Suketu Mehta is one supposes, a part-time NRI. He left Mumbai at the age of fourteen. Twenty one years later, having lived in Paris, London and New York'sEast Village he returned to his ?native place? to re-discover the only city he calls his own. It certainly gave him a shock.
Greater Mumbai'scurrent population is over nineteen million, which is more than the population of 173 countries in the world. In some parts of Central Mumbai the population density of one million per square mile is the highest number of people massed together at any other spot in the world. Poor Suketu tries to re-discover the Mumbai of his childhood and what he found out has shocked him beyond his senses. He sees a sign on the back of truck which says: Sau me ek sau ek beimaan, phir bhi mera Bharat mahaan (101 out of 100 are dishonest, still my India is great).
There is hardly anything in Mumbai that Suketu finds admirable. He attends a party attended by single people in their thirties, even forties, unmarried by choice. How come? Says one party goer: ?If you can get milk every day, why buy a cow?? Of the so-called society set, Suketu says: ?They hate living here (in Mumbai) but they couldn'texist anywhere else in India.? He apparently has no idea of history, especially of the roots of the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid conflict. He writes about ?Hindu mobs? and a wave of serious rioting ?in which Muslims were systematically identified and massacred, their houses and shops were burnt and looted?. Everybody is corrupt. Reports Suketu: ?A widow who had gone mad after seeing the burnt corpse of her husband hanging from a tree was having problems getting compensation money from the government to riot victims.? He describes how Muslims observe the Bakrid festival and how animals are slaughtered purposefully in front of under-age children. The description makes one feel like throwing up. He quotes a Muslim in defence of animal slaughter, who says: ?Every single thing on earth was created by Allah for the enjoyment of man and so, if animals weren'tmeant to be slaughtered and eaten what are they here for?? Sound logic, no doubt. Suketu goes on to make a study of criminals in Madanpura, famous for its gangs. A Muslim doctor whom Suketu befriends explains the position in vivid terms. Of the criminals Dr Shabuddin says: ?Someone is in poverty, someone in killing, someone in kidnapping. The kids around here will murder for five thousand rupees.?
Suketu is introduced to a gangster, who has to his credit seven and a half murders, six and a half of which were done on behalf of a gang. (The half murder refers to a case in which the man ?murdered? miraculously survived). The description of the man is nerve-shattering. The man runs his own ?company?. Suketu writes: ?One person doesn'tknow what the other is doing; it's all organised from Dubai. His weekly expenses are Rs 20,000; ten thousand goes to pay his mobile phone bills, five thousand for himself?mostly for charas?and the rest is given to the family. When he is in need of a big sum, he will take on a supari, which will bring in two lakh, half in advance, half on performance. If the man to be killed is non-Muslim, he will kill him rightaway.? How nice. He got arrested, or course. But the ?company? sent him seven thousand rupees a month for his expenses in jail, and a further ten thousand to his family. In jail, the criminal could get booze, girls?all it took was to pay the ?customs??bribe the guards.
But how do police deal with people who won'ttalk? The interrogation is done in Mumbai, though. But it makes significant reading. ?The police made cuts into the sides of the victim'sgroins… Then (the police) took hot chilli powder and rubbed it into the bleeding incisions?..The victim was stretched out, and large rolling pin was placed over his body. Two big cops got on it each side and rolled it over the body with all their weight?. All this is narrated without, as the saying goes, without batting an eye. Then there is the matter of extortion. A close friend of Suketu has a friend in Manmohan Shetty who owns the leading film processing facility in the country and who gets a threatening call from Abu Salem, demanding money. (It was Abu Salem who ordered music magnate Gulshan Kumar to be killed for not paying up).
The report which follows makes for high drama. How do film producers protect themselves? They call on the Minister concerned. He tells the producers: ?Since this is a democracy, I can'tsay it openly. But let me tell you. I have decided to impose the strictest penalty on the extortionists. The ultimate penalty. I can'tsay it publicly, but it is the ultimate penalty.? Everybody in Mumbai, if Suketu is to believed, is cruel. He recounts a story he read in the papers of a seven year old girl Jogeshwari who forgot to paste the picture of a train in her notebook for homework in her art class. To teach the girl a lesson her art teacher went at her hands, legs and back with a wooden ruler and then slapped her hard on the face and arm. After the thrashing, the girl quietly walked to her grandmother'shouse. The next day she started vomiting blood?her liver is badly injured…? One can imagine the rest.
Does the reader want to know more about the sleazy side of Mumbai? Read this great, sickening book. Suketu is no ordinary person. We are told that he has won the Whiting Writers Award (whatever it is), the O. Henry Prize and New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. All worthy of praise, surely.
But one can make a small request to the O. Henry Prize winner: Mumbai has its shortcomings but it is also a great city with many wonderful people in it. They are not all thugs and dons, but decent people who work hard to make a living. Honest, simple God-fearing. Suketu might find them interesting.
We had one Katherine Mayo in the past. One such is enough. We don'tneed Suketus. Mumbaikars know their Mumbai and would not need Suketus to tell them how it works on a certain level.
(Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)