I can’t claim that I know Mumbai: I’ve never lived there and the only times I’ve visited have been short work-related trips. Yet I always thought that all Indians should have some innate familiarity with that city of dreams, just by virtue of being Indians (not to mention the healthy coverage of Mumbai in Bollywood movies). Everyone is familiar with the Gateway of India, Bollywood movies and movie stars, vada-pav, local trains, monsoons, Marine drive and such. And thus, I felt a strange mixture of fascination, sadness and yes, a bit of betrayal recently, as I read two compelling books about Mumbai.
In Maximum City, Suketu Mehta rediscovers Mumbai as he returns (multiple times) to the city he grew up in. Through his eyes, we catch a glimpse of the lives of gangsters and foot soldiers, students and school teachers, bar dancers and prostitutes, yogis and Jainis. Names like Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Tanuja, Preity Zinta are instantly recognizable and lend the book a voyeuristic appeal. At times disturbing, but always intriguing, Mehta paints a vivid picture of Mumbai, one that I did not know exist. And yet, the book felt “safe”, for Mehta was usually telling stories about others.
On the other hand, Gregory David Roberts as Shantaram is at once more intimate yet surreal. While reading it, I remember thinking to myself “fact is stranger than fiction” many a times over. Shantaram is as gripping as an autobiography of sorts can be, but probably contains a tad too many preachy one-liners and life lessons. It was even more fascinating than Maximum City because it is set in a time when I was just a kid — Mehta’s stories are far more contemporary. I found myself Googling for the various characters and places in the book, desperately trying to judge the fraction of fiction in the treatise. But it doesn’t really matter — Mr. Robert’s story is an incredible one nonetheless.
Meanwhile, I think I’m going to stay away from books about Mumbai for some time now, lest I feel completely alien to the city I never really knew.