Maximum City by Suketu Mehta


I would disagree with those that have classified Maximum City under “Description and Travel”. A typical book of travel is mostly an outsider’s perspective. Here, the outsider’s perspective notwithstanding, is a lot more – nostalgia, and a sincere attempt to contextualize and understand a culture one has left behind or never known in the past despite proximity.

What begins as a vent for frustration while readjusting in the home country after a long absence, emerges gradually into a study of characters which are by no means ordinary, in the backdrop of a city pushed to its limits. The main sections of the book close in on the lives of gangsters, politicians and cops(Power), bar dancers and film personalities(Pleasure), a family of billionaire Jain renunciates in transition, among others(Passages). In Mehta’s own words –

“In Bombay I met people who lived closer to their seductive extremities than anyone I had ever known”.

Mehta is drawn into their lives in an ineluctable way, drawn to self-discovery.

“…I followed them closer to my own extremity, closer than I had ever been.”

The writing is thoroughly contemporary, clear and even across its vast length. But it could have been been concise in parts without losing its essence. Parts of the gangsters’ and bar dancers’ lives appear repetitive, in all possibility because one has already had enough to move on. Then there are sections that are sedate, reflective, philosophical even, as the book matures into its later phases, as his awareness of the city and empathy for its inhabitants grows. The closure, ending in an epiphanic vision in a crowded Bombay street, is simply brilliant, one of the finest pieces of writing I have read in a while. But what keeps the reader arrested, despite the length, despite the cynicism of an outsider, is the tenacious pursuit of understanding, of assimilation, the genuine search for meaning in chaos. This is where Mehta abundantly succeeds.

Rating: 4/5

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Alter ego of @thecallofwords Wandering in the flow of words

2 thoughts on “Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

  1. Hi,
    you have a very interesting blog.
    I am very interested in Indian authors (and writing myself a blog about Indian writing – in Italian) and it is a pleasure to find here my favourite books.
    I found Maximum City a great book (I read it just before landing in Bombay!), well written and extremely intelligent.

    However, I think it is having the effect of scaring (western) people about Bombay.
    So many people who read the book told me “I am not going to set foot in Bombay whatsoever!”
    The deep humanity of the people of Bombay does not emerge from the book, or in a way it is submerged by its crazyness.

    Anyway, I loved the book and I do love Bombay.


    1. Hi Silvia, Thanks for visiting my blog.
      I too found Maximum City engrossing. Regarding the feeling of apprehension, I think one must take into consideration the context of the book. The characters/situations were anything but ordinary, and thus their experiences. Having said that, compared to most western cities, the chaos of Bombay/Mumbai, for that matter any subcontinental city would be a bit disarming at first. I’m glad to know you have grown to love the city.

      BTW, took a look at your site. Pity I can’t read Italian (my knowledge is pretty much limited to Buon Giorno, and some of the classical music terms), and my experience of the language is mostly from films.

      Hope you have wonderful experiences in India. Ciao.


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