Bombay: The Lower Depths


In 1998, Suketu Mehta, a writer based in New York, returned to Bombay, where he had spent much of his childhood, in order to research a book on the city. Built by the British, Bombay remains India’s financial and commercial capital, and, despite being inhabited by 14 million people, most of whom live in slums, and a growing reputation for violent crime, it continues to inspire hopes for a better future everywhere in the rest of India. For two and a half years, Mehta wandered its streets, with his “laptop in a green backpack,” and pursued everything that, he writes, had made him “curious as a child”: “cops, gangsters, painted women, movie stars, people who give up the world.”

As people talked to him, he writes, his fingers danced on his laptop’s keyboard. His appetite for stories took him into slums, trysts with hired killers in shady motels, scriptwriting sessions for a Bollywood film, a mildly erotic friendship with a bar dancer, and eventually to Dubai for meetings with fugitive mafia dons. One day he found himself at a police station in Bombay (renamed in 1995 as Mumbai) with three friends, a well-known film director called Vidhu Vinod Chopra, his wife, Anu Chandra, a film journalist with the newsmagazine India Today, and Ajay Lal, a police officer.

Mehta saw two men arrested with counterfeit money brought into the police station. As he describes it, in the present tense he uses throughout the book, “both speak English, and are well dressed…. A little more money, a little more education, and they would be People Like Us.” The police officer, Ajay Lal, tells Mehta, the film director, and his journalist wife to “sit in the back of the room, on a small sofa.” From here, they watch their friend and three other policemen beat the two suspects, first with bare hands and then with a leather strap. Lal threatens to give electric shocks to their genitals. “More information,” Mehta notes, “comes out.” Finally, Lal tells the other policemen to take the suspects away and shoot them.

After they leave, the film director, “who has witnessed such scenes before,” laughs at his distraught wife. He had asked her while the men were being beaten if she wanted to leave. But she “could not tear herself away in spite of her shock.” “I’ve never seen anybody being beaten,” she says. “I can’t wait to go home and hug my child.” Ajay Lal assures them that “this is nothing. This is Walt Disney.” The director says “knowledgeably” that “the real beating is still to come.” Mehta then informs the reader of what that might consist of: a mafia killer he met had had acid poured into his anus.

As Mehta and his friends leave the police station, the film journalist says, “There’s a whole world around us that we know nothing about. I just want to watch my Hindi films and be safe.” “All of a sudden,” Mehta remarks, “she’s conscious of some subterranean stream of homicidal violence five minutes down the road from her plant-filled house, some deep river of pain on whose banks she lives.”

Later, Mehta has Ajay Lal to dinner at his flat. Lal’s wife turns out to be one of the “People Like Us.” She read history at Oxford, and she wants to go to America to continue her studies. Ajay Lal too “wants to go abroad to study terrorism.” He “foresees a global linkage of the Muslim militant organizations—in Afghanistan, in Chechnya—with the Muslim criminal gangs in Bombay and in Russia.” Mehta helps Lal apply for a fellowship at the Rand Corporation in Washington, D.C., from where the “world’s leading authority on terrorism” writes back with an invitation for Lal.

India has the highest number of torture and custodial deaths in the world. According to government records, there were 1,307 deaths in judicial custody in 2002 alone.1 Mehta reveals that Ajay Lal himself was responsible for killing twenty-three people in custody in less than a year. Lal claims to be driven by “the fight against evil.” Mehta thinks that Lal could be the “reincarnation” of Charles Forjett, a notoriously harsh police officer in nineteenth-century Bombay, who also wished “to crush evil in the bud.” But then Forjett was a colonial police officer, rewarded, when he retired, by Bombay’s businessmen, for quelling “the explosive forces of native society.” Lal serves the government of an independent and democratic India, which has signed several international treaties banning torture.

It may be that police officers will tend to use extreme methods to keep the peace in places where much money is being hectically made. Certainly, in this respect, postcolonial Bombay differs little from its colonial version—the port city of the British Empire, which existed mostly in order to export the produce of the countryside and import the manufactured goods of London, Manchester, and Glasgow. Formerly a fishing hamlet, Bombay rose swiftly in the nineteenth century, when it became, under the supervision of British imperialists, part of the large political and economic networks now known as globalization.

Mehta deals briefly with Bombay’s formative colonial past, which preoccupied the British novelist Gillian Tindall in City of Gold: The Biography of Bombay (1982).2 As she described it, the city benefited most when the British bullied China into opening up its markets to India-grown opium. Many of its businessmen made their first big fortunes when the American Civil War disrupted the export of American raw cotton and created high demand for Indian cotton in Britain. Business interests dominated politics, and even weakened racial prejudice, in the city: partnerships between British and Indian businessmen flourished at a time when the British ruled much of India and lived sequestered lives in Calcutta and Madras. Economic opportunities attracted to Bombay a diverse population of entrepreneurs: Jews from Baghdad (notably the Sassoon family, of which the poet Siegfried Sassoon was a descendant), Armenians, the heterodox Muslim communities of the Bohras and Khojas, Hindus from western India, and, most prominently, Parsis, Zoroastrians who are said to have migrated to India from Persia in the first millennium AD.

During the Indian Mutiny in 1857, the city’s rich Parsis and Jews offered to help the British suppress rebellious Hindu and Muslim soldiers in North India; and Forjett was lauded when he had a few alleged conspirators blown from cannons in order to instill fear among likely native troublemakers. With its parks, private mansions, and Victorian Gothic buildings, Bombay always appeared, and often presented itself as, separate from the rest of India, as much of a world unto itself as Shanghai and Canton, the other great trading centers of the British Empire.

The disparities between the rich and the poor, which disfigure Bombay’s landscape today—thin, grimy towers of middle-class apartments marooned amid the shantytowns of rags, cardboard, and tin—were becoming visible at the beginning of the twentieth century. The British writer William Digby could see in 1901 that “behind the exceedingly beautiful gateway into India which the city of Bombay constitutes lie the most heavily-burdened and distressed peasant farmers in the Empire.” In 1921, Gandhi claimed that Bombay’s big buildings hid “squalid poverty and dirt.” While exhorting Indians to economic self-sufficiency and a ban on foreign imports, he asked Bombay to be “ready to lose what she has.”

As it happened, Bombay’s businessmen donated generously to the Gandhi-led Congress Party, and apparently didn’t lose much. In 1939, the Parsi Tatas owned the biggest firm in India. The businessmen and industrialists of Bombay came to be very influential in independent India, despite Pandit Nehru’s commitment to a state-controlled and planned economy. With its many small and large factories, the city embodied Indian hopes for rapid industrialization. But government restrictions on investment and imports led to the rise of a parallel “black economy” dominated by real estate speculators, bootleggers, and smugglers. Some of these men were Indian Muslims, with financial and commercial links to the Middle East. Helped by politicians and the police, they came to run mini-empires of organized crime by the late 1970s.

Overpopulation and economic recession began to catch up with Bombay in the 1960s. Mehta describes in lucid detail the severe shortage of housing that has marked life in Bombay for decades now. Nevertheless, migrants from North and South India continue to arrive in the city, and settle wherever they find empty spaces: on pavements, below bridges, and beside railway tracks.

Established in 1966, the Hindu extremist party Shiv Sena sought from the beginning to channel the resentment of middle-class people over their degraded conditions and apparently diminishing prospects, first against migrants from North and South India and Communist-dominated trade unions, and then Muslims, who form between 15 and 20 percent of the city’s population. Led by Bal Thackeray, a failed cartoonist and admirer of Hitler, Shiv Sena activists organized youth clubs, trade unions, and schools; its less idealistic members—mostly unemployed young men—extorted money from street hawkers and small businessmen. Supported by an unlikely mix of middle-class Hindus, factory workers, and slum dwellers, the Shiv Sena finally came to power in Bombay in the Eighties—the same time that its electoral ally, the Hindu nationalist BJP, began to receive middle-class support across India for its aggressively anti-Muslim position.

The liberalization of India’s quasi-socialist economy in the 1990s cre-ated much visible wealth in Bombay. Economic reformers from both the Congress and the BJP held up the city’s booming stock exchange, new malls, hotels, and restaurants as proof of the “India Shining” they claimed to have created. But many among the city’s elite came to be afflicted by unchecked greed—of the kind also found in the post-socialist economies of Russia and China. Bombay is the source of much of India’s bad news; and each of the stock market and banking scams, and gun-running and drug-trafficking scandals, reveals the links between senior politicians, bureaucrats, criminal gangs, Bollywood magnates, slum landlords, and corporate tycoons.

Though out of power, the Shiv Sena remains strong, with Thackeray often playing broker among the city’s fractious elites. As Mehta notes correctly, “the party’s money comes not from the rank and file but from the city’s leading businessmen.” It shares its influence in Bombay only with the mafia and the police, which tries to hide its primary role as the guardian of rich and powerful people by showy assertions of zeal—staged killings, torture—against relatively minor criminals.

Like most big businesses in Bombay, filmmaking, too, depends greatly on what Indians call “muscle power” and “black money.” Mehta details the manifold links between the mafia and Bollywood, which were most vividly exposed in March 1993, when Muslim gangsters set off bombs, killing more than three hundred people. The gangsters, some of whom were linked to a famous film star, were seeking revenge for the killing of hundreds of Muslims in the riots that followed the BJP-led demolition of the Babri Mosque in North India.

Tainted by the Shiv Sena, Bombay’s cosmopolitan image was destroyed by the anti-Muslim pogrom in 1992–1993, when, equipped with electoral lists, apparently respectable middle-class Hindus joined slum dwellers, and often the police, in attacking Muslim homes and businesses. Even Muslims living in the high-rise buildings of affluent South Bombay were forced to hide themselves from well-armed mobs. In 1998, a judicial commission named Hindu politicians, policemen, and Shiv Sena activists responsible for instigating and organizing the killing of Muslims. None of the accused has faced trial so far, although hundreds of Muslims were imprisoned and tortured for their alleged role in the bomb blasts set off in retaliation.


In the early pages of Maximum City, Mehta evokes his childhood with beautifully modulated affection and regret. His family of diamond businessmen was among the well-to-do residents of South Bombay who were either oblivious or contemptuous of the other Bombay, “whose people came to wash our clothes, look at our electric meters, drive our cars, inhabit our nightmares.” He believes that the city’s “different worlds came together with an explosion” during the 1993 riots.

Returning to Bombay in 1998, after a long spell in New York, Mehta settled uneasily with his wife and children into a bourgeois existence. He felt himself reacting initially to the city as a “foreigner,” exhausted by its “scenes of fantastic deprivation.” Not surprisingly, his most affecting accounts are of outsiders in Bombay, such as this sixteen-year-old runaway poet from Bihar, India’s poorest state, who sleeps on the pavement and who wishes to write about, and for, poor people:

In his free time, Babbanji travels around the city, looking at sunsets and destitution. He goes to disaster areas, such as the site of a recently collapsed building, and writes a poem titled “Builders’ Hands Stained Red.” Babbanji takes me to the winding lanes behind Flora Fountain. There is a group of African drug peddlers and addicts who sleep and conduct business here. One morning Babbanji was passing by this spot when he saw that a crowd had gathered. The police had raided the addicts, who line the roads here in the morning. The cops jumped out of their trucks and went after them. Those who could ran away, but one of them had both his feet amputated and was hobbling along on his crutches. The police caught up with him easily, broke his crutches, and felled him with a blow of their lathis. Then, in full view of the crowd, they assaulted the crippled addict with their sticks, raining blows on him as he attempted to slither away on the ground. Babbanji felt greatly moved and composed a poem about the incident from the addict’s point of view.

In the tradition of social and political reportage pioneered by George Orwell, and continued by, among others, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Alma Guillermoprieto, the writer not only bears wit- ness to poverty, deprivation, violence, and political oppression in little-known places but also tries to show how they arise and how they are often directly linked to the lives of his middle-class readers. Mehta mostly follows a contemporary journalistic convention in which the reporter effaces his own personality and opinions in order to amplify the voices of the people he meets.

He reproduces with remarkable fidelity what he sees and hears: the slangy Hindi of the mafia dons, the peculiar English in which Bal Thackeray expresses his anti-Muslim rage, the world of Bombay’s bars where “fully clothed young girls dance on an extravagantly decorated stage to recorded Hindi film music, and men come to watch, shower money over their heads, and fall in love,” and the underground room of the prison gallows that a former convict he meets describes as “spattered” with the “feces and tongues” of the condemned, who, as they “hung writhing from the rope,” had “shit their pants and bit down on their tongues.”

The quietly embattled Parsi lives found in Rohinton Mistry’s fiction about Bombay do not feature much in Maximum City. There is also little in it of the poets, painters, playwrights, editors, and critics—Nissim Ezekiel, M.F. Husain, Arun Kolatkar,3 Adil Jussawalla, Vijay Tendulkar, Arundhati Subhramaniam, Ranjit Hoskote—who have made Bombay a center of artistic modernism in India.

But Mehta’s energy and his gift for lively portraiture more than compensate for these omissions. Among the large cast of characters in his extraordinarily rich book is Sevantibhai, a millionaire diamond merchant, who has renounced the world and embraced the monk’s habit and wandering life. He is very different from the merchants Mehta has known in his own life, who are “pretty happy with their lavish homes and offices, their occasional trips to Antwerp for business, to Disneyworld with their children.”

Wandering through the villages of Gujarat, Sevantibhai is thinking about the great questions, about the purpose and order of the universe, about the stupidity of nationalism, about the atomic nature of reality…. Within the rigid structures of the monk’s day there is a freedom to live the life of the mind.

It is fascinating to watch Mehta move in this long account from irony and skepticism to admiration for Sevantibhai and his ascetic faith:

For a long time afterward, in my life in the cities, I think of Sevantibhai, of the utter final simplicity of his life. In New York I am beset with financial worry…. I continue on my way, always accumulating the things I will eventually lose and always anxious either about not having enough of them or, when I have them, about losing them…. Sevantibhai has just bypassed all this.

The story of Sevantibhai’s renunciation is especially bracing, for it comes almost at the end of the book, after hundreds of pages where Mehta immerses himself in and describes Bombay’s “subterranean stream of homicidal violence.” He patiently and in- trepidly interviews trigger-happy policemen, Hindu extremists, and hired killers, and draws out unexpected bits of information. Criminals reveal their links with politicians and policemen, showgirls confess to being prone to suicide attempts, and one of the most sought-after dancers at a bar turns out to be a man in drag. Mehta comes to know a great deal about some of Bombay’s most notorious criminals. “I know their real names, what they like to eat, how they love, what their precise relationship is with God.”

Occasionally, however, the moral squalor Mehta so diligently uncovers appears to demand a more complex response than the one he expresses. When an especially boastful hired killer he spends much time with describes how he, helped by a police officer, raped a woman in front of her husband, Mehta, typing fast on his laptop, has only this to say: “As I am listening to this, I have to pause. With an effort, I keep what I am feeling to myself.”

In another scene, Chopra, the film director Mehta has worked with, stands before a row of cable operators arrested for screening illegally his new film, and orders a pliant police officer to “break their legs.” Mehta’s intimacy with those who commit atrocities appears too casual, needing more qualification than he provides:

When he [Ajay Lal] has people beaten in his office, he can see me on the sofa in the back of the room, scribbling away in my notebook, noting each slap, writing down the exact wording of each death threat…. Perhaps he lets me sit there because he needs someone to stand witness, to keep a record of these melancholy evenings of his life.

The adjective “melancholy” seems to suggest that Mehta has, however briefly, taken the police officer at his own valuation: that he is performing a distasteful but necessary task of rooting out evil, embodied by criminals who are apparently beyond redemption. This is surprising, for Mehta himself relates how most ordinary citizens of Bombay see the police as no less corrupt and oppressive than politicians and criminals. It may be that, as Mehta suggests, there is not much that he, a writer looking for stories, can do:

What do I do with Ajay? He is a brutal interrogator; this I have seen for myself. But Ajay had become a friend of sorts. “We’ll miss you, Suketu!” he said with genuine feeling, when I was about to leave for America.

Mehta mentions several admirers of Lal and his movie-producer father. However, one is left wishing for a more considered view of Lal’s persona as a tough cop in Bombay. Since Mehta rarely makes a pattern of his experiences with various mafia outfits and police killers, his meticulous accounts of their exploits often seem merely sensational. These anecdotal histories of Bombay’s underworld, which do not broaden into social and political analysis, have an effect very different from what Orwell’s reporting method achieved. Orwell sought to undermine his reader’s comfortable sense of being safely remote from the events he read about by revealing how violence is usually rooted in political and economic injustice and lies close to us in our interconnected societies. In contrast, documentary naturalism of the kind Mehta often lapses into ends up obscuring the causes of violence, and turns it into a remote and garish spectacle, likely to be savored by its metropolitan audience for its weird and grotesque aspects.

Mehta partly reveals his relationship with subjects when he admits how he, reduced to insignificance by the size and intensity of Bombay, came to be attracted to powerful people. Ajay Lal helps him avoid the long queues for customs and immigration at Bombay airport. “The normal rules don’t apply to me,” Mehta writes ironically, “I could get used to this.” When a mafia don he flatters offers to do him a favor, he confesses to holding on to the offer “like a rabbit’s foot in my pocket.” “I am calmer with people who threaten me, more tolerant. I become a better human being because I know I can get the person of my choice murdered.” He discov-ers that his friends in Bombay and New York grow wistful when they hear of the mafia don’s favor, and start making lists of people they would like to eliminate. “Each one of us,” he writes, “has a circle of people close to us whose deaths we fantasize about.”

This is less persuasive than the idea that V.S. Naipaul expressed in his first, angry book about India, An Area of Darkness (1964): that India brings out “concealed elements of the personality.” It seems that Mehta’s sensibility also altered during its prolonged exposure to Bombay, as he moved from being the sensitive, easily outraged outsider to being a prodigiously well-informed insider. A record of this inner journey may have given his superbly researched and colorfully populated book the emotional resonance and psychological complexity it often seems to lack.

In India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), V.S. Naipaul offered the first full, and in many ways prophetic, portrait of contemporary Bombay. His conversations with a religious stockbroker, Shiv Sena activists, Muslim extremists, mafia bosses, a screenwriter, and Dalit poets depicted a city full of longing and despair and the middle- class fear of disorder. But Naipaul saw a redemptive “liberation of spirit” even in the “destructive chauvinism” of the Shiv Sena in Bombay. “People everywhere,” he wrote, “have ideas now of who they are and what they owe themselves.” For Naipaul, the individuals rebelling against their circumstances, against “distress and cruelty,” were “part of India’s growth, part of its restoration.” Their mutinies could take ugly and unpleasant forms, but they “could not be wished away.”

In Maximum City, Mehta often seems to be tracing Naipaul’s footsteps across Bombay. In 1996, he met Sunil, a Shiv Sena activist, who had grown up in the slums, and who burned Muslims alive during the riots in 1993. (“A man on fire,” he told Mehta, “gets up, falls, runs for his life, falls, gets up, runs…. Oil drips from his body, his eyes become huge.”) When Mehta caught up with Sunil two years later, he was running a cable TV business. He also made money by appropriating government land adjacent to railways tracks, and building over it huts of tarpaulin and bamboo, which he rented out to poor people. He also had a semiofficial status within the Shiv Sena government, and had managed to enroll his daughter in an English-language school. “Sunil will inherit Bombay,” Mehta writes. “He is idealistic about the nation and utterly pragmatic about the opportunities for personal enrichment that politics offers.”

Sunil appears to represent the new amoral world not only of Bombay but also of the slums that have grown rapidly in the cities of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Migrants from impoverished hinterlands, living without security, public health, and, often, clean water in the shantytowns of São Paulo, Lagos, Karachi, Dhaka, and Jakarta, have as much in common with each other as “People Like Us”—the global class of businessmen, journalists, academics, and anti-terrorism experts—do among themselves. These one billion slum-dwellers, who in their half-modern, deprived state appear vulnerable to every kind of fundamentalism, hint at a grimly turbulent future for the world at large.4

Mehta seems to share Naipaul’s faith that progress in Bombay is inevitable. Early in his book, he asserts that Bombay is undergoing a

transition similar to what American cities went through at the end of the twentieth century, when the political machines of the Democratic party dominated, bringing new immigrants jobs and political power while breaking a few heads along the way.

Mehta believes that “eventually, as in the American cities, there will be reform movements, reform candidates, to clean out the muck” and that “in Bombay, this has not yet happened.”

A similar optimism is often expressed about Shanghai, which, like Bombay, has recently rejoined the global economy and is currently home to a volatile mix of fabulous wealth, extreme poverty, corruption, unemployment, and crime.5 Mehta doesn’t make clear how or when the “muck” will be cleaned out in Bombay, whose population is expected to double by 2015. “Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us,” he writes on the first page of Maximum City; and little in what follows encourages the hope that God will send someone like La Guardia, or even like Giuliani, to Bombay anytime soon.

In any case, the condition of American cities improved alongside a huge expansion of American power in the world. Bombay and Shanghai may eventually shine as India and China—both nuclear-armed and with fiercely nationalistic middle classes—become superpowers in the twenty-first century. In the meantime, Mehta’s book will stand as a vivid record of the usually obscure people who pay the great costs of such progress, and who work out—with some style, if not much dignity—the depleted human possibilities available to them.

  1. 1

    See Rama Lakshmi, “In India, Torture by Police Is Frequent and Often Deadly,” The Washington Post, August 5, 2004.

  2. 2

    London: Temple Smith.

  3. 3

    Kolatkar, who died in September of this year, is best known for his narrative poem Jejuri, which will be published by New York Review Books in 2005, with an introduction by Amit Chaudhuri.

  4. 4

    These one billion people comprise one third of the world’s urban population. The figure is expected to double in the next thirty years. See the report by UN-Habitat, The Challenge of the Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003 (London, 2003).

  5. 5

    See Jim Frederick, “Thriving in the Middle Kingdom,” Time, November 11, 2002. For a thorough analysis of the political, economic, and environmental fallout of China’s new prosperity, see Liu Binyan and Perry Link, “A Great Leap Backward?The New York Review, October 8, 1998. For a stimulating portrait of another recently globalized Asian city, see Ziauddin Sardar, The Consumption of Kuala Lumpur (Reaktion, 2000).