When my friend Anvar Alikhan recommended Suketu Mehta's non-fiction masterpiece about Bombay, MAXIMUM CITY, by likening it to "... a cocktail of champagne and sewer water" my instant reaction was that I would NEVER want to taste such a drink, so why would I read the book? Several further recommendations followed but I continued to avoid the book. Recently, however, I took a sip from it in the form of an extract published in Nilanjana Roy's highly readable A MATTER OF TASTE, an anthology of writing about food -- and had to agree the writing was riveting.
So I'm currently half-way, having just emerged from the section called "Black Collar Workers". While trudging alongside Mehta as he trawls through the blood and filth of Bombay's underworld, the irreverent thought that kept recurring was Anvar's analogy about champagne and sewer water. I've been asking myself what proportion of champagne is required to make even a single teaspoonful of sewer water acceptable? One hundred litres? One thousand litres? I don't think I would knowingly drink such a brew no matter how small the proportion of s.w. to bubbly -- despite recognizing that, whenever we're drinking from glasses we haven't personally washed, we really cannot know what percent of the sewer has slimed its way in and clung to the inner surface of that glass.
So -- yes -- reading Mehta's book is an ordeal. He writes with the kind of cool detachment which makes me dislike him -- it's unfair, it's a shooting-the-messenger situation, and yet I feel the urge to pin my revulsion and distaste for what I'm reading on SOMEONE and he's the handiest person available. There's no point sparing any feelings at all for the thugs who form the protagonists in the section on Bombay's pus-encrusted crime-scene. The police are represented in exactly the same light -- there's very little to choose from, the criminals and the crime-fighters appear to belong to exactly the same breed of hyena-clones.
I have asked myself whether anyone would miss these peopel if they were all to be exterminated by one giant cleansing purge -- an earthquake, a volcano, a fire -- and I believe the answer is "no". According to Mehta's record, the villains belong to all and every communal and religious background (though only a sprinkling of Christians and no Parsis/Iranis appear to be represented). So far the only character who has kept himself above the gore is a police officer from an affluent family. And even he is immune only to corruption -- he affords his integrity by belonging to a more secure class of society -- but not violence.
It's simply not possible (for me) to care if such people think or feel pain or have orgasms or eat night-soil for dessert. Is this because they really are like that or because the author has not been able to show me anything but this dehumanized view? Are the Italian mafia exactly the same and is it only because their authors dress them up for us in an aura of dark glamour that they appear to be a better class of villain? Or are they really less repulsive than their counterparts in the slime-pits of Bombay? I don't suppose I will ever know.
Mehta's prose is strong on relevant detail and taut in the way of a well-edited documentary film. I have been trying to decide why I feel such an antipathy towards him. Is it only transferrence? Or is there something concrete to dislike? I have half the book left to go and so I don't know yet. There is a peculiar detachment that I find unnerving, for instance. We are encouraged to accept that without his detachment he wouldn't have succeeded in penetrating deep into Gangland. But it's distracting. I've been asking myself what I've learnt from reading about the underworld and I've realized now that it doesn't amount to much. I know now what I knew before: that vast numbers of people live under the oppression of ghouls in human form who operate in gangs; and the interrelationships between the gangs is complex -- and that's all.
We already know that poverty and deprivation can strip away a person's faculties to the point where they're just bundles of raw appetite. There's no explanation for how the ghouls are created, or why we as people or as a nation are susceptible to their creation and most of all, why we remain so strangely unmoved by the knowledge of these horrors that seethe and bubble around us. Perhaps what I'm responding to is the frustration of seeing that someone has exposed an atrocious view of reality and yet it's framed within that ghastly apathy, that complicity of inaction that makes the telling of these tales all but futile.
It's like being shown that we're surrounded by Auschwitzes and Buchenwalds but -- ooohhh dear! Can't do anything about it, can we? No, of course not -- because the easy polarities of WWII are behind us and it's become impossible to even the name the causes of our disease or to find cures for it or to request help to save us from ourselves. Nope. Our approach is to still our minds and hearts, sip our noxious sewer-champagne cocktail and tell ourselves it is only birdie-num-num after all.
Still and all ... I'm going to finish reading the book.