An ambitious portrait of the megalopolis—one that, like its subject, contains worlds but is too big and too crowded for comfort.
Bombayite–turned–New Yorker Mehta, a writer of fiction and film scripts, returned to his native city for a two-year stint in 1998, and his experiences form the heart of this excited report. “Bombay,” he writes, “is the future of urban civilization on the planet.” He adds: “God help us.” From its birth as an entrepôt, the island city—its booster considering it the next Singapore, “relieved of having to bear the burden of this tiresome country,” Mother India—has swelled unimaginably; the population in 2005 is expected to reach 27.5 million, and “by 2015, there will be more people living in Bombay than in all of Italy.” Much demand and little supply yields challenges—Mehta had to pay $3,000 a month for a so-so apartment—but at least, Indians say, no one starves in Bombay, which is why the place adds 500 residents every day of the year. Mehta can be both learned and obscure—at one point, he writes, “I chase plumbers, electricians, and carpenters like Werther chasing Lotte”—but also very funny. Yet, when he wanders from the leafy, comfortable districts into the criminal and sexual demimondes of Bombay, he is transfixed and a-swoon, as when he writes of one batch of gangsters: “Why am I not tired of listening to them? Why do the nine hours pass by effortlessly, as with a new lover?” Similarly, his account of the making of a Bollywood film contains plenty of interest and humor (Hollywood demands that a musical’s song fit the plot, he writes, but “Hindi movies face no such fascist guidelines”). Still, at 80 pages alone, it goes on much too long.
Bombay is the only city in India, Mehta observes, where more people want to lose weight than gain it. Though this overlong work could stand to shed a few pounds itself, it’s rich with insight and unfailingly well-written.