Maximum City: exhausting and beautiful love-note to Mumbai

Suketu Mehta's "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found" is one of those books (like Mike Davis's City of Quartz, Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography or Will Eisner's New York: Life in the Big City) that seems to capture, in one gigantic breath, the whole and entire soul of a huge city.

Mehta was born and raised in India, but emigrated to New York as a boy, and then returned for a period of years as a grown man, bringing along his two boys and his wife, another "Indian born abroad." A talented freelance writer, Mehta sets out to capture the indescribable and invincible character of Mumbai, a city he'd known as Bombay. He runs with gangsters and terrorists, hangs out with rich diamond cutters and transgendered exotic dancers, collaborates on a film with a famous Bollywood director and sits in on a police torture-session. He rents a flat and arranges to have the plumbing repaired -- a task that nearly matches the others for difficulty and revealing details.

The book -- all 600 pages of it -- is a long, relentless, tortured Valentine to the city that Mehta will always call home and which he can never find his home in. Though the book clearly sets out to vent Mehta's frustration with the many ways in which Mumbai, the densest place on Earth, is seriously broken, he cannot maintain his cynicism and all through the text is shot through with celebratory notes that bring Mumbai to life, from drinking Masala Coka (Coke fizzed into a spicy volcano by pouring it over masala spices) to mentoring a runaway low-caste poet boy who sleeps on the sidewalk and reuniting him with his father.

I've never been to Mumbai (I'm travelling there later this year as research for a book), but reading Mehta's work made me fall in love with the city -- at least by proxy. 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.

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