is a narrative nonfiction book by Suketu Mehta, published in 2004. Mehta grew up in India until he moved to New York with his parents at age fourteen. Maximum City
is based on his personal experience on his return to Bombay as an adult, in addition to extensive research. He portrays the city through interviews and slice-of-life shadowing. He uses the immersive feel of the city to comment on broader political, social, and infrastructural issues. It was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times Book Review
says of his work: “narrative reporting at its finest, probably the best work of nonfiction to come out of India in recent years. . . . Mehta succeeds so brilliantly in taking the pulse of this riotous urban jungle.”
The book is primarily concerned with Mehta’s return. He spent much of his childhood in Bombay and is now approaching it as an adult, complete with an American education. His family originally immigrated to New York for work, and he is now returning in 1998, twenty-one years later. This insider-outsider perspective informs how he sees the city upon his return. The book weaves his personal experience of the city with people who witnessed its change, as well as the lives of everyday residents in a variety of social and financial situations.
One important symbolic change is the name of the city: it changed from Bombay to Mumbai in 1995. Mehta continues to refer to the city as Bombay throughout the book. The first part covers the politics and power struggle in India that led to this. He often returns to this time period in all three sections as a point of reference. He interviews a few people who witnessed the events surrounding the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992 and 1993. His first interview is with Sunil. Sunil is a respected businessman who believes that money is more powerful than anything in the world. During the riots, he committed murder and other atrocities. Mehta comments that it is a sign of corruption that someone like him is able to gain wealth and political power without justice for his crimes.
Next is Bal Thackery, a politician who founded the Shiv Sena, a right-wing Hindu party. He wrongfully uses religion as a means to gain political power. Mehta paints him unfavorably, zeroing in on his ego and lack of self-awareness. He also interviews Ajay Lal, an honest, retired police officer, who walks Mehta through corruption, violence, and disorganization at a high level in the force. Police are at war with criminals in Bombay, and their tactics, including torture, are extremely violent. Mehta then meets with a number of Indian-mafia members on the other side, who commit crime and murder for a living. He is unable to sympathize with them despite his attempts.
In part 2, he shifts his focus to the entertainment industry and sex work in Bombay. He spends much of his time in this section with an exotic dancer, whom he calls Monalisa. She dances at the Sapphire club. She is his guide to the city, giving him access to seedier areas. He delves into her childhood and upbringing, learning that almost everyone in her family, including her, has tried to kill themselves at least once. He learns a lot about her relationship with a man named Minesh, and how for sex workers and dancers, marriage is often not a viable future. He also learns that young women sell their virginity.
He then meets Honey, a transgender woman who dances for money. She desires to become a film actress. Mehta comments on how Bombay, despite the hellishness an outsider might observe, is a place that people in India believe their dreams can come true. Similar to Hollywood, there is the belief that if one makes it to Bombay, there is potential to rise to the top by your own individualistic doing. Honey turns to sex work in addition to dancing. She recounts an experience where she was raped, as well as, similar to Monalisa, an attempt at suicide. Mehta uses this space to comment on transgender cultural rights and sexual practices in India.
Mehta then focuses on the film and TV industry. He meets two movies stars, Amitabh Bachchan and Sanjay Dutt. Dutt is currently on trial for his participation in the 1993 riots. He also speaks with Vidhu Vinod Chopra, a director, who describes the great lengths it takes for a movie to be made and then become successful in India. He then turns his focus to a number of struggling actors and writers, who, like Hollywood, come to Bombay with big dreams that are quickly deflated.
The final section follows subjects who are on the periphery of Bombay society. He follows one family who joins a strict sect of Hinduism called Jains, denouncing all elements of city living and modernity, and choosing to wander in piety. The last subject he writes of is Babbanji. He is a struggling young poet who lives on the street. Mehta follows his everyday life and the extreme poverty that comes with it. The poet’s perspective on Bombay offers a poignant closing analysis of the city. It is a city filled with both despair and hope. Somehow, it seems to thrive, despite the poverty, corruption, violence, and infrastructure issues. It is a city of contradictions.
The tapestry Mehta weaves represents this contradiction through a large cast of characters. Since it is mostly written from his perspective, his beliefs and how they change inform his observations and exchanges with subjects. Further informing this view, he notes how being away and coming back reveals the change in the city more clearly. His time away perfectly coincides with the big changes during the 1990s, giving him a unique outlook. He closes by juxtaposing collectivism and individualism, believing that the residents of Bombay really do believe in the wellbeing of the collective.