The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Addictive air and the passing of culture

Mehta’s book has the silent intrusiveness, the busyness and ubiquity, the voraciousness of a book of pictures, as well as the largesse that prose gives. But Mehta doesn’t stand at the crossroads in which Singh found himself when confronted with Bombay; the shift has already occurred, and we are in a new world with Maximum City — the book is a giant embrace, not only of a city, but of hope, and its more complex, earthly incarnation, desire, in the age of the free market. It performs this embrace brilliantly and passionately. It is not, really, a nostalgic book, in spite of all it says about loss, displacement, and the act of returning; its most strained notes are the elegiac ones. The book possesses the hard-headed exuberance of the 19th-century novels, their fascination with the spirit of compromise and with survival skills, their complete understanding of the importance of the mercantile and the pecuniary. All this it engages with not by examining the lives of the major industrialists in the city, which it also might have, but by looking at its low life — the dancing girls in bars, the whores and transsexuals, the hit men in gangs, the lowly cadres in political parties that do the dirty work during the riots. Like the elephant-headed Ganesh, who transcribed the Mahabharata as the sage composed it aloud, Mehta sits uncomfortably close to garrulous hit-men, typing their memories and impressions of murder into his laptop. But he’s also very good at capturing the speech-rhythms, inflections, and mannerisms of leaders of dubious organizations, political and criminal, at teasing out from them their sinister discourse made up of edict, threat, autobiography, emotional turbulence, and Reader’s Digest homilies. This is from his conversation with Bal Thackeray: ‘I start. “I am writing a book about Bombay —” “Mumbai,” he corrects me. “Mumbai,” I agree. He speaks to me in fractured English. He is a thin, bony man of average height, with suspiciously jet-black crop of hair, wearing very large square spectacles.’

‘“Mumbai,” I agree’, says Mehta, though we know, from the subtitle of his book and what’s in it, that Mehta does not agree with the enforced renaming, by the Shiv Sena, of his city; the title, then, is a small act of revenge; and the little scene, deftly plotted, dramatizes the importance of deferred rebellions and immediate compromises in Bombay. Towards the end of the meandering interview, Mehta asks this dangerous man ‘what accounts for his charisma’. Thackeray turns lyrical: ‘If you have a flower in your hand and it has a typical fragrance, how can you say that where is the fragrance, where does it come from' A fragrance cannot be seen; a charisma cannot be explained.’ From Chhota Shakeel, gangster on the run and expatriate ‘don’ of Bombay’s underworld, Mehta extracts, among other things, a quote from John F Kennedy: ‘“My intention is, What can I do for my country. Not, What has the country has done for me'” Then he adds, “Think about that.”’ I don’t think Mehta is just laughing at these people, whose actions are partly responsible for the incendiary, ever-returning disruptions that Bombay suffers today; I think he’s carefully recording the defensively opaque speech of people for whom violence and self-love are interchangeable with patriotism. As with the 19th-century novelists, respectability and the desire for it is, to a considerable extent, Mehta’s slightly dated but unexpectedly pertinent subject; for even Chhota Shakeel wants to be respectable. So does the city I grew up in; like a heroine of dubious origin and inexhaustible energy in a novel by the other Thackeray, it keeps inventing and reinventing itself, bruising itself as it looks for acceptance — and it’s to this drive, this desire, that Mehta’s book is so exceptionally attuned.

Mehta hints at, but doesn’t dwell upon, something that’s related to this relentless drive and which struck me when I went to Bombay, after a fairly long interval, late in 2003, and again earlier this year — its peculiar infantilism, which is integral to its energy as well as to its inequities and violence. Mehta taps into one variation of this when he transcribes the prevaricating, almost childlike ramblings of Bal Thackeray and Chhota Shakeel and others on the page; both his ear and ours pick up, mysteriously, a terrifyingly out of place register of innocence in their outpourings. It reminds me of the surprise I’d felt, at last, upon seeing the faces of certain dictators, in a photograph or a documentary — Idi Amin or Pol Pot, say — surprise at the childlike simplicity and openness of the expression upon it.

But it’s another kind of infantilism I’m thinking of, to do with Bombay’s educated upper middle class, which I encountered in 2003 and again this year, in June, on my way to England, a few weeks before the bombs went off. It’s to do with the way this class of people, in the midst of which I grew up, has come to accept and celebrate its own myth, as well as the myths, like the ‘trickle-down effect’, that have justified its existence after 1991, when India entered the free market. Nowhere else, I think, is the idea of the ‘trickle-down effect’ embraced with such simple abandon; I saw this clearly in the area around the Yacht Club, where I was staying; out on a walk, I passed two women and a toddler sitting and eating at ten o’ clock at night upon the bright macadam of a by-lane, while Indigo (a restaurant which came into being long after I’d left Bombay), in another lane nearby, was offering a ‘special night’ to its clientele for 25,000 rupees a head, which would allow customers to sample some of the best wines in the world. Such contrasts have always governed Bombay, if not in quite so stark a way; but now a new theoretical fabric connects the two women and the child on the macadam with the wine-sampler in Indigo, permitting them a brave new co-existence. Conspicuous consumption and conspicuous expenditure have become a form of social welfare; spending creates wealth, and there is, miraculously, suddenly no contradiction between having a good time and doing your bit; the person at Indigo is assured (as he couldn’t have been in the Seventies, when spending was a guilty pleasure) that some of his 25,000 — not visibly perhaps, but inevitably — and his pleasure actually enhance the women and child on the macadam.

What is it that creates and fosters this infantilism, and feeds its hidden undercurrent — an animosity to complex thought' For, among the unremarked-upon casualties in Bombay in the last decade has been its intellectual life, starved and impoverished, and almost killed off. I’ve wondered why this has happened to a city that was so fruitfully inhabited by artists and poets in the Sixties and Seventies, and where intellectual exchange, at least in the English language, was more egalitarian than anywhere I’ve encountered since in India. One of the main reasons seems to be what happened to Bombay’s leading newspaper, The Times of India, as its horizons widened and it strove to remake itself as the leading newspaper of the country; this wonderful paper, which I grew up with, was transformed, in the Nineties, into an instrument for pushing the older, genteel spaces of culture into invisibility. The other must be the banishment of the university from the Gothic buildings and lawns in the centre of Bombay to the nowhere of Kalina. The mainstreaming of ‘Bollywood’, whose stars and young directors seem much closer to Disney off-screen than in connection to the medium itself, is perhaps another reason, but less serious, I think, than the first two. What happens to a city in which there are no ponderous, irrelevant discussions, no serious, boring sections in a newspaper, and almost nothing of a self-serving intelligentsia' On those last two visits, I inhaled the air — it’s still addictive, and swiftly fills the head — and, sensing that even the texture of happiness has changed in Bombay, have been wondering, since then, if the passing of certain moments in its culture really matters.

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