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. Link


  1. Recommendations:

    More of Mumbai/Bombay : Love and Longing in Bombay (Stories) by Vikram Chandra. Or India via London : Londonstani by Gautam Malkani

  2. Recommendation: going to Mumbai. Unforgetable. Book looks great – looking forward to reading it.

  3. Recommendation seconded. I bought a copy in the Mumbai airport to read on the flight home, after spending a few days there recently. Not only was it a fascinating read in itself, it also helped me make sense of various things about Mumbai and India.

    It’s also about much more than Mumbai. Many of the things he talks about are significant on a global scale (such as the complex international connections involving organized crime, terrorism and governments), and he makes a convincing case that Mumbai is a kind of case study for understanding tomorrow’s megacities.

    And as Cory has probably discovered, there is no shortage of events, concepts and characters in his work that are just waiting to be ‘repurposed’ as fiction.

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