Suketu Mehta Talks

Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City sits down with Carl Bromley of CJR for a very interesting interview. He offers some insights into the background of the book and the characters.

”  You must have been flabbergasted when you heard the kind of things Ajay Lal and his police colleagues were saying to suspects in the interrogation room.

Absolutely. So much so that I remember when I was in an interrogation session with Ajay Lal, my friend Rustom, a fashion photographer, called up and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got Naomi Campbell here in a suite in the Oberoi and I’m going to take topless pictures of her; you should come down.’ And you know what? I chose the tough guys getting beaten up over Naomi Campbell. I don’t know what that says about me, but . . .

It’s the story.

Yeah, it’s the story. It’s most phenomenal what I was being allowed to watch.

Ajay Lal. Is that his real name?

Of course not. I’ve changed his name.

I’m sure he’s quite identifiable.

In fact, he’s been outed in Harper’s magazine in a review by Adam Hochschild, who wonders if I’m aware of the effect the book could have on the lives of these people. Well, Ajay Lal — nothing happened to him. I’m sure he’ll be police commissioner soon. He’s now in an even more senior position than he was before. In India, everybody knows people get beaten up in police stations. It’s not a revelation. But in Bombay I sat in interrogations with Ajay, I sat in on interrogations with other people, I hung out . . .

More on the book here. Suketu Mehta’s take on Brooklyn in the NYTimes. Uma also writes about this interview.



CJR Home » Issues » 2005 »

Columbia Journalism Review
Maximum City
Special Extended Web Version

By Carl Bromley

When Suketu Mehta’s first book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, appeared last September, it sent readers and critics into a state of euphoria. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, won the Kiriyama Prize, and was translated into at least six languages.

Maximum City, which is out in paperback this fall, begins as a quasi-Proustian memoir about Bombay, where Mehta had not lived since 1977. Soon, though, forces beyond his memory intervene, and Mehta is plunged into a city experiencing a terrifying crime wave and ruled by political thugs. The result is an extraordinary series of journalistic forays into Bombay’s underbelly. To gauge Mehta’s achievement, transpose the setting of the book to New York City. Imagine a writer with the muckraking eye of the late Jack Newfield and the introspective gifts of the young Joan Didion hanging out for months with lieutenants of the Gotti clan, having a cell-side seat to beatings meted out by the NYPD, and becoming the best friend of the star attraction at Flash Dancers.

In 1989, Vinod Chopra made a movie called Parinda, whose visceral approach to the gangster genre revolutionized Bollywood cinema. Maximum City has done the same for Indian letters. Indeed, Mehta has raised the bar for all journalists confronting the modern megacity — be it Bangkok or São Paulo, Mexico City or New York.

Twenty million people live in Bombay. Don’t tell me you weren’t overwhelmed .

For a journalist there’s almost too much in a city like Bombay. But then I had a few advantages, one of which is I speak Hindi, Marathi, and Gujarati, which are the languages of Bombay along with English. I had grown up in Bombay but I had left and had been trained in writing and in research and could come back and do some things better than the local journalists, but I had the access of the local journalists because I was also an insider. I was writing for the movies, which is incredibly powerful in a city like Bombay. People, as soon as they heard that I was doing this, they wanted to talk to me, not so much because they thought I would put them in the movies, but because they wanted to hear the stories of the movie people, and the movie people wanted to hear the stories of the gangsters and the bar girls. I was a messenger between worlds. My currency was really stories.

When you go into the trains of Bombay, it’s like an Arabian Nights of stories. Everybody is telling the most incredible stories, real, unreal, surreal. So all you have to do is go to Bombay and listen and you’ll find. People are also more open about telling stories and listening to stories in Bombay than in the great cities of the West. There isn’t any reticence about saying things that could be construed as either offensive or illegal. I mean, people freely admit the most incredible stuff — like the cops, you know. That’s also partly because justice isn’t swift and sure. I was my own Metro section. I assigned myself stories, and I reported them. I’d walk out onto the streets with my backpack and my laptop, and I would just go everywhere. So it was just really random.

The access you get to top cops, gangsters, movie stars is extraordinary.

Bollywood was the most difficult initially because there they’re rich and they have very little time, and they really have no use for journalists, even foreign journalists, unless they’re going to be of use to them. The only way I could get access to Bollywood was by actually working on a script. But as far as the rest of them, the wonderful thing about all those people was they didn’t realize how amazing their lives were and they weren’t looking to license the movie rights.

You must have been flabbergasted when you heard the kind of things Ajay Lal and his police colleagues were saying to suspects in the interrogation room.

Absolutely. So much so that I remember when I was in an interrogation session with Ajay Lal, my friend Rustom, a fashion photographer, called up and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got Naomi Campbell here in a suite in the Oberoi and I’m going to take topless pictures of her; you should come down.’ And you know what? I chose the tough guys getting beaten up over Naomi Campbell. I don’t know what that says about me, but . . .

It’s the story.

Yeah, it’s the story. It’s most phenomenal what I was being allowed to watch.

Ajay Lal. Is that his real name?

Of course not. I’ve changed his name.

I’m sure he’s quite identifiable.

In fact, he’s been outed in Harper’s magazine in a review by Adam Hochschild, who wonders if I’m aware of the effect the book could have on the lives of these people. Well, Ajay Lal — nothing happened to him. I’m sure he’ll be police commissioner soon. He’s now in an even more senior position than he was before. In India, everybody knows people get beaten up in police stations. It’s not a revelation. But in Bombay I sat in interrogations with Ajay, I sat in on interrogations with other people, I hung out . . .

And you were just writing all this down?

I was writing as I was speaking to these people. I’d bring out my laptop, I might be in a small hotel room full of gangsters, and immediately they’d all look at the laptop. This was the late nineties — laptops were still new. And one of their hit men might say, ‘You know, we had a job to kill somebody for their laptop last week.’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, I’m aware of that, and I know you can take this any time you want.’ The power structure had to be established at that point. So initially they’d be much more hesitant than if I had put a tape recorder in front of them. But then I noticed this subliminal thing started happening where as they spoke, I was literally typing. My fingers were dancing, and they would look at me and pick up these cues from when I’m typing or not. Now, in India the problem isn’t getting people to talk, it’s getting them to shut up or to stick to the topic. And I didn’t have to tell them to stick to the topic, but you know I’d be nodding and typing and when they wandered off into a tangent I’d still be nodding, but my fingers weren’t dancing. And so they would, without my ever having to say anything to them, come back to the topic that I was interested in, which would get me typing.

Did you set yourself a time limit? You went to Bombay in 1998. Did you know you were going to get out in 2000?

No. I had no idea how long it would take. I’d gone back to America at the end of 1999, and my editor at Knopf, Sonny Mehta, said, ‘Promise me you won’t write another word.’

Classic editor!

Yeah, so I had to stop writing, and another friend of mine said at a certain point you have to stop researching. No matter how addictive it is. I did really have to tear myself away from it. I could not have stayed in Bombay and written the book, because these lives continued. And at this time I had gotten myself so obsessed with these characters that I needed to know everything that they were doing. I needed to know if they had a new girlfriend or if they were doing a new movie — they were my friends. So much of journalism is about the gossip of the everyday. I would find the simplest things of these people’s lives fascinating. And this is not a good thing because I would immediately write about it and this would just add to the huge weight of words. So when I was writing it I was petrified. I had no idea if any of this would be interesting to anybody but me.

What were you like as a human being while living in Bombay?

Absent. I was absent from my family. I was absent from my friends. We had no vacations.

You were carousing with killers, the most wanted men in Bombay.

The question was, How far can I test these people? How much can I go into this room with these tough guys and come out alive? I’ve got two young children and I didn’t want to push it too far, and I always made sure that I went in with very strong references. Each chapter was a journey into myself, into my weaknesses and my strengths. And I asked myself, Why was I attracted to these tough boys? And it’s because in school I was a weedy kid, and I always looked up to the tough boys. The short and the smart sat at the front of the class. We had these two student benches and in the back were the people who had failed the grade and were taking it again or the really tall kids and we called them the LLBs — the Lords of the Last Bench. And I always looked up to these guys. These were the ones who were good at cricket, could get the girls. And here they were — they were grown up, and they were my protectors.

That’s ironic.

The gangsters offered me one free hit. The godfather would kill anyone who . . .

That’s almost flattering.

They wanted me to explain their lives. They are reprehensible people. But there is shame. I remember one of the hit men saying, ‘It used to happen that after I killed, the soul of the man I kill will come and sit on my chest. But then a Muslim gangster taught me to sleep in a fetal position with my back to the door, so the soul doesn’t have access to my chest so I can sleep peacefully.’ Each one of them had different rationalizations, including the police.

My focus is the human being struggling underneath the foot of history. In Hindu mythology, Shiva dances with the circle of flame around him and he’s dancing on one foot, and underneath his foot is a baby, and that baby . . . is a human being, struggling to get out from underneath the massive foot of history. History is in his control and out of his control. So it’s essential you understand both — the issues that play upon the individual sitting in a slum room in Bombay, or trade policy and all the rest of it, and his personal life. I wanted to give all of these people the respect I would if I were writing about them in a novel, to make them fully fleshed and round, to have them capable of good and evil. Nobody stands in for any issue or message.

And you of course were very much part of the story.

You know, my observing these people had a sort of Heisenberg effect on them, and this is not uncommon in journalism. And because I liked them, I was also of use to them. The bar dancer Mona Lisa wanted to get into the movies, so I introduced her to the filmmaker. The filmmaker was thinking of doing a story on the beer bars, so I took him for the first time in his life to the beer bars. There was a movie about the underworld that another filmmaker was doing, and he wanted to meet the gangsters. I arranged a meeting, and then they shot for the first time a movie in the really hardcore underworld streets of Bombay.

At one point you describe yourself more as a literary creator than a reporter. You talk about Mona Lisa as your best friend, and you write, ‘The more I write, the faster my Mona Lisa dances.’ That sentence suggests what a complex balancing act narrative nonfiction is. People are turning over their stories to you, yet you have your own fidelity to what you think is the truth, and sometimes people get hurt in the process. Did this present itself as an ethical dilemma when writing the book?

Absolutely. At every moment I was thinking about it. I wanted to write the truth, so I have no composites, I haven’t rounded out anybody, I haven’t fictionalized anyone. Every single sentence that’s in there in quotes has been said. And I’ve never gone inside people’s heads and projected what they might be thinking. I took notes at every stage. I went into these people’s lives and at no stage were any of them under any illusion about what I was doing. They knew I was writing a book. Now it’s another matter that many of these people didn’t know what that meant. They knew about newspapers, they knew about movies; writing a book was — they struggled to understand, some of them. They’d say, ‘Oh, does that mean it’s like a Ph.D. thesis?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, no, it’s a book,’ and they’d say, ‘Well, is it a novel?’ Many of these people thought it was a novel. And I’d just say, ‘No, it’s like a magazine, only the size of a book, and everything is true.’ They’d give up.

Has Mona Lisa read what you’ve written?

I went to Bombay for the launch of the book last September, and she came to the launch party, she got a copy of the book, and she read the chapter on her own. The next morning I got a series of furious text messages, in Romanized Hindi, saying ‘You have written everything about my life, including my sex life, men I’ve been with, how could you, how could you do all this?’ And I felt like shit.

That same evening I got a whole series of other text messages, saying, ‘I’ve been thinking about it all day and crying and then I thought, nothing in this is not true because you have written exactly what I’ve told you. I knew he was writing a book the whole time.’ And then she says, and this is most beautiful, she says, ‘If this is true, and this is my life, then why should I be ashamed of it? Can I drive you to the airport tomorrow morning?’
My observing her whilst writing a book about her, it helped her to understand, come to terms with certain things about herself. She was fascinating, she was the whole Jane Austen character. She didn’t want her name to be changed. She said we should celebrate me. So now people have been going into that bar—because you know it’s fairly easy to make out which bar it is in Bombay—and asking for Mona Lisa. I wrestled with it but I came to the conclusion that I would best solve all these people by telling the truth about them. And I can’t think of anybody who I judged or condemned.

Vinod Chopra, with whom you collaborated on his film “Mission Kashmir,” and who is another memorable figure in the book, has just launched the most vitriolic attack on you in the Web site Tehelka .

I became very good friends withVinod Chopra. He came and stayed at my house and I stayed at his house, and as with everybody else, he was under no illusion about what I was doing. I was sitting with a laptop, writing about him. And I remember when I told him I had this huge mass of material and I was going to have to edit it, he said, ‘Is there a little bit about me in the book?’ I said, ‘There’s a lot about you in the book!’, and he said, ‘Don’t edit that.’ He’s a man who, when he walks down the street, there’s a large truck following him carrying his ego. He’s very happy about that. ‘We are not modest,’ he said to me. When the book came out, something very strange happened. He called for the book to be banned and he threatened to slap me. His objection is I said that he has three wives, allegedly. I say no such thing, it’s very clear.

He’s been married three times.

He’s married three times, two ex-wives and one wife.

And he’s very friendly with the two ex-wives.

Exactly, not that he’s sleeping with them, but he’s an example of how you can have two ex-wives and a current wife and maintain friendly relations with the three of them, which to me is a major feat.

It’s because he hasn’t read the book. Bollywood people are used to being written about either as a hatchet job or hagiography. And my book is neither. It’s nuanced. There’s fairly sympathetic understanding of people who are flawed, and with Vinod I make it clear that in his family I found a species of home. I got his wife a book contract to do a Bollywood book over here, I got her an agent, I helped him in a script for a Hollywood movie that he wanted to do. We became close friends, but here I…

It’s an extraordinarily vicious attack.

That’s Vinod. I’ve never responded to him. My chapter on him is really the unfolding of a friendship. And that fact that he has called for the book to be banned! Not even Bal Thackeray has called for that.

You write in the book that Thackeray, who is a hardcore Hindu nationalist and the founder of the Shiv Sena party, destroyed the Bombay of your childhood.

I was really afraid of the Shiv Sena. But they quoted me in Parliament, favorably. There was an Indian Express article that said, ‘Nirupam quotes Suketu.’ Now Sanjay Nirupam used to be the Shiv Sena pit bull in the upper house. He got up in Parliament, and holding a copy of my book made a long speech about why outsiders should be prevented from entering Bombay, and started reading off statistics from my book to prove his point. And then the Congress Party MP gets up and says, ‘But the very next chapter of that same book has a direct attack on your party and its role in the riots,’ and he says, ‘I need not agree with everything that Mehta says.’ So a vigorous debate ensues and then this inimitable Indian statement — ‘I will only agree with the facts that suit me.’ What are you going to say after that? So yes, I didn’t get in trouble with the Shiv Sena or the police because it’s not a polemic, it’s a collection of metropolitan lives that are shaped by the exigencies of living in an extreme city. And I think even Vinod, if he actually reads the book, would see that.

Who provided literary inspiration for you and the book?

Joe Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel and Joseph Liebling taught me how to write about cities. Plus Ryszard Kapuscinski, V.S. Naipaul — I mean, lots of Naipaul. I read him like a textbook. I very much disagree with many of his political viewpoints, but that whole arc he has in the three nonfiction books on India — An Area of Darkness, A Wounded Civilization, and A Million Mutinies Now — it’s really a journey of self-discovery, of a Brahmin from the West Indies, who comes back to India and finds that no one’s treating him like a Brahmin. To India he’s an outsider, outside the caste system entirely, because his family has crossed the black water. And then his utter revulsion of the country in the beginning, and then his gradual coming to terms with it and his place in it. That was fascinating for me.

Is the type of narrative nonfiction in Maximum City new to India?

This kind of big sprawling nonfiction, yes. Journalism in India is a fraught enterprise — you can be killed for the things that you do. The boldest journalists are ones that write for the regional-language papers. You can write a lot of stuff in English and get away with it because most people who are likely to be offended don’t read the English papers. But there aren’t too many Indian nonfiction writers. And if you look at the West, I mean literary fiction is really not doing well.

Ask any literary agent, a first novel is enormously hard to sell.

I think maybe what’s happened is that after 9/11, the dramatic value of the real seems to have overwhelmed our capacity to invent new things. What could you make up that could compete with the image of two giant planes slamming into two giant towers? Of course, all these Al Qaeda books are going to do well because people have the need to understand the real, and they don’t have to make it up. I think there will be a lot more nonfiction. But it’s got to come out in a novelistic way. I think every journalist should take a short-story-writing course, at least one semester of it. To understand how to structure narrative, how to structure sentences. Because ultimately people are reading, and they aren’t reading statistics; they are entitled to pleasing sentences; they are entitled to derive pleasure. And this is what the great nonfiction writers understood. But it’s got to have the poetry in it, it’s got to have the narrative momentum of a novel, and it’s got to be absolutely and solidly researched, as much as the best Ph.D. dissertation.

What kind of response did you get from ordinary Bombay readers?

I know it has stimulated a discussion because it’s in editorials and columns, about what we allow our police to get away with, the serious thought we need to give to planning our cities, the link between politics and crime. There are lots of people writing about these issues in an academic format or in small journalistic pieces but I think what my book has done is to investigate all these issues as stories which are more easily read by the average educated reader. People pick up this book for a thrill, because they heard its about cops and bar girls, and then they find there’s also sections there about water and food and – and rent.

Every day I get the most touching e-mails. A friend of my mother’s who had been given my book as a Christmas present from her daughter-in-law lives in New Jersey now. She’d last seen my mother in 1963 in Bombay. She wrote to me saying, ‘As soon as I read the first few pages I knew that this had to be Usha’s son. Can you tell me where your mother is living now?’ And I said, ‘She’s in New Jersey, basically across the street from you.’

Carl Bromley is a writer and book editor who lives in Queens.

© 2005 Columbia Journalism Review at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism

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