Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
Suketu Mehta
Knopf, 2004
Review score: *** out of *****

India desires modernity; it desires computers, information technology, neural networks, video on demand. But there is no guarantee of a constant supply of electricity in most places in the country. In this as in every other area, the country is convinced it can pole-vault over the basics: develop world-class computer and management institutes without achieving basic literacy; provide advanced cardiac surgery and diagnostic imaging facilities while the most easily avoidable childhood diseases run rampant; sell washing machines that depend on a nonexistent water supply from shops that are dark most hours of the day because of power cuts; support dozens of private and public companies offering mobile phone service, while the basic land telephone network is in terrible shape; drive scores of new cars that go from 0 to 60 in ten seconds without any roads where they might do this without killing everything inside and out, man and beast.

It is an optimistic view of technological progress -- that if you reach for the moon, you will somehow, automatically, span the inconvenient steps in between. India has the third largest pool of technical labor in the world, but a third of its 1 billion people can't read or write. An Indian scientist can design a supercomputer, but it won't work because the junior technician cannot maintain it properly. The country graduates the best technical brains in the world but neglects to teach my plumber how to fix a toilet so it stays fixed.
Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, Knopf 2004, hardcover edition, Pg. 24

I have been a professional software engineer for twenty four years. For most of my career, software engineers, especially those with a resume of accomplishments, have been in great demand. In the 1990s, according to the computer industry, there was such a shortage of software engineers that hundreds of thousands of foreign software engineers were given H1-B visas to work the United States.

Some people argue that there was not a shortage of software engineers, but rather, a shortage of cheap software engineers. By importing foreign software engineers, salaries were kept from rising higher than they otherwise might have. The arguments on both sides are controversial, but my experience before 2000 was that there was enough demand for engineers that I could always get a new job when I wanted one.

Prior to my current job at a US national laboratory, I've worked for nine different companies over a period of twenty two years. When a challenging project ended and there was nothing on the immediate horizon to replace it, I would look for a new job that provided the challenge I was looking for. If I was unlucky enough to find myself working for an abusive manager, I could find a company that treated their employees well. Not only have I been able to find a new job when I wanted one, but in most cases, I could get a new job at a higher salary.

A lot changed in 2000, including my professional world. The US stock market bubble burst, ushering in one of the largest stock market declines in history. Many "dot-com" companies went out of business and sales in the computer industry as a whole plummeted. Throughout the US business community there was pressure to cut costs where ever possible in the face of falling or stagnant profits.

The pressure to cut costs, the Internet and the movement away from a socialist planned economy in India contributed to the movement of tens of thousands of high paying engineering and "knowledge worker" jobs from the United States to India. In theory the work of highly skilled professionals could now be done in India for as little as a tenth of the cost of having the work done in the United States. The demand for engineering and professional talent in India exploded, while the demand for engineers in the United States stagnated. While engineering salaries have declined or are flat in the United States, salaries in India are increasing 15% per year.

What kind of country is India and who are these people that US professionals must now compete with? India is a huge country with a population that is over three times that of the United States. A complete answer to this question may be beyond the comprehension of the human mind, but Suketu Mehta's book Maximum City provides one part of the answer, for one part of India.

Suketu Mehta was born in Calcutta and lived in Bombay for nine years, before moving with his family to the United States. In the US, Mehta became a journalist and a writer. It was as a journalist that he returned to his native Bombay for two years in 1998. His book Maximum City is his account of this sojourn in Bombay.

Maximum City can be divided into four logical sections: Mehta's personal experience in India, the Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 and the political forces behind them, the India criminal underworld and the Indian film industry.

Mehta informs the reader that Bombay (now officially called Mumbai) is a city of fourteen million people. Bombay's population density is one million people per square mile in places. In contrast New York City, the most populous city in the United States, has about eight million people. Manhattan (New York County), the most densely populated part of New York City, has about 66,000 people per square mile.

Mehta finds that the kind of lifestyle he has come to expect does not come cheap in Bombay. While labor is inexpensive, at least in Bombay living space is not.

Coming from New York, I am a pauper in Bombay. The going rate for a nice two-bedroom apartment in the part of South Bombay where I grew up is $3,000 a month, plus $200,000 as a deposit, interest-free and returnable in rupees. This is after the real estate prices have fallen by 40 percent.

How Mehta is able to afford a western lifestyle is not clear from reading the book. He comes from a family of diamond merchants who may have helped subsidize his lifestyle while he was in Bombay. In addition to the sizable rent, Mehta spends the first month fixing all of the things that are broken in the apartment.

The pipes in the building don't run straight; every time people make renovations, which is a continuous process, they get freelance plumbers to move the pipes out of the way when they're inconvenient. This blocks the natural flow of sewage and clean water, mixing them up. [...] Sewer water is constantly threatening to rise up into my bathroom, as it has in other flats in the building. [...] Meanwhile, I am paying rent every month to my landlord for the privilege of fixing his flat.

From Silicon Valley the impression that we tend to have is that the cost of living in India is very low compared to the United States. The common impression is that an Indian software engineer can live well for $15,000 US per year. Whether this is true in Bangalore or not I don't know. But according to Mehta's account of life in India, the cost of something like a western lifestyle is not low in Bombay. Mehta is paying $36,000 per year in rent, in addition to the cost of repairs. There is also a significant exchange rate risk incurred by the huge rental deposit, since it is paid in US dollars and refunded in Rupees.

The narrative in Maximum City cuts between time periods. Mehta traveled to India to research articles before he moved to India for two years. His account of the 1992-1993 riots starts in 1996. The riots were sparked by the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. The mosque was destroyed by Hindu nationalists who claimed that the mosque was built on a Hindu holy site.

Mehta starts developing contacts with the Shiv Sena party, which is lead by a Hindu nationalist demagogue named Bal Thackeray. Among other things, Thackeray has stated that he admires Adolf Hitler. Like Hitler, Thackeray's politics is based on racism: India is for Hindus and Muslims should move to Pakistan. The Shiv Sena is allied with the Indian BJP party and came to dominate the government of Maharashtra, the Indian state where Bombay is located. When there were riots in Bombay, killing hundreds of Muslims, no one was punished. In contrast many Muslims were arrested and convicted for the bombings which followed in revenge for the Muslim deaths.

Like many journalists, Mehta seems to have a talent for listening without projecting much of himself. While spending time with people, buying them meals and listening to their stories, there is an inner Suketu Mehta who is sometimes horrified by the accounts he hears. He develops a long term acquaintance with a man who Mehta calls Sunil (the names in the book have been changed). Sunil, who is a member of Shiv Sena, tells Mehta what it is like to murder someone by burning them alive (Sunil's victim is a Muslim baker he kills during the riots). Over the years spanned by Mehta's account, Sunil rises from being a street thug to a local Shiv Sena party leader.

As the popularity of the Home Box Office series The Sopranos and The God Father movies demonstrates, there is a popular fascination with outlaws and gangsters. Suketu Mehta shares this fascination.

In all societies there seems to be a sort of mirror relationship between the cops and the crooks. In Sicily the judges who prosecuted the mafia with such courage grew up with people who later became mafioso. In New York City some children in Irish or Italian neighborhoods became cops and others gangsters.

Mehta's account of gangsters, perhaps of necessity, also includes the Indian police. In India the line between cops and gangsters sometimes hardly seems to exist. The Indian police just seem to be members of a different gang.

Mehta develops a friendship with a relatively high level police officer who he calls Ajay Lal. Ajay claims to be an honest cop who is surrounded by corruption. Ajay's rise in the Bombay police was rapid and founded, in part, on his work solving the revenge bombings prompted by the anti-Muslim riots. Although Ajay's bosses take money from the Hindu and Muslim criminal gangs, Ajay refuses to take bribes. Like Frank Serpico this causes constant friction with higher level police officers who, ironically, had Ajay investigated for corruption. He survived this investigation unscathed, but there is some ambiguity when it comes to explaining Ajay's lifestyle (Ajay claims to have benefited from investments made on his behalf by college classmates).

The Indian legal system described in Maximum City is broken and dysfunctional on every level. The civil court system is so clogged with cases that civil suits take so long to settle that the issues no longer matter. Gangsters have become an alternate legal system, settling disputes that cannot be taken to the courts. Mehta tells a story of someone who is owed money and who cannot get redress until he goes to the local gang leader who resolves the problem.

Those who are considering offshoring software work to India would be naive to assume that the Indian legal system will protect them. Regardless of what may be written into law, in a broken legal system there is no protection for intellectual property. Software may be developed under contract in India and then resold by those paid to develop it. The company that owns the intellectual property has little hope for redress. Trade secrets disclosed as part of a partnership face a similar problem. Nor is there any guarantee that a financial contract will be honored, since there is no effective legal system to enforce contracts.

The criminal justices system in India is equally broken. There is little effective oversight of the police. Mehta witnesses police beatings administered by Ajay Lal's underlings. After one beating Ajay tells Mehta "This is nothing. This is Walt Disney". Ajay's underling adds "The real beating is still to come". One of the Muslim gang hitmen Mehta meets tells him of a police torture session:

The policeman stripped him and put him facedown on a small bench in the interrogation room. They tied his hands to the bench. The officer put on gloves. He took a small bottle containing a particular kind of acid; one drop on human skin will eat through it like Drano down a bathroom drain. The gloved hands spread his buttocks. "They put it in my godown," Blackeye told me. "They stretched my godown and put the whole bottle in my godown." More than a year later, every time he shits, a little bit of flesh comes out.

When the police are faced with a hardcase that will not talk, regardless of the torture applied, they will sometimes bring in his family and beat them in front of him until he talks.

The brutality of the Indian police exists not only because brutal sadists are not punished but because it provides the only way that the police can suppress crime in a country where the legal system does not function. In criminal cases witnesses are bribed, intimidated or murdered. A gang hitman, arrested for murder and turned over to the courts, faces little in the way of punishment. If the case is not dismissed, he may serve a short prison term (with catered food, drugs and girls provided by the gang). The hitman will kill again, so the police arrange an "encounter". The result of an "encounter" is that the bad guy is killed in a "shootout" with the police. According to Mehta the police have assassination squads who are responsible for "encounters".

The brutality of the Indian police does little to guarantee law and order. The wealthy diamond merchants and movie producers that Mehta socializes with are victims of gang extortion. Some wealthy people take pains to hold low key weddings, since any ostentatious display of wealth means being targeted for extortion. One friend of Mehta's who was not very wealthy actually faxed his tax returns to the gang boss to prove that he could not afford the extortion amount demanded. Wealthy individuals who refuse to pay the extortion demands are murdered and serve as examples to other potential extortion victims.

By the end of the book, Suketu Mehta's pursuit of the Indian underworld, both police and gangsters, starts to wear in him. He writes:

I am sick of meeting murderers. For some years now, I have been actively seeking them out, in Varanasi, Punjab, Assam and Bombay, to ask them this one question: "What does it feel like to take a human life?" This unbroken catalog of murder is beginning to wear on me.

For most western readers India is an unknown continent. The unknown quality of India is what makes Maximum City readable. But the book is flawed and would not be so interesting if the topic were more familiar. Maximum City has the feel of a book that Mehta had a hard time finishing. Although Mehta traveled to India over the years, the time recounted in Maximum City was from 1998 to 2000. Three years later Mehta finally turned his manuscript over to the publisher. These three years did not produce a carefully crafted work. In many places Mehta provides little background description. This is most noticeable when it comes to food. Many of the dishes he mentions are unfamiliar, even to westerners who like Indian food. It would have been nice if he provided a brief digression on some of these dishes.

Editors no longer seem to exist at most publishers. Mehta provides an overly long account of the Indian movie industry that could have been improved by the attention of an editor. Mehta became friends with an Indian movie producer and got involved in writing scripts for "Bollywood" movies. He provides a long account on Indian movies, their financing (through the underworld) and their plots. Mehta assumes that what interests him would also interest the western reader. For those who do not naturally relate to Indian movies, with their songs and melodramatic plots, his account becomes tedious.

Mehta befriends a "beer bar" girl he calls Monalisa. The "beer bar" girls are dancers. Unlike strippers in the west, these Indian dancers dance with their cloths on. These woman master the dance of seduction and male desire. They learn to draw out an imagined romance on the part of their male customers, extracting as much money along the way as possible. Like the account of the Indian movie industry, what would be interesting at shorter length starts to drag in Maximum City.

The scope and diversity of Bombay is staggering, even for someone who grew up there and is fluent in the local languages. Bombay and its complexity seems to have defeated any attempts that Mehta made to organize a narrative. The city seems to have worn him out and by the last page Maximum City wears the reader out as well.

Ian Kaplan
December 2004
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