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The City of Dreams

February 2005
The City of Dreams

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

By Suketu Mehta

Knopf, 2004

Hardcover, 560 pages


If there is one word that any self-respecting Bombayite knows, it is "adjust." One doesn't have much of a choice but to "adjust," to make room, in a city with a population density in places of one million per square mile. "Bombay is a fast-paced, even hectic city; but it is not, in the end, a competitive city," Suketu Mehta writes, in his impressive ode to his native Bombay, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. The book opens with a staggering statistic: "There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia."

Mehta captures a large portion of the essence of the teeming city in Maximum City, which is above all else a brilliant piece of journalism. He interviews gang leaders, Shiv Sena folks, police chiefs, bargirls, Bollywood personalities ? and details exhaustive, almost relentless portraits of each of his subjects. The one criticism of the tome might be its sometimes relentless concentration on the underbelly of the city breaking only a few times to portray other stories of people making do or getting into the middle class.

Mehta also does a wonderful job in portraying the daily frustrations of life in a city that simply cannot provide the basic necessities for all its residents. "The notion of what is a luxury and what is a basic need has been upended in Bombay," Mehta writes. "Every slum I see in Jogeshwari has a television; antennas sprout in silver branches above the shanties. Many in the middle-class slum have motorcycles, even cars. People in Bombay eat relatively well, too, even the slum dwellers. The real luxuries are running water, clean bathrooms, and transport and housing fit for human beings."

Despite its challenges, millions upon millions willingly bear the problems. "Bambai to sone ki chidiya hai," a Muslim man in the Jogeshwari slum, whose brother was shot dead by the police in the riots, tells me," Mehta writes. "A Golden Songbird; try to catch it if you can. It flies quick and sly, and you'll have to work hard and brave many perils to catch it, but once it's in your hand, a fabulous fortune will open up for you."

Mehta's Maximum City pays due homage to the city that has served as the dynamic nerve center of India for decades. As Mehta so eloquently puts it: "When five hundred new people come in every day to live, Bombay is certainly not a dying city. A killing city, maybe; but not a dying city. Each Bombayite inhabits his own Bombay."

The Zigzag Way

By Anita Desai

Houghton Mifflin, 2004

Hardcover, 176 pages

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

Anita Desai visits new territory in her latest novel, The Zigzag Way, which is set in Mexico. Yet her characters in the new book are similar to her earlier portrayals of people who live on the fringes or who suffer from a general sense of rootlessness.

The primary protagonist in the novel, Eric, is suffering from a case of graduate study malaise by not finding much in his thesis or dissertation to motivate him. He makes a decision to join his girlfriend, Em, in Mexico where she plans on working on her own field study. By this time, Eric's family in Maine tells him that his father was born in Mexico. Eric doesn't make much of the fact until, at a lecture he casually attends in Mexico City, he comes across names he seems to have heard before?strangely enough in his grandfather's house in Cornwall, England.

The story that follows is a fascinating glimpse into the migration of Cornish mine workers to Mexico many years ago looking for work in the country's silver mines. At the outbreak of the Mexican revolution, the family disbands and moves out of the country. Eric ferrets out facts about his grandparents?his grandmother, Betty Jennings who died in Mexico during childbirth and his grandfather, David Rowse.

Eric also meets a formidable woman, Dona Vera, nicknamed Queen of the Sierra, who has escaped a secretive past in Nazi Austria and who provides some clues, however inadvertently, about the Cornish mining community. Desai's writing in The Zigzag Way is economical and very atmospheric?the title comes from the zigzag path the miners have to take out of shafts to decrease health hazards.

The zigzag journey that Eric embarks on is fascinating both in its efficient narrative and in its description of a country that is full of color and enchantment.

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