There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia. Urbs Prima in Indis reads the plaque outside the Gateway of India. It is also the Urbs Prima in Mundis, at least in one area, the first test of the vitality of a city: the number of people living in it. With 14 million people, Bombay is the biggest city on the planet of a race of city dwellers. Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us.
I left Bombay in 1977 and came back twenty-one years later, when it had grown up to become Mumbai. Twenty-one years: enough time for a human being to be born, get an education, be eligible to drink, get married, drive, vote, go to war, and kill a man. In all that time, I hadn’t lost my accent. I speak like a Bombay boy; it is how I am identified in Kanpur and Kansas. “Where’re you from?” Searching for an answer—in Paris, in London, in Manhattan—I always fall back on “Bombay.” Somewhere, buried beneath the wreck of its current condition—one of urban catastrophe—is the city that has a tight claim on my heart, a beautiful city by the sea, an island-state of hope in a very old country. I went back to look for that city with a simple question: Can you go home again? In the looking, I found the cities within me.
I am a city boy. I was born in a city in extremis, Calcutta. Then I moved to Bombay and lived there nine years. Then to New York, eight years in Jackson Heights. A year, on and off, in Paris. Five years in the East Village. Scattered over time, another year or so in London. The only exceptions were three years in Iowa City, not a city at all, and a couple more in New Brunswick, New Jersey, college towns that prepared me for a return to the city. My two sons were born in a great city, New York. I live in cities by choice, and I’m pretty sure I will die in a city. I don’t know what to do in the country, though I like it well enough on weekends.
I come from a family of mercantile wanderers. My paternal grandfather left rural Gujarat for Calcutta in the salad days of the century, to join his brother in the jewelry business. When my grandfather’s brother first ventured into international territory, to Japan, in the 1930s, he had to come back and bow in apology before the caste elders, turban in his hands. But his nephews—my father and my uncle—kept moving, first to Bombay and then across the black water to Antwerp and New York, to add to what was given to them. My maternal grandfather left Gujarat for Kenya as a young man, and he now lives in London. My mother was born in Nairobi, went to college in Bombay, and now lives in New York. In my family, picking up and going to another country to live was never a matter for intense deliberation. You went where your business took you.
Once, with my grandfather, I went back to our ancestral house in Maudha, which used to be a village in Gujarat but is now a town. Sitting in the courtyard of the old house with its massive timbers, my grandfather began introducing us to the new owners, a family of Sarafs, Gujarati moneylenders, for whom Maudha was the big city. “And this is my son-in-law, who lives in Nigeria.”
“Nigeria,” said the Saraf, nodding.
“And this is my grandson, who is from New York.”
“New York,” the Saraf repeated, still nodding.
“And this is my granddaughter-in-law, who is from London.”
“Now they both live in Paris.”
“Paris,” the Saraf dutifully recited. If at this point my grandfather had said he lived on the moon, the Saraf would, without batting an eyelid, have kept nodding and repeated, “Moon.” Our dispersal was so extreme that it bordered on the farcical. But here we were, visiting the house where my grandfather grew up, still together as a family. Family was the elastic that pulled us back together, no matter how far we wandered.
* * *
It was the muqabla, the commercial competition, that had forced my father to leave Calcutta. It was the way jewels were bought and sold in my grandfather’s business. A group of sellers would assemble at the buyer’s office with the broker at an appointed time. Then the negotiations would begin. The price was not said aloud but was indicated by the number of fingers held up under a loose corner of the seller’s dhoti, which would be grasped by the buyer. Part of the muqabla was loud abuse of the buyer. “Have you gone mad? Do you expect me to sell at these prices?” In a display of extreme frustration, the seller would storm out of the office, shouting loudly all the time. But he would be careful to forget his umbrella. Ten minutes later he would be back, to pick up the umbrella. By this time the buyer might have reconsidered and they might come to a conclusion, at which point the broker would say, “Then shake hands!” and there would be smiles all around. It was because of this little piece of theater that my father decided to leave the jewelry business in Calcutta. He could not stand the shouting and the abuse; he was an educated man.
My father’s brother had gone to Bombay in 1966, against the will of my grandfather, who saw no reason why he should leave. But my uncle was a young man, and the twilight in Calcutta had begun. In Bombay, he went into the diamond business. Three years later, my parents were passing through Bombay, after my little sister was born in Ahmadabad. My uncle, recently married, suggested to his brother, “Why don’t you stay?” So we did, four adults and two children, one a newborn, in a one-room flat, with guests always coming and going. We lived as a “joint family,” sharing the flat and the expenses, and the space expanded to fit us. How can 14 million people fit onto one island? As we did in that apartment off Teen Batti.
My father and my uncle found their niche in the diamond business. We moved to a two-bedroom flat above a palace by the sea, Dariya Mahal. The palace belonged to the Maharao of Kutch. A family of Marwari industrialists bought the palace and its grounds; they chopped down the trees on the land, cleared the antiques out of the palace, and put in schoolchildren. Around the palace they built a complex of three buildings: Dariya Mahal 1 and 2, twenty-story buildings that look like open ledgers, and Dariya Mahal 3, where I grew up, the squat, stolid, twelve-story stepchild.
My uncle and my father made regular business trips to Antwerp and America. When my father asked what he could bring back from America for me, I asked him for a scratch-and-sniff T-shirt, which I’d read about in some American magazine. He came back bringing a giant bag of marshmallows. I ate as many as I could of the huge white cottony things, and tried to make sense of the texture, before my aunt appropriated them. After one of those trips, according to my uncle, my father had an epiphany while shaving, as often happens when you’re facing yourself in a mirror without actively looking. He decided to move to America. Not for its freedom or its way of life; he moved there to make more money.
Each person’s life is dominated by a central event, which shapes and distorts everything that comes after it and, in retrospect, everything that came before. For me, it was going to live in America at the age of fourteen. It’s a difficult age at which to change countries. You haven’t quite finished growing up where you were and you’re never well in your skin in the one you’re moving to. I had absolutely no idea about the country America; I had never been there. I was certainly not of a later generation of my cousins, such as Sameer, who at the age of sixteen, stepped into JFK Airport fresh off the plane from Bombay wearing a Mets baseball cap and with half an American accent already in place. I traveled, in twenty-four hours, between childhood and adulthood, between innocence and knowledge, between predestination and chaos. Everything that has happened since, every minute and monstrous act—the way I use a fork, the way I make love, my choice of a profession and a wife—has been shaped by that central event, that fulcrum of time.
There was a stack of Reader’s Digests in the back room of my grandfather’s Calcutta house, dark, hot, womblike. There, in my summers, I had read true-life adventures, spy stories of the dastardly Communists, and jokes the whole family could enjoy about the antics of children and servicemen. It was my introduction to America. Imagine my surprise when I got there. I was lucky, though I didn’t know it then, that of all the possible cities my father could have moved us to, he chose New York. “It’s just like Bombay.” Thus is New York explained to people in India.
In the first year after I got to America I sent for its previously inaccessible treasures, the merchandise advertised on the inside covers of the comic books. I ordered, for my friends in Bombay, the joy buzzer, the floating ghost, the hovercraft, and X-ray goggles. A brown box came in the mail. I looked at it for a few moments before opening it; here was what we had been denied all these years. Then the junk came spilling out. The floating ghost was a white plastic garbage-bin liner with a stick threaded through the top; you were supposed to hang it up and wave it around to scare people. The X-ray goggles were a pair of plastic glasses, like the 3-D glasses given out in science-fiction theaters, with a rough drawing of a skeleton on both lenses. The hovercraft was a sort of red fan, attached to a motor; when you turned it on, it really did rise over a flat surface. The joy buzzer was a small steel device that could be worn on the inside of the palm like a ring; you wound it up and when you shook the victim’s hand a knob was pressed and the device vibrated sharply. I looked at the mess spread out on the floor. I had been had before in Bombay; I knew the feeling well. Nonetheless, I sent the package to my Bombay friends, with a letter suggesting possible uses for the gags; the ghost, for instance, could be lowered on a string to flap outside the balconies of the lower floors, possibly scaring small children in the dark.
I knew my gifts would be welcome. Whatever their quality, they were “imported” and therefore to be treasured. In our house in Bombay, there used to be a showcase in the living room. It displayed imported objects from Europe and America, the spoils of my uncle’s business trips: Matchbox cars, miniature bottles of spirits, a cylinder of long matches from London shaped like a Beefeater with a furry black hat as the top, a little model of the Eiffel Tower. There were toys, also, for the children—a battery-powered Apollo 11 rocket, a police cruiser with a blue revolving light, a doll that could drink and wet her diaper—which were almost never taken out for us. The kids in the building would assemble around the showcase and look up at the toys inside—toys we weren’t allowed to touch for fear of breaking them.
In America, too, we had a showcase in our house. In it were kept souvenirs from India: a pair of grandparent dolls, Dada dressed in a dhoti, Dadi in a cotton sari; a marble statue of Ganesh; a wooden mask of Hanuman; a little model of the Taj Mahal with a light that glowed from within; a bharata natyam dancer whose head moved sideways on her neck; and a bronze clock shaped like the official map of India with all of Kashmir reclaimed from the Pakistanis and the Chinese. When the new baby was born he wasn’t allowed to open the showcase and play with these objects. They were too fragile; he would hurt himself. He spent his time splayed against the glass door of the showcase, staring at his heritage, like a wasp at a window.
When I moved to New York, I missed Bombay like an organ of my body. I thought that when I left Bombay I had escaped from the worst school in the world. I was wrong. The all-boys Catholic school I went to in Queens was worse. It was in a working-class white enclave that was steadily being encroached upon by immigrants from darker countries. I was one of the first minorities to enroll, a representative of all they were trying to hold out against. Soon after I got there, a boy with curly red hair and freckles came up to my lunch table and announced, “Lincoln should never have freed the slaves.” The teachers called me a pagan. My school yearbook photo shows me looking at the camera with the caption, “It’s so strong I can even skip a day,” referring to an advertising slogan for a brand of antiperspirant. This was how the school saw me: as a stinking heathen, emitting the foul odors of my native cooking. On the day I graduated, I walked outside the barbed-wire-topped gates, put my lips to the pavement, and kissed the ground in gratitude.
In Jackson Heights we reapproximated Bombay, my best friend Ashish and I. Ashish had also been moved from Bombay to Queens, at the age of fifteen. The happiest afternoons of that time were when we went to see Hindi movies at the Eagle Theater. With one letter changed, it had formerly been the Earle Theater, a porn house. The same screen that had been filled with monstrous penises pullulating in mutant vaginas was now displaying mythologicals of the blue-skinned god Krishna; in these films not a breast, not even a kiss was shown. Maybe it was being purified. But I still scanned the seats carefully before sitting down on them.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Maximum City by Suketu Mehta. Copyright © 2004 by Suketu Mehta. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.