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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Maximum City

Mehta, Suketu. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.

When Suketu Mehta returned to Bombay, he didn't find the city he left behind in 1977 at fourteen. Of course, there is no way he could have found the same city because at 14 our memories of place are so limited and intimate. The Bombay he left was the Bombay of his childhood and the Bombay to which he returned as an adult could never be the same. The city of nostalgic childhood memories has undergone huge changes in 21 years, rapid and drastic changes.

Mehta then goes about learning this new city. Not that he hasn't visited in those 21 years because he has, many times. Many Indians in America yearn for their homeland and question Mehta about his experiences when he moves his family back in 1998. Can they go home again?

Mehta ponders the question asked by those who consider a return: "To what India do you want to return? For us, who left at the beginning of our teenage years, just after our voices broke and before we had a conception of making love or money, we kept returning to our childhoods. Then, after enough trips of enough duration, we returned to the India of our previous visits. I have another purpose for this stay: to update my India, so that my work should not be just an endless evocation of childhood, of loss, of a remembered India. I want to deal with the India of the present." He concedes, however, that the "terrain is littered with memory mines."

Gradually, and with much difficulty, the Mehta family comes to terms with the "country of No" and learns to negotiate the hazards and the difficulties of a country that operates in a manner unique unto itself. Mehta, a journalist, begins learning his new India by researching the 1993 riots, Bal Thackeray, and the Shiv Sena. He interviews murderers and politicians. He examines the role of the police. This is fascinating stuff. Often dismaying stuff. The moral compass seems awry. How can this murderer seem so normal? How can politicians be so callous, so corrupt?

Mehta also examines the gangs and gangwar; bar dancers; the movie industry- actors, directors, and gangsters, again; social advancement; religious differences... Every story is a story of an individual, of humanity, of a city in transition. And every story is compelling.

This book was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and deservedly so. I found it absolutely compelling. It is long and complex, informative, intriguing.

Non-fiction. Journalism, travel, memoir. 542 pages. Copyright 2004.

Also wrote about this one here.


  1. I've added this to my list of possible things to pick up when I've worked through my current load. You've certainly made it sound very interesting.

  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed the book, Jenclair. I have lived away from India almost 17 years now (10 years in Dubai and nearly 7 years in Canada) and I, too, would like to go back some day to rediscover the country, especially my city Bombay. You have got me very excited about "Maximum City", let's hope I can get to it soon.

  3. Jill - I found it engrossing. I liked Mehta's voice and style...very readable.

    Lotus - As you know, a lot of Mehta's stories are dark ones about the 1993 riots and some negative changes that evolved afterward. Yet, Mehta finds a lot that is positive and vibrant and hopeful about the city and the people.