BOOKS: Life lessons in a city of hope

Salil Tripathi Maximum City: Bombay lost and found by Suketu Mehta REVIEW pounds 20 (497pp) pounds 18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
On a recent flight from Oslo to London, I overheard the staff talking about their next destination - Bombay, where I grew up. The older flight attendant, who had been before, told her younger colleague: "It has very rich people, but also very poor people. It is very crowded and smelly and dirty. But it is very safe." The younger man nodded nervously.

If he is still looking for guidance, he would do well to read Suketu Mehta's remarkable Maximum City. Mehta was born in Bombay and is based in New York. In the late 1990s, he lived in Bombay again; and in these pages, densely packed with facts, observations, vignettes and insights, he brings the city alive with love, longing and sadness in a way never accomplished in non-fiction.

The late poet Dom Moraes tried it in the 1970s, but then prosaic American fact-checkers clipped his imagination. We had to wait for Salman Rushdie to do Bombay justice and, as his imagination soared, he captured its raucous, life-affirming energy not only in Midnight's Children but almost all his subsequent novels. Literature about Bombay has grown to a respectable size: the fiction of Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry and Vikram Chandra, the poetry of Arun Kolatkar, the history of Gillian Tindall and Sujata Patel.

Now, Mehta takes us to parts of Bombay written about relatively rarely. He is not writing fiction, so he does not offer us characters like Rushdie's Saleem Sinai. But we do meet Sunil, Satish and Mohsin, who can describe ways of killing with the clinical nonchalance of Tarantino characters; the wrist-slashing, melodramatic cabaret dancer Monalisa; and Vijay Lal, the police officer who is scrupulously incorruptible and yet does not hesitate to torture suspects to obtain confessions.

Bombay has some extremely wealthy people: the city's residents pay over a third of Indian income-tax revenues. Mehta largely ignores that set, choosing to write instead about Bombay's underbelly - its gangsters, its call-girls, its brutalised police officers, and its superstitious Bollywood aspirants. They are interesting because they are, as Mehta explains, "morally compromised".

But they are not amoral. The book's focus on the city's dark side, where money, sex, showbusiness and crime meet, mingle and part, has a purpose. There is a core of humanity in the people Mehta meets, which is why the city has not descended into nightmarish anarchy, and how it continues to accommodate newcomers unhesitatingly.

Mehta reminds us that there will soon be more people in Bombay than in the whole of Australia. In the 1960s, when VS Naipaul arrived searching his roots, he was subdued by the sight of thousands of people from whom he seemed indistinguishable, and concluded that the land of his ancestors was an area of darkness.

Indeed, Bombay is crowded, and its suburban trains rush about with passengers hanging precariously at the sides. Mehta observes that Bombay's real luxuries are "running water, clean bathrooms, and transport and housing fit for human beings". Yet if human life has not become Hobbesian, it is because of the redeeming quality of insaniyat, or humanity. If you extend your hand to catch a train, you will find "many hands stretching out to grab you on board... And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable or whether you were born in this city or arrived only this morning."

So the flight attendant need not worry. The city will surprise him with its warmth. That's why thousands continue to enter Bombay daily, live, and not lose their sanity. Bombay allows them space to dream. And, as Mehta points out, that "dream life is bigger than... squalid quarters." That magic is Bombay's best secret, and Suketu Mehta brings it to life.