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Suketu Mehta: Maximum City

Packing for Mexico City, I briefly considered taking the perverse (as usual) reading route and packing no books about Mexico City at all. Maybe I’d just take the first few on the couch pile: Lonely Planet Japan, In the Dutch Mountains, Maximum City. In the event, I chickened out and stuffed at least five D.F.-centric volumes in my bag, but that third book, subtitled “Bombay Lost and Found,” wouldn’t have made so little sense as it seems. It actually came recommended by a friend who himself writes books about place as a means of preparing myself for Mexico City. Deeply intrigued by the idea of absorbing 542 pages about the Indian megalopolis in order to better understand the Mexican one, I picked it up immediately. (Another friend who writes books about place then disrecommended it, but he was too late.)

Mehta, a Calcutta-born but primarily New York-raised nonresident Indian — or “NRI,” in international parlance — frames his book in the years he and his family moved temporarily to Bombay in the late nineties. But his real project uses what I call the “pointillist portrait” method of writing about a city: accepting the impossibility of getting all Bombay down on paper, he gathers and interprets the stories of citizens he meets all across the social spectrum. Mehta’s focus falls mainly on romantic figures: policemen, gangsters, bar dancers, Bollywood filmmakers, striving slum-swellers, and monks so ascetic they cut their hair by asking someone to pull it out. (They could have walked right out of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, a 900-ish-page novel of cops, robbers, and religion that I devoured when it came out six or seven years ago. Making the web of connections denser still, Chandra himself, a semi-relation of Mehta’s, appears in Maximum City.) These are the Bombayites, as the author puts it, who don’t pay taxes.

Beneath that joke lay the the intricately complex gearworks of Bombay life that interest me — and before Mehta pointed them out, I’d hardly ever thought about Bombay at all. In his description, almost every element of the city’s formal sector either broke a long time ago or never worked in the first place, and as a result, its 18 million people live under rules so informal that they come around the other side to feel like rigid codes. Mehta finds that

You have to break the law to survive. I break the law often and casually. I dislike giving bribes, I dislike buying movie tickets in the black. But since the legal option is so ridiculously arduous — in getting a driver’s license, in buying a movie ticket — I take the easy way out. If the whole country collectively takes the easy way out, an alternate system is established whose rules are more or less known to all, whose rates are fixed. The “parallel economy,” a traveling partner of the official economy, is always there, just turn your head a little to the left or right and you’ll see it. To survive in Bombay, you have to know its habits.  If you have a child, you have to know how much “donation” to give the school to get admission. If you have a traffic accident, you have to know how much to give the cops to dispose of the matter and how much to give to the father of the child you’ve run over to stop the mob from lynching you. If you’re a tenant, you have to know how much to demand in key money from the landlord to move out.

This seems to obtain in any large city that doesn’t care about order in the abstract. I take it you see the opposite, at least for now, in, say, German or Swedish cities. While I’d feel too neat and snappy declaring that the Bombays and the Berlins of the world wind up in the very same web of expected procedures and practices through opposite routes, the observation strikes me as useful. You move somewhere in northern Europe to enjoy trygghet by the thousands of dictates of a central, effective ruling body; you move to Bombay to enjoy something else entirely.

Observers often apply adjectives like “chaotic” to vast third-world metropolises like Bombay. Maybe Mehta does too, but I don’t take an impression of chaos, exactly, from the Bombay of Maximum City. It runs on its own kind of order, but an order that comes from the social behavior of the individual, not the legal behavior of the whole. “We begin making friends again, adding to our wealth,” Mehta writes as he and his wife get with the program:

Other things start changing for us. We begin understanding simple things: how to negotiate with shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and relatives. Sunita’s Hindi gets better, and she learns how not to get ripped off by the servants. We now know never to go to anyone’s place for dinner before nine-thirty. In the first year, we would show up at eight — New York time — and sit around nervously as the hostess attempted to get dressed and cook and make conversation with us all at the same time.

[ … ]

We learn the uses of “influence.”  The WIAA club, when I phone to ask for a reservation for an out-of-town visitor, says there are no rooms available. Then my uncle calls a friend, who uses his influence, and a room miraculously materializes, like the universe manifesting itself from nothing. I had forgotten the crucial difference. There’s very little you can do anonymously, as a member of the vast masses. You have to go through someone. The reservations clerk needs that personal touch of a human being he recognizes. […] You cannot jump the chain by going directly to someone who doesn’t know you, connected only by the phone line. Then it becomes just a buyer and a seller, a transaction rather than a favor. [ … ] This is why people stay on in Bombay, in spite of everything. They have built a network here; they have influence.

I can understand the pleasures to be won operating in such a connection-driven urban space. I can also understand the desire for a society cultivated under fixed, transparent systems subject to minimal individual influence. (The latter variety of cities also seem to come with clean streets, something few Indian cities seem able to even pretend to offer.) Mehta’s Bombay reminds me of those industries where people complain that it’s “all who you know” writ enormously large. This deepens in the sections about Bollywood, the quintessential who-you-know industry within perhaps the ultimate who-you-know city — financed by the mob, the most who-you know organization imaginable.

Introverts wouldn’t do well in Bombay, just as they seem to struggle in Mexico City or in the parts of Los Angeles dominated by the entertainment business (which, incidentally, turn out to be fewer than you’d imagine). I sometimes think about the probable Myers-Briggs personality types of major cities and, while it’s surely the most specifically geeky mental pursuit ever, I think it has some relevance here. Would Bombay come out as, say, an ENFP? Would Mexico City, which feels like it uses a smaller-scale protocol of Bombay’s formal informality, have the same type? And what would Oslo or Helsinki be? ISTJ? Should we think of these as the personalities of the cities’ most suitable inhabitants, or as the personalities of the cities themselves? Does something about the compatibility between them explain, to those who feel like they’ll never understand, why people remain in and even love big cities, enduring or ignoring the famed discomfort and open hostility of New York, the famed seediness and anomie of Los Angeles, or the famed poverty, labyrinthine inconvenience, and “chaos” of Bombay?

“Cities should be examined like countries,” Mehta writes early in Maximum City. “Each has a city culture, as countries possess a national culture.” Toward the book’s end, he adds that “a city is only as thriving or sickly as your place in it. Each Bombayite inhabits his own Bombay.” I don’t plan on relocating there any time soon, but I do hope to attain the same mindset one needs to exist well there. I bet it’d even come in handy in Stockholm.

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