Monday, June 11, 2007

Maximum City

The diamond is but only coal...

Taking a deep breathed dive into the murky waters of the Bombay drain, Suketu Mehta delivers gold. Try as I may, to shrug it off as a brave attempt seems criminal. The brilliance of this piece of non-fiction stares you in the face, even when your mind tries to decide if this is not for real after all.

The premise Suketu sets up seems no lesser than a backdrop for any art-house cinema. Suketu Mehta is an American writer, who has come down to Bombay after a 24 year hiatus to write about it. As he introduces himself, and tries to get comfortable with plumbers fixing his electricity mains, he has set up for the reader a campus in which we live, but of which we know so less.

The way the book sets off, puts the reader off balance. The narrator, with whom we are just getting comfortable, has not even cleaned his desk at his new-found home and is already lunged into the commercial capital of the country of 'NO'.

He exhaustively covers four main ingredients of the Bombay which is often talked about in hushed tones or shown in Madhur Bhandarkar movies...Underworld (not the Satya- types where people go about man-hunting on seasons...!) Here he takes on some people living in your nearby slums, who might well be in touch with the who's who of the famed Mumbai underworld! His friendship lurks on the brim of him giving in to the temptations of power and you beginning to pray that he doesn't give into it. Next up, Bar Girls... he befriends one of them and lives with her, as literally as figuratively. You stare in to a mushy love-plot that nowadays haunt Indian directors who want to be stylishly off-beat. The human side of, yes the cliched human side of these 'self proclaimed victims' is subtly intertwined in the overall thriller plot. There are instances where the rawness of the bar girl comes bare out in the open like when she meets her father after a decade. Or when the underworld thug gets a new flat for his family and says he can't get stleep unless 12 of them are around him in a 10x12 room.

One statement where the slum-life profoundly manifests itself is, as put by the protagonist,... 'While in the slums, we never used to ask our children if they are hungry... because some one would have surely fed them!'

Then, Mr. Mehta takes a shot at sketching a wannabes life in Mumbai. As before he traces the daily life of a wannabe poet who has arrived at the Land of Golden Footpaths, away from his village up north. He runs away from home after deciding for himself that the first ray of moon and the diminishing seaside sun is what he has to write about, and not chemical equations. He again brings out in the open the hope that this darned city has on offer to the tens of thousands of villagers from around the country. The reunion of this wannabe poet with his father is another poignant moment in the book.

To round it off, Suketu peeps into the life of a Jain. Bombay, alone pays more than 40% of the nation's income tax. Jains, less than 1% of the population, pay around 20% of the nation's income tax!!! And these Jains, are a part of the commerce that is Bombay. Mehta dwells, somewhat irrelevantly into the life of a Jain, who is giving up worldly possessions to follow an ascetic life. Further, he follows the entire proces of how the family goes on to actually do it. The only relevance this holds to Bombay or rather Suketu tries to infer is the rich diamond business Jain population and the way this city tires the people. Personally, I thought he could have done much better if he had dwelt less on this, and probably painted something more of Bombay...

A book worth reading, that will make an impression... that shows you the darker like Bombay for what it spite of what it is! Something like Don Corleone... you like him not because of what he is but... because,

In spite of stating coal, it sells diamond...