As a child, I would spend almost every summer in Bombay. It's the city where my parents grew up (and met), and where most of my cousins and grandparents still live. It's what I called home for the first few months of my life. Every visit to Bombay is full of wonders. And every time I come to understand the city a little better.
But I always feel like an outsider. My short visits never allowed me to develop a true understanding of the city, and it's something I’ve always wondered about. So when I came across this narrative non-fiction piece, I knew I had to read it. And wow, Suketu Mehta provides a stunning and intimate look into the bustling metropolis that is Bombay.
The book is full of raw truths. He gives us a glimpse into the criminal underworld, or the gangwar, through interviews with hardened criminals. He shows us how little life is valued, with people killing for as little as 50 rupees ($1) so that they can afford a roof for their slum. He talks about police brutality - they often kill and torture, affording people no human rights.
What's especially interesting is that whilst the gangwar was instituted by religion, it has been spurred on by its efficiency in settling disputes. Court cases generally have backlogs of up to twenty years - so the underworld seems like a go-to solution. The result? All savvy businessmen have ties to trained killers.
Even more notable is that despite these men being merciless criminals, Mehta doesn't portray them as such. Instead, he humanizes them and portrays them as victims of their circumstances.
From the gangwar, we delve into the world of a bar dancer, who after suffering through poverty and abuse as a child, had no other options available to her. We learn about the hoards of men who pack these bars, to see skimpily clad woman dance. We learn about the lifestyle many of these bar dancers live, full of flings, alcohol, and drugs.
From there, we move to the inner sanctums of Bollywood. And Mehta gives us both sides of the equation. We get a glimpse into the corrupt world of Bollywood's elite, who balance artistic integrity with their desire for the next big paycheck. We are thrown into the lives of the thousands who come from villages in search of stardom but end up on the streets.
All this is intertwined with Mehta's own coming of age story, as he searches for acceptance in his home city after having left as a boy, only to return 21 years later with a family of his own. His story culminates with stunning insights into the lives of a Jain family taking Diksha: renouncing the world in pursuit of a higher order. The family will sever all ties with the world as they know it, and live like monks. It's a confronting passage and one that forces you to be deeply introspective. This was the highlight of the book for me.
After our deep-dive into the different worlds of Bombay, Mehta eloquently ties these disparate narratives together. The criminals, the abusive cops, the bar dancers, the Bollywood moguls - all of whom can be considered morally compromised, shaped by the exigencies of city living. But they share one thing in common: freedom. The pursuit of a life unencumbered by minutiae. All these people are living out the fantasies of normal people.
I truly enjoyed this book. It can be a bit difficult to follow at times - a lot of local jargon is thrown in for authenticity, and it is a long and complex read. I wouldn't blanket recommend this book, but it is a must-read for anyone looking to understand a monumental city that will undoubtedly cement itself as a global powerhouse in years to come.