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In the flesh: maddening, captivating Bombay

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Suketu Mehta, Alfred A. Knopf: 540 pp., $27.95

September 26, 2004|Shashi Tharoor | Shashi Tharoor is the author of eight books about India, most recently "Nehru: The Invention of India."

To some of us, the story of Bombay is a story of decline. I lived in Bombay from 1959 to 1969, the formative years of my childhood, and in those days everything exciting and vital in India appeared to be happening there. As late as 1979, the only Indian selection in the Time-Life Books' "Great Cities of the World" series was, inevitably, Bombay -- a vibrant metropolis that saw itself as a sort of New York to New Delhi's Washington. A plaque outside the Gateway of India, a triumphal seashore arch, reminds us that it is known as the "Urbs Prima in Indis." But Bombay has been increasingly overtaken by Delhi. In the last two decades, Delhi has grown, sucking up the nation's resources and talents like a sponge -- money, art, theater, publishing. Delhi is now the capital of virtually all the things that Bombayites used to pride themselves on. Gaining fast, especially on the livability index, is Bangalore, India's outsourcing capital, flourishing on the country's Silicon Plateau.

So where does this leave Bombay? It is still the biggest, richest, most murderous city in India, Suketu Mehta tells us in his stunning first book. Its population is about 17.5 million and growing. It is India's commercial capital, home of the country's main stock exchange, a city that pays 38% of India's taxes; it manufactures the grandiose dreams of Bollywood (making four times as many films annually as the United States); it boasts the country's most opulent hotels and commercial rents higher than those in Manhattan or Tokyo (while half the population is homeless); and it supports India's most innovative theaters and art galleries while millions of its residents eke out a bare subsistence in the world's largest slums. Bombay, Mehta points out, is a city of appalling contrasts -- a bottle of champagne at the Oberoi Hotel sells for 1 1/2 times the national average annual income, when 40% of the city has no safe drinking water; the world's largest film industry thrives in a city where plumbing, telephones and law and order break down regularly; millions starve in filthy slums while the city supports several hundred slimming clinics.

Such contrasts can be found elsewhere, but is there any other city on Earth to which immigrants continue to flock while the trains in the city alone kill 4,000 people a year? Where a thug buys chickens in the morning from Muslims whom he will butcher in the afternoon? ("Bombayites understand that business comes first.") Where a ragpicker can be hired to kill a man "for a sum of money that would not buy a cup of coffee at a good hotel in the city"? To Mehta, returning to the city to live after 21 years away, Bombay is "a way station, between paradise and hell. You came to Bombay to pass through it." His is the account -- fierce, engaged, coruscating -- of a curious outsider who became, for two years, an intimate insider.

Mehta's is not a history of the city, nor a portrait of the ways it has changed from the British days through the cosmopolitanism celebrated by Salman Rushdie to the glitter-and-dross of today. He makes no attempt to be comprehensive: You will find no details about Bombay's eclectic architecture, its fine museums and art galleries, its commercial life. There is little here for the would-be tourist. Mehta doesn't describe a boat trip in the choppy seas to Bombay's premier attraction, the Elephanta Caves, visit the cooperative milk colony or pay homage at Mani Bhavan, the house where Mohandas K. Gandhi lived and where many of his possessions can still be seen. Instead, he explores the underside of the city with the inquisitiveness of a voyeur, the sensibility of a poet and the zeal of a private investigator. Mehta is none of those things and yet, like the best writers, he is all of them.

He talks to homicidal rioters about what a man looks like when he's on fire, and to police officers who specialize in fake "encounters" -- cold-blooded executions of criminals the courts might otherwise acquit. He becomes so friendly with a gangster kingpin that he is offered a free contract killing as a reward. He works on a Bollywood film and discovers that the city's underworld and its dream world are reflections of each other. In perhaps the book's most affecting section, he tells the story of Babbanji, a 17-year-old runaway poet from the collapsing state of Bihar, working at a sidewalk bookstall and sleeping on the footpath, his only possession a tattered plastic bag containing his poems, which he composes at every opportunity on the blank spaces of used sheets of paper.

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