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Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by…
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Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (2004)

by Suketu Mehta

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,214156,570 (3.88)22
  1. 20
    Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (firebird013)
    firebird013: Another vivid exploration of Bombay - with much autobiographical detail
  2. 10
    Q & A by Vikas Swarup (Stbalbach)
    Stbalbach: Q&A is a lighter Bollywood version of Maximum City
  3. 00
    The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India by Siddhartha Deb (TomWaitsTables)
  4. 00
    India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India by Akash Kapur (bezoar44)
    bezoar44: India Becoming looks at the impact of globalization and rapid development in south India. Both shorter and more insightful, it compares favorably with Maximum City and complements rather than duplicates it.
  5. 00
    The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre (orangewords)
    orangewords: A novel/history about Kolkata in the 1960s. Very moving and extremely detailed.
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» See also 22 mentions

English (14)  French (1)  All (15)
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
A wonderful passage on Bombay sets the tone for the book. The writing later starts to meander but the emotional effect of the description of life in Bombay makes this a worthwhile read. ( )
  nvenkataraman1 | Aug 31, 2015 |
Never go to Bombay. If it does nothing else, Maximum City convinces me of that fact. I was prewarned; my girlfriend, who recommended the book to me, told me that her feelings on the city, by way of the book, when she made the recommendation. “This book will make you afraid of the city,” she warned. But on top of that, there was much more going on. “My parents talk about the gangsters in this book like they’re real people. They’ve had friends with problems, real problems, with these people. The gangs are a concern in my parents’ lives.” And also, “This was the book I wanted to do for my thesis (in sociology). Suketu Mehta sets out to figure out why the riots in Bombay happened, why neighbors killed each other after being neighbors for so long.”

After reading this book, I think I can evaluate these claims. But first, a little more information. Maximum City is a book of many things, in the same way that Bombay is a city of many places, careers, and people. Mehta left the city when he was 15, moving to New York, and spent quite a few of the intervening years wandering, living all over the world and occasionally feeling like a non-resident Indian. He met his wife in this time, and had two children. And when his oldest boy started school, or began to contemplate starting, he was paralyzed – the fact of the matter was that his son was growing up in a place where he would always be the other, and this upset Mehta. So the family made plans to move back to Bombay, now and forever after Mumbai. In doing so, Mehta pays his way with stories, the currency of writers, and turns some of those stories into this book.

Like any expatriate who is abroad when tragedy strikes, Mehta spends a good deal of time on the horrors that befell the city while he was gone. He goes into the slums, seeking the history of the horrible riots of the early 90s, trying to discern how and why they happened the way that they did. Here, Mehta is setting the basis for the work, and he will weave the riots in and out of the rest of the story, occasionally using them to mark passing time, living space, a contact, or an exceptional story.

But the riots are not the whole of the story, nor should they be. Mehta also explores Mumbai’s social and physical terrain in depth, looking at government corruption and “The Culture of No” as he puts it, that Mumbai way of business. He dances around education, as it underlies many other issues. He confronts the underworld head-first, looking at both the gangwar in Mumbai as well as the police force. Here, in my mind, the most incredible parts of the book lie. Mehta manages to befriend one of the few honest cops in the whole city, and tell his story, openly and honestly. In light of recent events in the US, one cannot help but admire Ajay Lal. He is the best man in this book, beyond Mehta, and his story is astonishing.

Maximum City also confronts the legal sides of vice, looking at both the bar scene (and with it, prostitution and line dancing, a staple of bar culture) and the movie industry. In the former, Mehta himself becomes known as something of a tour guide, and makes incredible friends in the industry. In the latter, he becomes a scriptwriter, and meets his childhood idols. It is impossible to know which meant more to him, in the end.

Finally, he meets a family in the process of giving up their worldly possessions and taking ascetic vows, trying to escape the mortal world and achieve moksha, salvation, salvation and a freedom from reincarnation. The process of shedding all your world is captivating to read, and one cannot help but think of Mehta’s own choices in this chapter.

Throughout this exploration, the book is filled with history of the city, of the region, of India and of Mehta and his family. Small facts abound, from the patterns of the trains in the city to the ways to worship, to who to bribe to get your child into an appropriate school. The whole book is dense with information, and with humanity. Much like the city it hopes to describe, Maximum City is overwhelming, a pleasure and horror all at once. It describes the impossible, makes it seem ordinary, and makes the ordinary beautiful.

In the end, there’s only one real thing I have learned by reading Maximum City. I need to go to Mumbai. ( )
  Vermilious | Dec 5, 2014 |
Circa 1992. It was a regular school day on a lovely December morning(winters are warm not cold in Bombay).With just an hour left to mid-morning recess, there was a sudden flurry of anxious announcements calling certain students to report immediately with their belongings at the Principal’s office. After being little nosy about the happenings I go back to my daydreaming. Suddenly, I see my mother hurriedly demanding that I go and collect my younger sister from her classroom. As I walk through the school compound frantic parents rush in and out of the school premises with their children. As we walk towards the car I see my father tensed and horrified to some extent. He had just escaped death(which we knew later that evening. Four men had hurled bombs in front of him at a nearby housing development while my father was driving through traffic). A riot had broken in the streets nearby as we frantically rushed home, I could see shutters closing at the speed of light, people scattering, some flinging acid bulbs and destruction of harmless developments. That was the day the Hindu-Muslim riots let a demon loose for which innocents had to pay with their humble lives in the coming horrendous months. I still remember those days vividly for I have been a front row spectator to the bloodshed occurred in the name of religion ignited by few political rivals. I lived among trepidations that lasted for years to come by. Lost people I knew and religion once again became a crucial factor in our mundane lives. The citizens of Bombay (I resist from calling it Mumbai, always) bravely faced those murky days, which I witnessed closely with resilience and banishing all prejudices imposed by political cults. Over decades the city has seen its share of political violence and inter-religion hatred, but its people have always made it through with smiling faces.

Thus, when an individual who summons his exploration of a nostalgic hometown proclaiming that he has seen enough murderers and questioned their virtues, it irks me.I am not denying factual comprehensions of this book, as it would be utterly preposterous to overlook the shame that Bombay once faced or has not being able to strike an equilibrium in honored survival, however I do question the validity of his sentiments to a place he calls “Maximum City” where he once unreservedly wandered as a kid. Mehta says he left the city in 1977 only to be back after 21years to find him in a state of utter shock. There is no falsehood, no dramatic sequences to define the underbelly of my home city, nevertheless I get annoyed each time I open the pages and read those words. Rarely a book touches me on a personal note, but these words dishearten me as they are negative of a place and its people who strive hard for a living. Fair enough, there are vast discrepancies in the standard of living. There are some who die homeless in scorching heat whereas others never travel without an air-conditioned comfort. There are some who demand beluga caviar on toast for tea –time and indulge in La Prairie Cellular serums while others barely make it through the day without a proper meal. It is extremely difficult to rationalize these disparities that hit you in the face in the most mysterious ways. But, these do not define all. Why wasn’t there a prose about people striving everyday braving obstacles with dignified audacity to make a better living. About individuals determined to make a dignified and prosperous future come what may. People amalgamating into one joyous mass rejoicing each cultural festival with the same magnanimous excitement banishing all ethnic prejudices.

The chapters on “Bollywood” signify braggart purposes. It is a film industry for crying out loud; an entertainment business where almost all actors are purely performers and not artistic geniuses that venerates the true meaning of art. Nothing can be gained from it rather that a minority percentage of artistes that depart frothy amusement to make assiduous lives cheerful. Most art films (movies depicting social causes and instabilities) do not fare well with common psyche. This very attitude shows the annoyance of a mind resisting it to shun “moralistic virtues” performed by artistes that have been rehearsed to achieve precision. Is it disheartening? Not really. When it comes to choosing authenticity over illusionary realism, the latter is always preferred.

One would refute my caustic words claiming that with my privileged lifestyle I must be the last person to comment on the imbalanced financial and educational status of this city. I have never lived without food, shelter or money. Then how would I know the depth of a suffering. One does not have to be poor to know what poverty is. One does not have to be fraudulent to know what corruption is. I was born in Bombay, schooled here and I presently live in this city all hale and hearty. Unlike the author, I have been away from Bombay for a span of 9 years, while I was studying in the US. But, that does not give me the right to condemn the city mechanics or garner negativity. As you cannot expect a child to stay a child forever, you cannot anticipate a burgeoning city to stay in its purest unscathed form. From what I observed, the author seems perplexed with his distinctiveness. He tried finding a sense of belonging in New York stressed through the binding stereotypes only to come back to the place of his origin and see it modified into a strange land that once again botched a sense of belonging.

Bombay will always be my home come what may. I have traveled around many superior worldly cities, yet the imminent landing announcement at the Bombay airport somehow makes me warmly smile every freaking time. The city is heavily crowded, poverty and richness juxtaposes every road that spirals into politically corrupt governing display of unreliable loyalties and prone to religious debates. But, this does not define its landscapes, its populace. It is a city where dreams are built; life is raw imparting valuable teachings of resilient determination, where people smile even in the most tedious times, ethnicities are celebrated with joyfulness and life is seen at it nastiest and its finest. It is a place where I grew up and took long walks with my grandfather relishing every aspect of this marvelous city. Bombay is not a place full of murderers or politically agitated goons, it is haven of magnificent, soulful people who fight all odds and nurture a ravishing tomorrow. Now, this is what I would term as “Maximum City”.

Lastly, one question that troubles me is why only those who bring together pessimistic opinions are the ones who have stayed away from the core of Bombay nudging stereotypes in a foreign land?

Praj, why after such scathing opinion would you bestow a 3-star rating on this book? Is this you being diplomatic or commiserating the author’s hard slog? Ah, I get it. This book makes you defensive about your home city and makes you affectionate for something you disregarded that this book interleaves in you.
( )
  Praj05 | Apr 5, 2013 |
Mehta wrote a book in which he is not entirely honest with himself or his readers. This is not to say that he has grossly misrepresented the "characters" within the world of his non-fiction book (rather, it is apparent that they are perhaps the only "truth" within this book); rather, he is un-truthful with and about himself. This book, as Mehta frames it, is the author's journey back to the mythic land of his youth: Mumbai. Along (perhaps dragged) on this journey are his wife and two sons, the later of whom's "cultural education" appears to be the impetus of this return to the mother land. However, Mehta rarely mentions his wife or his children within the pages of his book. Rather, what he focuses on are the gangsters, bar dancers, directors/Bollywood types, and other "riff-raff" that populate Mumbai. Later, much later, in the book he shifts the focus (albeit briefly) to a street urchin-cum-poet and a Jain family (two separate vignettes) in an attempt to emphasis that Mumbai is home to aspiration and broken dreams. However, not only does this shift come too late, but the connection to Mehta's own aspirations and broken dreams reads as forced and false. In a book that is heralded as a journey of self-discovery (at the very least so, by the title alone) Mehta fails to make himself the center of the story and thus, fails to truly and truthfully examine what it means to return home and/or rediscover/discover for the first time one's heritage.Despite the feeling of a contrived story (many parts of this book read as though Mehta compiled files upone files of research, looked over that research, and then cobbled together a story that he thought his western (read: New Yorker audience) might enjoy, there are moments of light and levity. His descriptions and portrayal of the characters that populate his book--the gangster hit-men, the dancing girls, the gender-confused Honey, etc--are all heartbreakingly beautiful and breathtakingly astute. As a cultural "insider", Mehta accurately walks the thin line between gratuitously aggrandizing his own culture in an attempt to defend it and/or excusing the sometimes seemingly "backwards" actions of a third-world populous. The desperation to escape as well as the love its inhabitants have for Mumbai is perfectly and tenderly expressed. In that, at least, Mehta was truthful. ( )
  tinapickles | Feb 17, 2010 |
How do you find words to capture a city's essence? Mehta took on this task with one of the world's biggest cities, Bombay, India. He lurked around the Bombay underworld, he skulked around the Bombay bar district, and he lingered among Bombay elite-turned-religious monks. I ended up feeling much the way I felt after reading Dark Star Safari; that is, I've now been as close to India as I want to get. Like my visit to Africa through DSS, I understand the attraction, the desire to approach the intensity of life that can't be found often in suburban, safe America. Unlike Theroux and Mehta, however, I am happy to experience that intensity vicariously through a book. ( )
  debnance | Jan 29, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
This is an extraordinary book -- not least for the journey that Mehta himself takes through the course of the text, as he unflinchingly examines his position as a "diaspora Indian" and the values he's brought with him abroad, and the values he's brought back to India.
added by lampbane | editBoing Boing, Cory Doctorow (Mar 10, 2008)
 
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For my grandparents: Shantilal Ratanlal Mehta & Sulochanaben Shantilal Mehta/ Jayantilal Manilal Parikh & Kantaben Jayantilal Parikh
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There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375703403, Paperback)

A native of Bombay, Suketu Mehta gives us an insider’s view of this stunning metropolis. He approaches the city from unexpected angles, taking us into the criminal underworld of rival Muslim and Hindu gangs; following the life of a bar dancer raised amid poverty and abuse; opening the door into the inner sanctums of Bollywood; and delving into the stories of the countless villagers who come in search of a better life and end up living on the sidewalks.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:43 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Bombay's story is told through the lives, often desperately near the edge, of some of the people who live there. The complex texture of these extraordinary tales is threaded together by Suketu Metha's own history of growing up in Bombay and returning to live there after a 21 year absence.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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