Book Review: Maximum City

Maximum City : Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta, Knopf, 560 pages

The first story in Roma Eterna is about a Greek ambassador visiting Rome and being taken on a tour of the Roman underworld by the youngest prince. Like this prince, Suketu Mehta takes us on a tour of the Mumbai underworld to meet people whom you may not encounter in your daily life. These people open up to him like they are standing in a confession box and thus we get to hear a Shiv Sena man explaining how it is to kill a Muslim, a gangster explaining what he does after shooting a victim and one of the top cops explaining why they do encounters where suspects are just murdered without trial.
Mehta lived in Mumbai and then moved to New York and various other cities before coming back to Mumbai to write a book about the city.
It is not just the unknown people who open up to him, but also people like Bal Thackerey, Chotta Shakeel and Sanjay Dutt. The portrait of Mumbai is drawn through the lives of these people. In one incident actress Preity Zinta is on an outdoor shoot and asks Suketu Mehta to point out some gangsters who have killed others. This curiosity about the lives of people who violate law is the underlying thread which connects most of the stories in the book.
There are ironies: Director Vidhu Vinod Chopra who thinks that Indians have screwed up Kashmir makes a politically correct movie on the issue titled Mission Kashmir with Suketu Mehta as the co-writer. Vinod Chopra also places himself as a brilliant film maker who has to make movies for what he calls ulloo audience.
Then there are more ironies. The star of Mission Kashmir, Sanjay Dutt, plays a cop but was arrested for illegally possessing an AK-47. Rakesh Roshan, father of Hritik Roshan who plays the terrorist was shot by actual gangsters. During the filming of the interrogation scene with Sanjay Dutt, the actual cop who arrested Sanjay Dutt turns up at the set. The Shiv Sena member who murdered a Muslim (because he was a Muslim), now befriends Muslims. Bal Thackerey who is out to ban Valentine’s Day celebrations, invites Michael Jackson to his home and sees no fault in that.
In this book, the author is not a distant spectator, but gets involved with the characters in the book. He gets gangsters to visit his hotel room and speak out their minds. He befriends a beer bar girl and travels with her when she is meeting her father after a long time. Sometimes these incidents seem so unrealistic to be true – or too filmi.
Mumbai is not just a city of law violators, there are people who struggle to make a living. People who travel from Virar to Churchgate everyday, go back home, sleep and do it again the next day. These people age faster, but their lives do not have tales worth writing. You will not find many such people in this book.
This book will shock the hell out of you and also this must be one of the few non-fiction page turners I have read (Into Thin Air is another). Mehta has done wonderful research and gets us involved with the lives of so many criminals and glamorous people at great personal risk. The narrative is gripping and the characters we encounter are so different that the book holds your attention till the end. Most of the tales are sensationalist and there is a tendency to romanticise the gangsters (They have families and they pray and some are even vegetarians). But this is a book on Mumbai unlike any other and is a excellent read.
Related Links: Terri Gross interviews Suketu Mehta, Sandeep’s Review of Maximum City

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Maximum City

  1. Wonderful review, JK! 🙂 I’ve already ordered the book online, thanks to you. If it disappoints me, I’ll be after your blood. (kidding of course:))

  2. Sandeep, You won’t be disappointed with the narrative, but with a slight “secular” tone of things. I am waiting for your review of the book.

  3. If only I had read your review before I made my trip to the Strand Book Fair!! I contemplated about buying this book there… but thought better of it! From your review it appears I was wrong.

  4. Sameer, I don’t buy most of the books I review. These are all borrowed from the excellent tax payer funded libraries of California.

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