Circa 1992. It was a regular school day on a lovely December morning(winters are warm not cold in Bombay).With just an hour left to mid-morning recess, there was a sudden flurry of anxious announcements calling certain students to report immediately with their belongings at the Principal’s office. After being little nosy about the happenings I go back to my daydreaming. Suddenly, I see my mother hurriedly demanding that I go and collect my younger sister from her classroom. As I walk through the school compound frantic parents rush in and out of the school premises with their children. As we walk towards the car I see my father tensed and horrified to some extent. He had just escaped death(which we knew later that evening. Four men had hurled bombs in front of him at a nearby housing development while my father was driving through traffic). A riot had broken in the streets nearby as we frantically rushed home, I could see shutters closing at the speed of light, people scattering, some flinging acid bulbs and destruction of harmless developments. That was the day the Hindu-Muslim riots let a demon loose for which innocents had to pay with their humble lives in the coming horrendous months. I still remember those days vividly for I have been a front row spectator to the bloodshed occurred in the name of religion ignited by few political rivals. I lived among trepidations that lasted for years to come by. Lost people I knew and religion once again became a crucial factor in our mundane lives. The citizens of Bombay (I resist from calling it Mumbai, always) bravely faced those murky days, which I witnessed closely with resilience and banishing all prejudices imposed by political cults. Over decades the city has seen its share of political violence and inter-religion hatred, but its people have always made it through with smiling faces.
Thus, when an individual who summons his exploration of a nostalgic hometown proclaiming that he has seen enough murderers and questioned their virtues, it irks me.I am not denying factual comprehensions of this book, as it would be utterly preposterous to overlook the shame that Bombay once faced or has not being able to strike an equilibrium in honored survival, however I do question the validity of his sentiments to a place he calls “Maximum City” where he once unreservedly wandered as a kid. Mehta says he left the city in 1977 only to be back after 21years to find him in a state of utter shock. There is no falsehood, no dramatic sequences to define the underbelly of my home city, nevertheless I get annoyed each time I open the pages and read those words. Rarely a book touches me on a personal note, but these words dishearten me as they are negative of a place and its people who strive hard for a living. Fair enough, there are vast discrepancies in the standard of living. There are some who die homeless in scorching heat whereas others never travel without an air-conditioned comfort. There are some who demand beluga caviar on toast for tea –time and indulge in La Prairie Cellular serums while others barely make it through the day without a proper meal. It is extremely difficult to rationalize these disparities that hit you in the face in the most mysterious ways. But, these do not define all. Why wasn’t there a prose about people striving everyday braving obstacles with dignified audacity to make a better living. About individuals determined to make a dignified and prosperous future come what may. People amalgamating into one joyous mass rejoicing each cultural festival with the same magnanimous excitement banishing all ethnic prejudices.
The chapters on “Bollywood” signify braggart purposes. It is a film industry for crying out loud; an entertainment business where almost all actors are purely performers and not artistic geniuses that venerates the true meaning of art. Nothing can be gained from it rather that a minority percentage of artistes that depart frothy amusement to make assiduous lives cheerful. Most art films (movies depicting social causes and instabilities) do not fare well with common psyche. This very attitude shows the annoyance of a mind resisting it to shun “moralistic virtues” performed by artistes that have been rehearsed to achieve precision. Is it disheartening? Not really. When it comes to choosing authenticity over illusionary realism, the latter is always preferred.
One would refute my caustic words claiming that with my privileged lifestyle I must be the last person to comment on the imbalanced financial and educational status of this city. I have never lived without food, shelter or money. Then how would I know the depth of a suffering. One does not have to be poor to know what poverty is. One does not have to be fraudulent to know what corruption is. I was born in Bombay, schooled here and I presently live in this city all hale and hearty. Unlike the author, I have been away from Bombay for a span of 9 years, while I was studying in the US. But, that does not give me the right to condemn the city mechanics or garner negativity. As you cannot expect a child to stay a child forever, you cannot anticipate a burgeoning city to stay in its purest unscathed form. From what I observed, the author seems perplexed with his distinctiveness. He tried finding a sense of belonging in New York stressed through the binding stereotypes only to come back to the place of his origin and see it modified into a strange land that once again botched a sense of belonging.
Bombay will always be my home come what may. I have traveled around many superior worldly cities, yet the imminent landing announcement at the Bombay airport somehow makes me warmly smile every freaking time. The city is heavily crowded, poverty and richness juxtaposes every road that spirals into politically corrupt governing display of unreliable loyalties and prone to religious debates. But, this does not define its landscapes, its populace. It is a city where dreams are built; life is raw imparting valuable teachings of resilient determination, where people smile even in the most tedious times, ethnicities are celebrated with joyfulness and life is seen at it nastiest and its finest. It is a place where I grew up and took long walks with my grandfather relishing every aspect of this marvelous city. Bombay is not a place full of murderers or politically agitated goons, it is haven of magnificent, soulful people who fight all odds and nurture a ravishing tomorrow. Now, this is what I would term as “Maximum City”.
Lastly, one question that troubles me is why only those who bring together pessimistic opinions are the ones who have stayed away from the core of Bombay nudging stereotypes in a foreign land?
Why after such scathing opinion then would I bestow a 3-star rating on this book? Is this you being diplomatic or commiserating the author’s hard slog? Ah, I get it. This book makes you defensive about your home city and makes you affectionate for something you disregarded that this book interleaves in you.