When the writer Sukhetu Mehta told people in Bombay, India that he was going to New York City, they told him that he would feel at home: Bombay, they said, is just like New York. After writing his brilliant Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, and working on a forthcoming book about immigration in New York City, Mehta has concluded that they are right.
Both cities, he said at a reading Wednesday at Rutgers-Newark, have a certain contempt for their capital cities: New York for Washington, DC, Bombay for Delhi. Both are city-states--large enough and distinct enough that their inhabitants can imagine that their destiny is not entirely bound to their surrounding country. As Mehta put it, people in Bombay imagine India the way a famous cover of New York imagines the USA in relation to New York City: narrow, distant and inconsequential.
The sources of this mindset in Bombay, and much more, are conveyed in Maximum City. At once an exploration of a great city and Mehta's own relationship to the metropolis, the book covers everything from Hindu-Muslim conflicts to gangsters to dancing girls to Bollywood films. Mehta conveys the feel of Bombay without reducing it to a few simple traits. Bombay, in Mehta's view, is a city of multiple personalities--many of which resonate in him.
Mehta is now at work on a nonfiction book about immgrants in New York City. If he brings to it the same sense of people and place that shine in Maximum City, it will be a book well worth reading.