there were fresh clashes instigated by the Shiv Sena, and Muslims suffered terribly in that round of violence. Then, two months later, on March 12, which was a Friday, ten powerful bombs were detonated in the city by the Muslim underworld. Maximum City began as a report on the 1992-93 riots.Mehta's vision of 14 million celebrations of a single, indivisible self can be seen as an ideological but nevertheless hopeful response to the violence that has torn Bombay apart.
There is another way in which nothing human is alien to Mehta as a writer. He is comfortable in the company of murderers, or at least they are in his, since they offer him their stories. He asks a man who had set fire to a Muslim bread-seller during the riots, "What does a man look like when he's on fire?" The rioter tells the writer: "A man on fire gets up, falls, runs for his life, falls, gets up, runs.... It is horror. Oil drips from his body, his eyes become huge.... Oil drips from him, water drips from him, white, white all over."
Two years later Mehta goes back to talk to the same man to see what became of him after the riots, and finds that he has moved up in life and parlayed his way into respectable political circles. Tellingly, Mehta prefaces his return to the killer by stating simply, "A man who has murdered is not entirely defined by it. After he kills a human being, a large, perhaps the largest, part of him is a murderer, and it marks him off from most of the rest of humanity who are not; but that is not all that he is. He can also be a father, a friend, a patriot, a lover."
Such an understanding of human complexity allows Mehta to present life on the page with more integrity than a more judgmental approach would permit. A young, homeless poet from Bihar tells Mehta that "the footpath is the friend of the poor" because it provides so many people a place to sleep on; this youth finds it remarkable that ditch water, black with sewage, is used to grow spinach in Bombay. So does Mehta. And his narrative carries the full burden, it seems, of the homeless youth's experience. This fidelity to his interlocutors, and to their detail and circumstance, as much as the intelligence and brightness of Mehta's own prose, makes Maximum City an extraordinary debut--a debut that will rival Arundhati Roy's in fiction.