Monday, August 6, 2007

Suketu Mehta - Maximum City - Bombay Lost and Found

I read Suketu Mehta’s mostly melodramatic work “Maximum City” with a raised eyebrow, a drooping jaw, and a mouth, as if I had eaten bitter gourd. I was suggested this book by the late Shakti Bhatt when I had gone to meet her about my novel. This book had just been released to the accompaniment of a lot of hype and she said it is recommended reading. Since my reading list was long, I could only lay my hands on this book now.

Shakti had said when I met her that my novel would be acceptable if it was, more or less, similar to “Maximum City” and I had, on the exigency of the moment, said it is. And, now, regrettably I find it isn’t. Sorry, Shakti! The reason is: Maximum City is certainly elitist, as it is told by a diamond merchant’s son who has no empathy for the common Bombayite, however harried he is by the capriciousness of the city he had left in his boyhood. On the contrary, my novel is about the dregs, the common migrants to Bombay from the village, who will not even find a mention in Mehta’s oeuvre, except as someone to be laughed at and ridiculed.

So Mehta comes from the US of A and finds a lot of things not to his liking. He, for one, lives in the poshest areas of the city – Malabar Hill – and, even here, finds faults with what is considered a tony area where an average Bombayite can only dream of living. (It must be mentioned here that no area of Bombay can be considered “posh” as even in posh Malabar Hill one would find slum-like hutments infested by the poor, who are actually drivers, and menial servants of the rich.)

What I find so jarring is the consistent melodrama in the narrative. Most of the narrative consists of description of the loony fringe crowd. I know this crowd exists in every city; creatures of the night that live during the night and sleep during the day. So what happens when the son of a diamond trader slums with the loony crowd of Bombay? Of course, he gets treated like royalty.

That’s what is wrong with the book. It’s told from an elitist point of view, by a person who still hasn’t shed the skin of an American and hasn’t descended to the level of the common, job-holding, eking-a-living Bombayite who commutes daily by train. Only if he could descend from his high pedestal could Mehta have discovered the aspirations of the men and women on the gallis of Bombay. So the book is shamelessly written for a foreign audience, knowing fully well that if it sells in the west it will sell here too.

So, the voice Mehta employs is maudlin melodramatic with every sentence having the tinge of sadness, mixed with the rosy-tinted-glasses-view of nostalgia for something the author had left long ago in his distant childhood, of which he is happy to be rid of.

Most of the narrative is based in a dance bar called Sapphire. But who goes to dance bars? The fringe crowd, no less, the aspirants to fame in Bollywood Boulevard, the cross dressers (such as Manoj [a man who dresses as a woman], on whom a lot of pages are indulged), gangsters, and the loony fringe crowd referred above. Everything is narrated in such grotesqueness that one blanches at the repeated assaults of crassness on one’s senses. Are we thus, Mr. Mehta?

Another galling thing is how Mehta takes a swipe at the royalty of Bollywood itself, which honors him so much. Amitabh comes out in the pages of the book, not as iconic as one would have expected and even Vidhu Vinod Chopra isn’t shown in any kind soft-focus. Bachchan is referred thusly: “Bachchan tells us what effect our film should have on the audience. ‘You need to catch them by the crotch and shake them up’.” Mehta has seen and met them all. Even stars like Hritik and Shahrukh aren’t held in any awe by this son of a wealthy Non-resident Indian (NRI) diamond merchant.

That makes me wonder: If I had the chance, would I have written a better account? Why, here is a man who is lionized by the elite, the film stars, the directors, the school he studied in, and his relatives. Wherever he goes there’s adulation and praise, “he is a writer from the US of A” and because of this I guess the book fails to reach out to the aam admi, the common man on the Bombay streets. Or, so I think.

Consider his dalliance with Mona Lisa, a model and a Bollywood aspirant. He doesn’t mention if he has had an affair with her, but describes meetings with her in her flat, all alone and even in her bedroom. (Of course, he can’t divulge all the details, but then he should have kept that secret away from the book.) But if she is beautiful and he meets her in her bedroom, better be more honest to readers and reveal if he has had an affair with her, and not beat around the bush too much. Or, else keep it out of the book altogether, which the author hasn’t chosen to do, taking the reader into looping circles, to guess the extent of his feelings for Mona Lisa.

Vidu Vinod Chopra who heaps so much friendship and care on him is made to look ridiculous in the book. He looks like a manqué impresario of some kind. Naturally Chopra took offense against Mehta after the release of the book, but Mehta defended himself saying that he has the right, as a writer, to mention details of what transpired in private conversations with the Bollywood icons.

Anu Malik isn’t spared either. “He weeps and wails; he will not ask for a single paisa. The money is nothing compared to their friendship, he declares through his sobs.” The scene is when Malik calls Chopra to ask him to let him score the music for his forthcoming film. So this is how it is in Bollywood, is it Mr. Malik? I wonder if this is why you are so uncompromisingly harsh on participants in the talent show The Indian Idol. As an elder, you are probably preparing them for what is to follow, I guess.

The story of murderers, and rioters is another matter. Yes, indeed, Mehta should be admired for having the guts to meet them, risking his own life. Some of the men he has met and written about do not value life, and even his life could have been in jeopardy. Mehta is bold and perspicacious in this respect. Of course, he has a clearness of vision that can only come with having stayed away from Bombay for a few years. I, for one would have been scared shit to go into situations that he has been through for the book (this answers the question I posed in the beginning of this review, i.e., would I have been able to write a similar book?). In that respect this book is seminal.

The final chapters of the book deal with Ladhani’s taking of Diksha – the rich Jain diamond merchant’s renunciation of the world to atone for the sins he and his ancestors have committed in this sinful world. It isn’t clear if Mehta is questioning the beliefs of a certain religious section, or through it, portraying the quotidian aspects of Indian culture. He describes the functions that form a part of taking Diksha in great detail, as if the book were dealing solely in this religious custom. A diamond merchant who underpays his minions just throws away his wealth in the last few days of worldly life before taking total renunciation. Again the narrative voice is melodramatic and condescending in an elitist way. Sure, it may earn the author “oohs, and aahs, and is that so?” from a western audience, but would the Indian followers of the religion be as kind?

These chapters also speak poorly of the exploitative nature of Indian business owners. Ladhani’s types pay their workers a pittance in the process of accumulating their millions. But the accumulating of wealth also accumulates the feeling of guilt for having exploited the poor, which leads him to the ultimate sacrifice of the self – renunciation. Direct proof of this is recorded in the book, as the author mentions visiting a poor relation in Ahmedabad who works in such a diamond factory owned by the likes of Ladhani. This relation is dirt poor and lives a life of deprivation while working in one of the sweat shops owned by the equals of his rich relations.

I have had a brief association with the diamond industry as I covered it for a financial fortnightly. What I found inside the factories was abject, exploitative greed. In a factory I visited to interview the managing director, the young workers seemed so dispirited by the work in the repetitive diamond-polishing jobs that they squatted in a row outside the factory with their faces tightly ensconced in their folded hands, probably crying. The boys and girls looked like they should have been in college.

I am not questioning Mehta’s motives. But as a writer of Indian origin, especially one belonging to the well-off Diaspora, he has a responsibility toward his mother country, a responsibility and respect toward a city that has nurtured him in his boyhood which empathy is not displayed in the narrative of Maximum City. At least, I didn’t find it. In the ultimate analysis it is a quasi-sensational book written for the foreign audiences’ hunger for exotica.

However, it must be admitted that the strength of the book lies in Mehta’s perspicacity and boldness in giving the city of his childhood the portrayal it has lacked all this while. It is a chronicle of a city a boy had “lost” in his childhood which he “finds” again as a sophisticated adult living in an advanced country, and which leaves him baffled by its absolute crassness, when compared to the more orderly western world.

1 comment:

Id it is said...

An insightful analysis. I too think Maximum City carries a diaspora bias whether intentional or otherwise; however, I can't say that I did not enjoy reading the book.