30.12.13

Maximum City - Mumbai lost and somewhat never found...

I come from middle class Mumbai. Mumbai's biography, when it is written every few years, will invariably talk about the very rich or the very poor. The slum dweller or the debauched. What will be forgotten are the masses in the middle - thrusting upwards from the migrant poor and reaching into the established rich. We'll always be a footnote in the history of modern Mumbai - the people who were not poor enough to be pitied and not rich enough to be envied. Never more have I felt this than as I digested the final pages of Suketu Mehta's Maximum City - Bombay lost and found.

Mehta re-discovers the city of his childhood, wandering the streets of Mumbai, and some of its suburbs, meeting people on both sides of the money divide. The haves and the have-nots are neatly parceled off and rarely encounter each other. Except in some dramatic situations - a near-riot during a movie shoot, a TADA court appearance. He walks with people who lived through the misery and the heartbreak of the 90's when Bombay birthed Mumbai in an orgy of violence midwifed by bhais, whores and urban flight.As you meander through the narratives of rioters, the underworld and their nemeses, the cops, and then leap to bar dancers and movie makers and finally end at the doors of monks, somewhere you start questioning your happy memories in the eternal city, this dual-named 'maya nagari'. Is this the Bombay you miss taking the trains through? The Mumbai of vada pavs and cutting chai? Where did we live that we never saw all this anguish, misery and frustration? The anonymity of the city and the bubble of the middle class can keep you well insulated from both the miseries of the slums and the magic of the movie land. As the narratives weave an image of a city constantly trying to rend itself apart, I had to pause and walk back through hazy memories of first rains, train rides, decrepit buildings and overflowing drains. The tapestry these stories and their cast weaved were, for me, very close and still worlds apart. Be it the slums of Jogeshwari, where we went to a temple every other month, or Maya Bar, so near yet so far, right around the corner in Sector 17, the neighborhood was all familiar, but the reality was half-rumors and barely understood.

Every character represents an aspect of the city I only caught glimpses of growing up. The unrepentant rioter who believes he did what he did for his nation. The upright cop who probably tortured and maimed hundreds. The bar dancer who epitomizes the tenderness in the sleaze of the city. The movie makers and stars who live larger than life and pay a price for it. The industrialists and builders who want their pound of flesh from the city so it can gasp along. The author himself, a NRI who cannot wait to go back but finds himself lost in the magic of the not-exactly-home-town. And the ganglords and killers who are always there in the background, openly operating but always invisible.

The sense of homesickness and nostalgia was overwhelming till it dawned on me that these were stories of a city in the past. Or a series of narratives of it from a decade ago in any case. The immediacy of the narratives was not because this is today's Mumbai, but because it is the Mumbai I left behind. I could walk into all my old haunts today a complete stranger; an unwelcome outsider. The 2006 floods, the train bombings, 26/11 - everything has changed again. The communal divide is probably wider, the class divide vaster. The migrants from 10 years ago are all residents and are probably cursing their newly arrived cousins. There is probably more misery and just a little more happiness. Reading this book will not divine the intentions of the murky city that Mumbai is; nor will it provide any insight into the minds of the ordinary Mumbaikar - the people who board the locals and commute from the "suburbs" but still live in Greater Mumbai.

Which brings me back to where I began. What account will the middle classes leave for Mumbai? The ones who never need, but always want - where will they stand in the final equation on Mumbai? I don't know and this book ended up leaving more unanswered questions than not. Being middle class anywhere is to be a nobody, but in Mumbai apparently it is exacerbated. Either you clamber your way up, kicking down others; or you get kicked down a lot further than you wanted; or you run away to where you can escape the kicking and screaming. I almost feel that middle class Mumbai is dying a death of a thousand cuts and in its misery is giving up on the city itself - fleeing away or slowly ghettoizing themselves. Or turning themselves into monks escaping the illusory cage of the city. Who will inherit my city? I've no idea - after all, today I am Mumbaikar only in name (and even then at best I am a Navi Mumbaikar - always the step-child)

Read the book, of course - I cannot recommend it enough, though this was not meant to be a review of the book   - but read it knowing that it chronicles the past of the city without interpretation and leaves you unsure about what the city really means. It can be an unnerving book at times - brutal even, unforgiving and monstrous - and then it might let in some tender moments that remind you of faces you almost forgot about. The city is not, after all, a place to go eat pav bhaji and vada pav; Mumbai is a living, writhing beast that you fall in love with and hate in equal parts. At the worst, the narratives open your eyes to what evil the city begets; at their best they remind you of why Mumbai is the center of India - urbus prima in Indis. Do yourself a favor, go read the book.