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MAXIMUM CITY: BOMBAY LOST AND FOUND by Suketu Mehta. Alfred A. Knopf. Hardcover, 560 pages. $27.95.

Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet,” Mehta projects. “God help us.”

Mehta’s Bombay is a bustling, scary, fascinating, perplexing, and immensely depressing megalopolis crumbling under the weight of its 18 million inhabitants.

This rich tapestry of tales is Mehta’s ultimate paean to Bombay, the city that he never really left even after moving to the West 23 years ago. Carrying a chip the size of Bombay on his shoulder, Mehta chastises the city and its dwellers while chronicling every little triumph of its denizens. Mehta is a skilled storyteller and his characters come alive as he immerses himself into a chaotic world of whores, cops, gangsters, and austere, godfearing folk.

Mehta’s conversations with Bombayites are at once heartrending and uplifting. The reader is always grateful for his gentle humor and humane approach towards his subjects.

Bombay draws to her bosom around 500 new people every day adding to her already lager-than-life problems of pollution, real estate, sewerage, traffic, underworld crime, and unemployment. The downfall of a city is a complex phenomenon, which does not readily submit to simple analysis.

Maximum City serves as a lesson in urban history, a treatise comprising tales of love, despair, and hope, of familial affections and political bloopers.

In the course of writing this book (which took seven years), we hear Mehta’s own story: of the mixture of fascination, revulsion, and gentle passion he feels for the city that never sleeps.

He talks with Hindus who massacred Muslims during the 1992-1993 riots, and in the process meets with Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party leader, Bal Thackeray, “the one man most directly responsible for ruining the city I grew up in.”

Mehta inhabits the worlds of mafia dons, hired killers, politicians, policemen, Bollywood stars and directors, billionaire diamond merchants, and a penniless poet from Bihar. Through each one of his characters we see a glimpse of Bombay, not just a city but also an entity that shapes and changes the lives of its dwellers.

To experience Maximum City is like a trip to the metropolis itself, teeming with gangsters and ascetics, and to have Mehta with his Zelig-like qualities as a travel mate is positively uplifting.

After Mehta co-wrote the script for the Bollywood blockbuster Mission Kashmir, director Vidhu Vinod Chopra urged him to work on more scripts. “Forget about your book,” he said. “How any people read books? Millions watch cinema.”

Millions ought to read this book! —Chitra Parayath