Tuesday, July 26, 2005
Urbs Prima, Urbs Maximus
Recently read this book by Suketu Mehta. I read it in 2 or 3 sittings. Not because it is well written, but because it is about Urbs Prima in Indus, Urbs Maximus: Bom baia, Bombay, Mumbai. Call it what you want, it shall accept you as its own.
Its funny that I lived all my life in cities and towns surrounding Bombay (Thane, Vashi, Dombivli) , studied in Bombay and yet have never read any book written about this magnificent piece of land.
The book is written in a journalistic approach and meant to give the reader a voyeur's eye view into the lives of the shiv sena, the mumbai police, gangs, socialites, bar dancers, prostitutes, film stars and directors, slum dwellers, the upper middle class. Apart from the usual artistic error of not covering the absolutely ordinary folk inhabiting the city, the book suffers from poor editing. It is as a reader on Amazon called it a 300 page book masquerading as a 500 page book.
Despite all this, the book is a rewarding read for its insight into the various movers and shakers of the city. The parts dealing with the 1992-93 riots and subsequent bomb blasts are well written and well researched. It is interesting to know how the perpetrators and victims still live close to each other and in fact conduct business with each other as if nothing has happened. For example, it was interesting to learn that 5% of Muslims voted shiv sena in 1995, just 2 years after the riots. Its like giving the sheep pen key to the wolf.
The book does a good job of giving an idea of scales. That the population of Bombay and environs is the same as that of the entire continent of Australia. That the population of Savoy, a town neighboring uiuc and housing its airport is approximately the same as the number of people in a 12 car train during peak hours. That 17500 people live every square mile. That a city so huge in its effect and destiny is controlled by people so small in stature and thinking.
The book is especially transparent and stinging about the shiv sena and its supremo, bal thackeray as well as the gangland bosses like chota shakeel and abu salem. The fact that the Srikrishna commission report , possibly India's best conducted survey on the reasons and outcomes of any communal riot CAN never get implemented due to it non judicial nature is stunning. Equally stunning is the impunity with which the gang bosses actually dictate who can and who cannot leave the country. Its funny to read that the Abu Salem gang actually refused permission to Hrithik Roshan to visit the US. And that too weeks after his dad was shot thrice by the same gang!!
The book does a decent service of capturing the fact that Mumbai is both a city of dreams and last resorts. And how in fact it can be both to the same set of people. Though the author lived in Bombay in the 70s till emigrating with his parents to NY and then again in the late 90s, he doesn't try to answer what Bombay is all about and whether there is anything common between someone living in the "town" and someone living in Mira road. He, like me, calls the vada pav the only unifying factor. It is a city of vada pav eaters.
If you has ever lived in or around this city, or have been fascinated as to how 20 million people live in such a small area, do read it. If you are looking for a travel guide, skip it and read a lonely planet guide instead.