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Kitaab Ghar - Maximum City

Every now and then I come across a piece of literature that forces me to re-calibrate my understanding of the world around me, the tinted periscope with which I gauged everything and attempted to make sense out of them.

Dominique Lapierre's Freedom at Midnight was one of them. O Jerusalem! by the same author was yet another. Suketu Mehta's expression of his love affair with the Maya Nagri Mumbai, or Bombay as he calls it, in Maximum City - Bombay Lost and found is the latest in the series.

584 pages and 11 hours of non-stop reading is what it took for me to get to the end of this tome on Mumbai and find relief. The intervening time was agonising and immensely satisfying at the same time, such was the spell that the book held me in.

Born into one of those quintessential families that constitute Mumbai, the diamond trading god-fearing vegetarian gujaratis, Mehta's ability to pick out faces from the Kumbh Mela that the city is that are representatives of what Mumbai means and stands for today is uncanny and probably attributable to his capacity to look at Mumbai from 'out of the box' yet as an insider due to his having been a resident of New York for a long span of time.

In Maximum City, Mehta sketches out the power of politics, both subtle and strong, and how it manifests itself in myriad ways of affecting the daily life for a rickshaw driver, slum dweller, cable operator, mill worker, computer coaching institute teacher and local corporator. His ability to strike a rapport with almost anyone, on both sides of the line called law, a very fuzzy one in Mumbai anyway, enables him to put on paper facts and aspects that would have remained hidden for ever, unstated and unaccounted.

To avoid gang warfare inside the jails, the government has earmarked specific jails for different gangs. The Gawli gang is spread out over the Yerwada and Amravati Jails, the Rajan gang is in Arthur Road and the D company is put up in the Byculla, Thane and Nashik jails. Near the Nashink jail, the D Company has purchased a number of flats and autorickshaws and hired cooks and delivery boys.

Chefs in the flats prepare breakfast,lunch and dinner, and delivery boys hop into the rickshaws and deliver hot meals to the jailbirds. It is a thoroughly planned, thoroughly efficient catering system. The man lucky enough to be arrested after a hit looks forward to a spell inside, with all his needs taken care of in style.

And there is also a strange kind of competitive generosity behind bars. During the Ganesh festival, Arun Gawli sent a box of sweets to the D Company jailbirds in Thane,one of them had told me. 'The D Company boss said "Achcha ! Is that so ?" and sent a huge plate full of halwa back to Gawli.'The stark menace of the famed Mumbai underworld looms large but invisible. In fact, so strong is its presence and influence that Mehta renames it to Overworld.
In business, so entrenched has extortion become that the Bombay High Court recently rules that extortion payments are tax deductible as a legitimate business expense.

Mehta uses his contacts to get in touch with members of the various gangs to get an inside account of their ways of operating.

(Mohsin) followed Daruwala as he left the dog and his visitors to take a leak inside a country bar next door. As he was pissing, Mohsin came behind him in the bathroom and raised his hand with the fun. It would have been an easy shot, but Mohsin was suddenly struck with a scruple, a man should not be shot while he was pissing. He would wait for him to finish.
Different shooters have different ways of dealing with their work. Afterwords, some drink. Some get stoned. Some celebrate in the ladies' bars. After Satish murders somebody, he eats a huge strictly vegetarian meal .
He goes straight home, has a bath, does a puja to Hanuman.. He wont even eat eggs.

He even talks to Chhota Shakeel himself, over the phone after an attempt to meet the ganglord in person is foiled because of a sudden increase in the pressure from Pakistani authorities in Karachi where the don stays with Dawood Ibrahim.

The mastermind of the largest criminal syndicate in the subcontinent now comes out with a line from JFK. 'My intention is, What can I do for my country ? Not, What has the country done for me ? '. Then he adds, 'Think about that.'

I am thinking, which country ? What is he doing for that country ?

After re-discovering the famous Irani restaurants, Mehta moves into the seamy underside of that most unique of Mumbai's specialities, the dance bars.

What follows is a series of tales that gradually reveal the many layers that this business, called the 'bar line' by insiders, hides, nurtures and sometimes, destroys.

'Why are they doing this ? What do these men get in return ?'

'Five minutes' attention. Even a garage mechanic can come here and get attention from these girls.' This is one place where the classes meet, where the only thing important is the colour of your money.
The moment the customer walks in, he's the star in his own custom-made Hindi movie song. No matter how old, or ugly or fat (or poor) he is, for the two hours he's in the bar, he's a movie star, he's Shah Rukh Khan.

The frustrations of the members of the force acclaimed to the 'Second Best after Scotland Yard' also finds a mention.

Ajay Lal is a cop with a dream. It is a dream of the last gesture he will make as a police officer. It is not about arresting Dawood Ibrahim, or accepting a medal, or setting his troops on fire with an inspiring speech. It is a dream of micturition. 'I would go to police headquarters and stand in front of it and abuse all my corrupt seniors, reveal everything. Then I would pee in their direction and turn around and leave the force.'

Mehta tracks the lives of a top cop, a bar girl, a crossdresser, a student and budding poet from Bihar,and the progress of Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Mission Kashmir, a movie that he co-wrote. He weaves in narratives from Bollywood, heart-rending tales of struggle, and frequently, defeat.

Amidst all this rather chaotic sets of stories, he attempts and probably manages to come up with an understanding of what Bombay, or Mumbai, means, to him and to the millions of other residents, each of whom calls it his, or her, home.

I realise, with a start,I am one of them.

Do you have the book? May I borrow it?

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Sorry Neeta,
missed ur comment in the deluge of spam comments. I do not have the book but I got it from the Library.

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