Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

by Suketu Mehta


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A native of Bombay, Suketu Mehta gives us an insider’s view of this stunning metropolis. He approaches the city from unexpected angles, taking us into the criminal underworld of rival Muslim and Hindu gangs, following the life of a bar dancer raised amid poverty and abuse, opening the door into the inner sanctums of Bollywood, and delving into the stories of the countless villagers who come in search of a better life and end up living on the sidewalks.

As each individual story unfolds, Mehta also recounts his own efforts to make a home in Bombay after more than twenty years abroad. Candid, impassioned, funny, and heartrending, Maximum City is a revelation of an ancient and ever-changing world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375703409
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/27/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 560
Sales rank: 434,638
Product dimensions: 8.02(w) x 4.48(h) x 0.97(d)

About the Author

Suketu Mehta is a fiction writer and journalist based in New York. He has won the Whiting Writers Award, the O. Henry Prize, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for his fiction. Mehta’s other work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Granta, Harper’s magazine, Time, Condé Nast Traveler, and The Village Voice, and has been featured on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Mehta also cowrote Mission Kashmir, a Bollywood movie.


Brooklyn, New York

Place of Birth:



B.A., New York University; M.F.A. (Fiction), University of Iowa Writers¿ Workshop

Read an Excerpt

Personal Geography

There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia. Urbs Prima in Indis reads the plaque outside the Gateway of India. It is also the Urbs Prima in Mundis, at least in one area, the first test of the vitality of a city: the number of people living in it. With 14 million people, Bombay is the biggest city on the planet of a race of city dwellers. Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us.

I left Bombay in 1977 and came back twenty-one years later, when it had grown up to become Mumbai. Twenty-one years: enough time for a human being to be born, get an education, be eligible to drink, get married, drive, vote, go to war, and kill a man. In all that time, I hadn’t lost my accent. I speak like a Bombay boy; it is how I am identified in Kanpur and Kansas. “Where’re you from?” Searching for an answer—in Paris, in London, in Manhattan—I always fall back on “Bombay.” Somewhere, buried beneath the wreck of its current condition—one of urban catastrophe—is the city that has a tight claim on my heart, a beautiful city by the sea, an island-state of hope in a very old country. I went back to look for that city with a simple question: Can you go home again? In the looking, I found the cities within me.

I am a city boy. I was born in a city in extremis, Calcutta. Then I moved to Bombay and lived there nine years. Then to New York, eight years in Jackson Heights. A year, on and off, in Paris. Five years in the East Village. Scattered over time, another year or so in London. The only exceptions were three years in Iowa City, not a city at all, and a couple more in New Brunswick, New Jersey, college towns that prepared me for a return to the city. My two sons were born in a great city, New York. I live in cities by choice, and I’m pretty sure I will die in a city. I don’t know what to do in the country, though I like it well enough on weekends.

I come from a family of mercantile wanderers. My paternal grandfather left rural Gujarat for Calcutta in the salad days of the century, to join his brother in the jewelry business. When my grandfather’s brother first ventured into international territory, to Japan, in the 1930s, he had to come back and bow in apology before the caste elders, turban in his hands. But his nephews—my father and my uncle—kept moving, first to Bombay and then across the black water to Antwerp and New York, to add to what was given to them. My maternal grandfather left Gujarat for Kenya as a young man, and he now lives in London. My mother was born in Nairobi, went to college in Bombay, and now lives in New York. In my family, picking up and going to another country to live was never a matter for intense deliberation. You went where your business took you.

Once, with my grandfather, I went back to our ancestral house in Maudha, which used to be a village in Gujarat but is now a town. Sitting in the courtyard of the old house with its massive timbers, my grandfather began introducing us to the new owners, a family of Sarafs, Gujarati moneylenders, for whom Maudha was the big city. “And this is my son-in-law, who lives in Nigeria.”

“Nigeria,” said the Saraf, nodding.

“And this is my grandson, who is from New York.”

“New York,” the Saraf repeated, still nodding.

“And this is my granddaughter-in-law, who is from London.”


“Now they both live in Paris.”

“Paris,” the Saraf dutifully recited. If at this point my grandfather had said he lived on the moon, the Saraf would, without batting an eyelid, have kept nodding and repeated, “Moon.” Our dispersal was so extreme that it bordered on the farcical. But here we were, visiting the house where my grandfather grew up, still together as a family. Family was the elastic that pulled us back together, no matter how far we wandered.

* * *

It was the muqabla, the commercial competition, that had forced my father to leave Calcutta. It was the way jewels were bought and sold in my grandfather’s business. A group of sellers would assemble at the buyer’s office with the broker at an appointed time. Then the negotiations would begin. The price was not said aloud but was indicated by the number of fingers held up under a loose corner of the seller’s dhoti, which would be grasped by the buyer. Part of the muqabla was loud abuse of the buyer. “Have you gone mad? Do you expect me to sell at these prices?” In a display of extreme frustration, the seller would storm out of the office, shouting loudly all the time. But he would be careful to forget his umbrella. Ten minutes later he would be back, to pick up the umbrella. By this time the buyer might have reconsidered and they might come to a conclusion, at which point the broker would say, “Then shake hands!” and there would be smiles all around. It was because of this little piece of theater that my father decided to leave the jewelry business in Calcutta. He could not stand the shouting and the abuse; he was an educated man.

My father’s brother had gone to Bombay in 1966, against the will of my grandfather, who saw no reason why he should leave. But my uncle was a young man, and the twilight in Calcutta had begun. In Bombay, he went into the diamond business. Three years later, my parents were passing through Bombay, after my little sister was born in Ahmadabad. My uncle, recently married, suggested to his brother, “Why don’t you stay?” So we did, four adults and two children, one a newborn, in a one-room flat, with guests always coming and going. We lived as a “joint family,” sharing the flat and the expenses, and the space expanded to fit us. How can 14 million people fit onto one island? As we did in that apartment off Teen Batti.

My father and my uncle found their niche in the diamond business. We moved to a two-bedroom flat above a palace by the sea, Dariya Mahal. The palace belonged to the Maharao of Kutch. A family of Marwari industrialists bought the palace and its grounds; they chopped down the trees on the land, cleared the antiques out of the palace, and put in schoolchildren. Around the palace they built a complex of three buildings: Dariya Mahal 1 and 2, twenty-story buildings that look like open ledgers, and Dariya Mahal 3, where I grew up, the squat, stolid, twelve-story stepchild.

My uncle and my father made regular business trips to Antwerp and America. When my father asked what he could bring back from America for me, I asked him for a scratch-and-sniff T-shirt, which I’d read about in some American magazine. He came back bringing a giant bag of marshmallows. I ate as many as I could of the huge white cottony things, and tried to make sense of the texture, before my aunt appropriated them. After one of those trips, according to my uncle, my father had an epiphany while shaving, as often happens when you’re facing yourself in a mirror without actively looking. He decided to move to America. Not for its freedom or its way of life; he moved there to make more money.

Each person’s life is dominated by a central event, which shapes and distorts everything that comes after it and, in retrospect, everything that came before. For me, it was going to live in America at the age of fourteen. It’s a difficult age at which to change countries. You haven’t quite finished growing up where you were and you’re never well in your skin in the one you’re moving to. I had absolutely no idea about the country America; I had never been there. I was certainly not of a later generation of my cousins, such as Sameer, who at the age of sixteen, stepped into JFK Airport fresh off the plane from Bombay wearing a Mets baseball cap and with half an American accent already in place. I traveled, in twenty-four hours, between childhood and adulthood, between innocence and knowledge, between predestination and chaos. Everything that has happened since, every minute and monstrous act—the way I use a fork, the way I make love, my choice of a profession and a wife—has been shaped by that central event, that fulcrum of time.

There was a stack of Reader’s Digests in the back room of my grandfather’s Calcutta house, dark, hot, womblike. There, in my summers, I had read true-life adventures, spy stories of the dastardly Communists, and jokes the whole family could enjoy about the antics of children and servicemen. It was my introduction to America. Imagine my surprise when I got there. I was lucky, though I didn’t know it then, that of all the possible cities my father could have moved us to, he chose New York. “It’s just like Bombay.” Thus is New York explained to people in India.

In the first year after I got to America I sent for its previously inaccessible treasures, the merchandise advertised on the inside covers of the comic books. I ordered, for my friends in Bombay, the joy buzzer, the floating ghost, the hovercraft, and X-ray goggles. A brown box came in the mail. I looked at it for a few moments before opening it; here was what we had been denied all these years. Then the junk came spilling out. The floating ghost was a white plastic garbage-bin liner with a stick threaded through the top; you were supposed to hang it up and wave it around to scare people. The X-ray goggles were a pair of plastic glasses, like the 3-D glasses given out in science-fiction theaters, with a rough drawing of a skeleton on both lenses. The hovercraft was a sort of red fan, attached to a motor; when you turned it on, it really did rise over a flat surface. The joy buzzer was a small steel device that could be worn on the inside of the palm like a ring; you wound it up and when you shook the victim’s hand a knob was pressed and the device vibrated sharply. I looked at the mess spread out on the floor. I had been had before in Bombay; I knew the feeling well. Nonetheless, I sent the package to my Bombay friends, with a letter suggesting possible uses for the gags; the ghost, for instance, could be lowered on a string to flap outside the balconies of the lower floors, possibly scaring small children in the dark.

I knew my gifts would be welcome. Whatever their quality, they were “imported” and therefore to be treasured. In our house in Bombay, there used to be a showcase in the living room. It displayed imported objects from Europe and America, the spoils of my uncle’s business trips: Matchbox cars, miniature bottles of spirits, a cylinder of long matches from London shaped like a Beefeater with a furry black hat as the top, a little model of the Eiffel Tower. There were toys, also, for the children—a battery-powered Apollo 11 rocket, a police cruiser with a blue revolving light, a doll that could drink and wet her diaper—which were almost never taken out for us. The kids in the building would assemble around the showcase and look up at the toys inside—toys we weren’t allowed to touch for fear of breaking them.

In America, too, we had a showcase in our house. In it were kept souvenirs from India: a pair of grandparent dolls, Dada dressed in a dhoti, Dadi in a cotton sari; a marble statue of Ganesh; a wooden mask of Hanuman; a little model of the Taj Mahal with a light that glowed from within; a bharata natyam dancer whose head moved sideways on her neck; and a bronze clock shaped like the official map of India with all of Kashmir reclaimed from the Pakistanis and the Chinese. When the new baby was born he wasn’t allowed to open the showcase and play with these objects. They were too fragile; he would hurt himself. He spent his time splayed against the glass door of the showcase, staring at his heritage, like a wasp at a window.

When I moved to New York, I missed Bombay like an organ of my body. I thought that when I left Bombay I had escaped from the worst school in the world. I was wrong. The all-boys Catholic school I went to in Queens was worse. It was in a working-class white enclave that was steadily being encroached upon by immigrants from darker countries. I was one of the first minorities to enroll, a representative of all they were trying to hold out against. Soon after I got there, a boy with curly red hair and freckles came up to my lunch table and announced, “Lincoln should never have freed the slaves.” The teachers called me a pagan. My school yearbook photo shows me looking at the camera with the caption, “It’s so strong I can even skip a day,” referring to an advertising slogan for a brand of antiperspirant. This was how the school saw me: as a stinking heathen, emitting the foul odors of my native cooking. On the day I graduated, I walked outside the barbed-wire-topped gates, put my lips to the pavement, and kissed the ground in gratitude.

In Jackson Heights we reapproximated Bombay, my best friend Ashish and I. Ashish had also been moved from Bombay to Queens, at the age of fifteen. The happiest afternoons of that time were when we went to see Hindi movies at the Eagle Theater. With one letter changed, it had formerly been the Earle Theater, a porn house. The same screen that had been filled with monstrous penises pullulating in mutant vaginas was now displaying mythologicals of the blue-skinned god Krishna; in these films not a breast, not even a kiss was shown. Maybe it was being purified. But I still scanned the seats carefully before sitting down on them.

Table of Contents

Personal Geography
The Country of the No
Two Currencies
The 1992–93 Riots
Elections 1998
The Saheb
Number Two After Scotland Yard
Ajay Lal: The Blasts and the Gangwar
Black-Collar Workers
Mohsin: The D-Company
Satish: The Dal Badlu
Chotta Shakeel: The Don in Exile

Vadapav Eaters’ City
A City in Heat
Monalisa Dances
Two Lives: Honey/Manoj
New Year’s Eve
Distilleries of Pleasure
Vidhu Vinod Chopra: Mission Kashmir
Mahesh Bhatt’s Wound
The Struggler and the Goddess
Accused: Sanjay Dutt

Memory Mines
Mayur Mahal Multipurpose
A World of Children
Sone ki Chidiya
Girish: A Tourist in His City
Babbanji: Runaway Poet
Good-bye World
A Self in the Crowd


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Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Vermillion_Bear More than 1 year ago
I've read this book three times and I still love it as much each time I read it. Suketu Mehta definitely brings out the different lifestyles and things happening in Mumbai. Gangsters, movie stars, dancing girls, politicians, murderers, slum dwellers, and others are included in this book. There are so many interesting topics covered in such a small book.
ravens_path More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be very well written and very thought provoking. It explains not only the mega city of Mumbai, but in a general way, all the large cities in India and perhaps also many of the mega cities throughout emerging countries. Very good book for those wanting to understand politicial and socio-economic issues for urban India.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mehta has accomplished a feat: the book is sweeping and deep. There are so many stories and so multi-layered with history, politics, religion, economics and personal demons. Bombay is the main character: crazy, illogical, mesmerizing, charismatic.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Suketu Mehta has described the vibrancy, dynamism, color, and culture of Bombay like no one has before. He brings it together under one book until the last chapter when it seems, in my humble opinion, that the book comes to an abrupt end. I grew up in Bombay, have visited it several times and the picture he paints is very appropriate. Of course, I never knew or was in touch with the characters that he weaves. But certainly the people who live in Bombay or know those that reside in the most fabulous city have heard about the incidents that he refers throughout the book. Lastly, MUMBAI is not the same as Bombay. Therefore, Viva Bombay!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Like Suketu Mehta, I spent my formative years in Bombay before moving to the United States. I invite you to visit the city. It will enchant you, excite your senses and change your perspective on life. Life in Bombay is a conflunce of eastern philosophy, poverty, technology and western pop culture which produces a unique harmony full of hope and despair, and no one has described it better than Mr. Mehta. Mehta's engaging narrative shows how an individual's desire for a better life keeps the spark of hope alive for millions of people who overcome huge obstacles daily to strive for a better life. This point is amply illustrated in his description of an encounter between a cleaning lady and a local politician before an election. The foremost concern on her mind was an opportunity for her child to have a good education even though she made less than 50 cents a day with no job security and lived in conditions that would have been deemed horrendous by US standards. So, she asks the politician to get her daughter a slot in a prestigious school instead of something for herself. He expertly captures the unique dynamics in India society that can instantly alter the balance between emotional feelings and rational thought to create an unpredictable outcome in a mundane everyday situation. Mehta describes how he is able to get a local gas company bureaucrat to grant him an exception on a gas cylinder for cooking by appealing to her as a mother of a child after all rational appeals have failed. In this book the real heroes are the residents of Bombay. They welcome into their midst with open arms anyone from anywhere who is willing to dream about the good life and work hard to pursue it. This 'melting pot' attribute serves to make Bombay very different in character from other Indian cities. Mr. Mehta's decription of this city is both accurate and timely. It provides urban policy makers with a roadmap of what could happen if the institutions and infrastructure in our urban centers are allowed to detriorate. It also provides an insight into the Indian urban mindset for business executives planning to enter into business ventures in a country what could be the next Asian tiger.
tinapickles on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Mehta wrote a book in which he is not entirely honest with himself or his readers. This is not to say that he has grossly misrepresented the "characters" within the world of his non-fiction book (rather, it is apparent that they are perhaps the only "truth" within this book); rather, he is un-truthful with and about himself. This book, as Mehta frames it, is the author's journey back to the mythic land of his youth: Mumbai. Along (perhaps dragged) on this journey are his wife and two sons, the later of whom's "cultural education" appears to be the impetus of this return to the mother land. However, Mehta rarely mentions his wife or his children within the pages of his book. Rather, what he focuses on are the gangsters, bar dancers, directors/Bollywood types, and other "riff-raff" that populate Mumbai. Later, much later, in the book he shifts the focus (albeit briefly) to a street urchin-cum-poet and a Jain family (two separate vignettes) in an attempt to emphasis that Mumbai is home to aspiration and broken dreams. However, not only does this shift come too late, but the connection to Mehta's own aspirations and broken dreams reads as forced and false. In a book that is heralded as a journey of self-discovery (at the very least so, by the title alone) Mehta fails to make himself the center of the story and thus, fails to truly and truthfully examine what it means to return home and/or rediscover/discover for the first time one's heritage.Despite the feeling of a contrived story (many parts of this book read as though Mehta compiled files upone files of research, looked over that research, and then cobbled together a story that he thought his western (read: New Yorker audience) might enjoy, there are moments of light and levity. His descriptions and portrayal of the characters that populate his book--the gangster hit-men, the dancing girls, the gender-confused Honey, etc--are all heartbreakingly beautiful and breathtakingly astute. As a cultural "insider", Mehta accurately walks the thin line between gratuitously aggrandizing his own culture in an attempt to defend it and/or excusing the sometimes seemingly "backwards" actions of a third-world populous. The desperation to escape as well as the love its inhabitants have for Mumbai is perfectly and tenderly expressed. In that, at least, Mehta was truthful.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
How do you find words to capture a city's essence? Mehta took on this task with one of the world's biggest cities, Bombay, India. He lurked around the Bombay underworld, he skulked around the Bombay bar district, and he lingered among Bombay elite-turned-religious monks. I ended up feeling much the way I felt after reading Dark Star Safari; that is, I've now been as close to India as I want to get. Like my visit to Africa through DSS, I understand the attraction, the desire to approach the intensity of life that can't be found often in suburban, safe America. Unlike Theroux and Mehta, however, I am happy to experience that intensity vicariously through a book.
parthbakshi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the best books ever read by me in my whole life ,those who love mumbai and want to associate themselves with it Maximum city is the best way to begin.Suketu mehta has done a great job .
brianjungwi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although at times this fascinating book borders on an elegy for Bombay, Suketu Mehta has written an incredible celebration of the city and its citizens. Beginning with the immigrant's story that seems to have become requisite of South Asian literature published in the West, Mehta discusses his upbringing in New York. This sets the stage for a central question in the book, "Can we go home again?" Bringing his family to Bombay provides formidable challenges as Mehta struggles to makes sense of modern Bombay. As he begins to explore the city he introduces several individuals whose stories exemplify the city. Dividing his book into three parts, 'Power," "Pleasure," and "Passages," Mehta interviews and presents a variety of stunning individuals and their stories. I found his experiences with Bombay's hitmen and underworld most interesting, but he also explores the lives of police officers waging battle against crime, the producers and directors of the film industry, a bar girl, a homeless poet, people struggling in the slums, and a man who renounces his wealth to become a wandering pilgrim. What becomes apparent is that Bombay is a city of dreams on steroids. Reading about the struggles and hopes of its inhabitants will resound with the reader and provide food for thought. If you are interested in India or want a better understanding of Bombay this book is excellent.
Lenaphoenix on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was a mixed bag for me. There is some great narrative in Mehta's tale of his return to the city of his youth as an adult. His description of learning how to navigate the corrupt bureaucracy in order to get enough cooking gas for his new flat was priceless. But as he begins to delve more deeply into explorations of politics, organized crime and the sex trade, particularly his growing friendship with a bar girl, the narrative outlasted my interest. I really enjoyed certain sections of this book, but it was uneven and I found myself skimming the last third.
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