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Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

After reading  Sacred Games, I was keen to read the above book. The recent Mumbai attacks had increased my thirst to know more about the city. I will update this post as I progress more into this book.

Feb 2 ’09 – I have finished reading this book. Here is my take.

Suketu Mehta has undoubtedly spent much time ‘researching’ the book. It would be wrong to say this is what Bombay (Mumbai) is. This book is Suketu’s perception of Mumbai. He stays in an upscale area, hobnobs with Bollywood bigwigs like Vidhu Vinod Chopra (Parinda, 1942 A Love Story, Mission Kashmir). Suketu claims to have co-wrote the story for the last movie. I have seen the movie, was unimpressed and so wonder what his contribution was. His dalliance with a bar girl (he seems to have fallen in love with her), hired killers, Shiv Sena and Congress henchmen are all well written. He even manages to meet and speak with Bal Thackeray, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Hrithik Roshan and Preity Zinta. No mean feat for an ordinary NRI (non-resident indian) ! He even manages to speak to Chotta Shakeel the dreaded don of the Mumbai  Mafia who is now in hiding in Karachi, Pakistan. Unlike the average Mumbaikar, Suketu has lot of time and money to go around, meet people and build up material for his book. Its an adventure that he enjoyed and when he realised he didn’t want to live forever in India, he decided to return to New York. Having become a US citizen, gave him that advantage. Also the fact that having criticised several well known people of the city in his book, he could not have hoped to stay safely in the city.

This book is not fiction, though it reads like one. I completely enjoyed the book. Is there a moral to the book in the end ? Well, he does quote a wealthy diamond merchant who says Mumbai is ‘paap-ni-bhoomi’, sinful land. The merchant along with his family gives up all his wealth to become a Jain monk. But am not sure, if that’s a moral. The same could be said of any major metro. For instance New York, to which Suketu returned.

What did I get from the book ? That the Bollywood actors mostly speak English and could not manage to speak the Hindi they spout on the screen. The dance bar girls earn money through prostituting. The cops are corrupt and will kill for money. Bal Thackeray has an incestuous relationship with his daughter-in-law – the wife of his eldest son who was killed in a road accident in the 1990’s. The word Mumbai has Portugese origins and is not the native name for this city.  And many more such interesting tidbits.

This book should not be used as a guide to Bombay, but is undoubtedly a good read.

Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games

I was watching Fareed Zakaria reporting on CNN about the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai. He mentioned ‘Maximum City’ by Suketu Mehta and ‘Sacred Games’ by Vikram Chandra as books to read to understand Mumbai well.

I have been to Mumbai  3 times and lived there for about a month twice and in a friend’s hovel in a slum for a day. The fast pace of the city always amazed me. So with interest I picked up this hardcover edition. Its 900 pages long, but very gripping. Anyone wishing to know more about Mumbai should read this book.

I liked the fact that Vikram had done lot of research for this book. If you really want to get a glimpse of Mumbai’s underbelly, read this book.

Warning : The book is filled with lots of Hindi profanities. When taken literally, the words can be shocking, but I grew up in North India where spoken Punjabi and Hindi is sprinkled with colorful profanities.  Vikram has got the street lingo well!

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