The Enigma of Return

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.


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.

When Mehta went back to Bombay in 1998 with his wife and kids, twenty-one years after he had left, his foreign-born children began to suffer from a variety of illnesses. One of his sons contracted amebic dysentery. “The food and the water in Bombay, India’s most modern city, are contaminated with shit. Amebic dysentery is transferred through shit. We have been feeding our son shit.”

The hysterical realism of this passage, its mix of panic and exaggerated irony, is not unselfconscious. It doesn’t simply reflect the tourist’s nervous response to the sight of a man defecating in public in India. Rather, Mehta notes the obvious–he has seen men relieving themselves on the rocks by the sea every morning, and twice a day, when the tide washes out, he can smell from his window the stench that rises from those rocks and sweeps over the half-million-dollar flats that spread toward the east–and as a good journalist he goes and talks to people who can tell him more.

One of Mehta’s informants is Prahlad Kakkar, who made Bumbay, “a film about shitting in the metropolis.” Kakkar explains, “Half the population doesn’t have a toilet to shit in, so they shit outside. That’s five million people. If they shit half a kilo each, that’s two and a half million kilos of shit each and every day. The real story is what you don’t see in the film. There are no shots of women shitting. They have to shit between two and five each morning, because it’s the only time they get privacy.”

One can reasonably expect someone to ask if the writer proposes any solutions. He doesn’t. Mehta dismisses as absurd the World Bank’s proposal that the government build 100,000 public toilets. “I have seen public latrines in the slums,” he writes. “None of them work. People defecate all around the toilets, because the pits have been clogged for months or years.”

According to Mehta, the problem is that the Indians lack “civic sense.” The private spaces are immaculate, the public ones intolerably dirty. As the government cannot make the physical city any better, it resorts to frequent changes in the names of its streets and crossroads. Perhaps the most notable change in the city’s nomenclature was the decision by the right-wing Shiv Sena government that Bombay be called only by its Marathi name, “Mumbai.” Mehta protests these changes as expressive of a desire “to go back not just to a past but to an idealized past, in all cases a Hindu past.” The Shiv Sena leaders saw the name Bombay as a colonial imposition. But even the way in which the name of the Shiv Sena chief is spelled–Bal Thackeray (“Thakre” in Marathi)–has its origins in colonialism! Thackeray’s father admired the English novelist who wrote Vanity Fair.

Mehta knows this too, but he seeks to complicate the picture further. He sees in the renaming of his beloved city the assertion of the poorer people in Bombay, the Maharashtrian ghatis, those people who for him had so far generically been the “servants.” One is tempted to say that the city was taken back by those who don’t have any toilets. As Mehta puts it, “This is how the ghatis took revenge on us. They renamed everything after their politicians, and finally they renamed even the city. If they couldn’t afford to live on our roads, they could at least occupy the road signs.”

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.

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