Maximum City sounds like a good name for a non-Big-Two superhero comic, but it’s a book about Bombay by Suketu Mehta. (The city is officially Mumbai, but Mehta prefers the old name.)

It’s amazing. I reviewed a few other books in the Gawking at Modern India genre,and this is by far the best.

Mostly, it’s because Mehta dives down, deep down, into the underbelly of the city. A lot of the book is about the gangwar— one word in Indian English, pronounced like gen-gwar. He finds the hit men and hangs out with them. He’s full of factoids about them. They’re mostly slumdwellers (but then most Bombayites are; we’ll get back to that). It’s a good job for them; most of the time they hang around watching TV or talking, between jobs; they have plenty of money to spend on girls.  They love Bollywood movies, especially the ones about gangsters. They’re often quite religious… when death is on the line, you’d like some supernatural aid. They seem to like talking to Mehta– they like the idea that their story is being told accurately.

Mehta talks to one of the highest bosses, who runs the gang from Karachi. I wish superhero comics writers would read this, to understand how a powerful villain really talks.  The boss is gracious, solicitous.  He wants to appear normal and rational.  He offers a free contract for Mehta: he can have some work done.  That’s the slang for offing someone.  Mehta muses on what it’s like to be able to call up someone to have someone else killed.  He says it’s calming– you feel a little more magnanimous about Bombay’s many irritations.

He spends almost as much time with one of Bombay’s top cops.  Though honest and effective, he’s also about as brutal as the gangsters. He doesn’t much bother with detective work, though he uses plenty of informants; he picks up a gangster and tortures them. If the police have had enough of a gangster, it’s far too unreliable to try to prosecute him– a bribe will quickly free him.  They just shoot him.

The metropolitan area has about 20 million residents.  9 million of them live in the slums. This is largely because of a well-meaning, disastrous bit of legislation: the Rent Act of 1947. This froze rents at their 1940 levels, and prevented evictions of tenants. Naturally, no one who has an apartment ever moves out; when they die, their heirs inherit the place with its frozen rent. The law was intended to be temporary, but the millions of tenants far outnumber the landlords, so all parties support the bill and it’s been extended till the present.  (Mehta notes that India is the opposite of the US, in that poor people vote, and the rich do not.)

Landlords can’t make money at 1940 rents, so they refuse to maintain the buildings. Services and pipes and wires fail; the tenants repair them haphazardly. There’s no way to make new buildings for profit, so none are built. Instead, people build their own houses in the slums.

Another long chapter is on bar girls.  In the West these would be strippers, but in fact the dancers don’t take off their clothes. Men shower them with money anyway.  They press to get the girl’s number; she is expert at slowing them down, only slowly relenting to give a man her phone number.  She will accept calls, and then only accept meetings if he’s generous with gifts.  It’s not respectable, but there’s far more money in it than in the respectable jobs.

Mehta frequently wonders how Bombay works at all.  Everything is slow, corrupt, falling apart.  Gangsters extort money from businesses; nationalist politicians keep the population at the edge of riot. And yet people keep moving into the city, eager to get in on the action.  Bombay produces 25% of India’s industrial production and 40% of its foreign exchange.

While living in Bombay, Mehta managed to write a Bollywood film, Mission Kashmir. This was done in story sessions with the director and other writers. Though there was a script, you don’t get actors to appear in your film by sending them a script.  You go to their house and basically act out the story for them.  Oh, and banks won’t finance movies, which are highly risky ventures; the underworld does.

There’s a chapter, full of ironies, on the Jains. They are big in the diamond industry, and thus many are very well off.  But many of them choose to give away all their wealth and live as poor beggars; Mehta follows one family through this process.  The family not only gives away everything it has and wanders the roads asking for food; it splits up, as men and women monks can’t travel together.  And yet the process of giving away wealth is done as ostentatiously as possible, at a massive town-wide gathering.

More factoids for you: India is not over-dense with people, compared to Europe. The population density is greater in Belgium than in India. On the other hand, parts of central Bombay are denser than anywhere else on Earth: 1 million people per square mile.

On the lighter side: to Indianize your glass of Coca-Cola, you add spices: lemon, rock salt, pepper, and cumin.

The crime and corruption and density Mehta talks about, by the way, are not exotic features of India; American cities were exactly the same a hundred years ago.

A lot of the success of the book comes from its choice of subjects, but also from the depth and empathy that Mehta brings to them.  He obviously spent a lot of time with people, and the result is a set of portraits that feel like far more than interviews.  (And probably only a born Bombayite could have written this book, simply because he has to know English, Hindi, Gujarati, and Marathi to understand what’s going on around him.)