November 07, 2014

Suketu Mehta's Presentation of Mumbai as "Maximum City" Carries a Diaspora Bias.

Suketu Mehta's Maximum City is a kaleidoscope on Mumbai at the turn of the century. This kaleidoscope, though vivid and engaging, appears to have a diaspora bias to it.

Mr Mehta has very deliberately selected to explore and present the most salient and perhaps the most sale able facets of Mumbai, India's city of dreams. Mehta's novel is a collage of his experiences in Mumbai that capture the daily routines of some very colorful characters that inhabit the darkest, some of the seediest, and also the high power wielding venues of Mumbai, not surprisingly referred to as 'a city in heat'? For instance, the charming dance bar prostitute Monalisa who becomes Mehta's good friend, or even the simpleton Sunil, "a man who has murdered, but is not entirely defined by it", are fine examples of how intriguing and enchanting each of these characters are. Sadly enough, their heart rending stories, be it Monalisa's or of the bad guys such as Satish and  Sunil, if housed in a work of fiction, would not have jarred as they do in Mehta's "meticulous documentary of living -- and struggling" in his native city, Mumbai, to which he returned after spending several years abroad. The characters, and even the milieu in which they dwell, often appear staged and melodramatic, and challenge the readers willful disbelief. If Maximum City is indeed a documentary, a reporting, a narrative on Mumbaikars, the residents of Mumbai, then why is it that each character and every venue depicted is a hotbed of controversy and has a dynamism to it that needs Mehta's "meticulous' reporting? Does Mumbai have no ordinary commonplace people who go about their lives without being embroiled in 'encounters' with the 'bhais' of the underworld or the partisan politics of the Nationalist Party, the Shiv Sena? Mehta has dedicated six hundred pages of brilliant writing to 'meticulous' reporting on the film stars of Bollywood, the dance bars, partisan politics, and the underworld gangs with connections to the Dubai based mafia; all of which make for some racy reading that gratifies the insatiable appetite of the Indian diaspora across the world. The Indian diaspora that no longer recognizes the new India that has emerged since they left, crave for the corrupt and corruptible India they left behind. Novels such as Mehta's and even Anand Girdhirdas' India Calling' tap into this need and write best sellers capturing the maudlin Indian diaspora that indulges in nostalgia for a homeland it left decades ago! In fact it would be no surprise if non-resident-Indians (NRIs) are Amazon's largest clientele for purchasing books by Indian writers. 

Suketu Mehta's writing is definitely a treat, and if you are an Indian living abroad looking for an entertaining and a gripping read, then Maximum City fits the bill. Mehta doles out exactly what his diaspora reading community longs for, the drama that is India in the eyes of an NRI. Although it is rather disappointing when an NYT reviewer says Maximum City is "narrative reporting at its finest, probably the best work of nonfiction to come out of India in recent years". Alas, the NYT reviewer must give due respect to the number of copies sold of the book in question, so what if most buyers of the book are NRIs!

Was it Forster who once said that a novel that is written with a select audience in mind, has already lost ground, and if it is a non-fiction piece that relies largely on its emotional appeal in order to sell, it surely rests on shaky grounds.

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