In 1977, a 14-year-old Indian boy migrated to New York with his parents. He became haunted by the absence of his home city. "I missed Bombay like an organ of my body," he tells us. Twenty-one years later, Suketu Mehta returned, a successful journalist, bringing with him his young family. The return was not easy - his children fell ill, he was maddened by Indian bureaucracy and corruption, and he could not find a place to stay that was less expensive than New York. Throughout the book, he loses his temper repeatedly. "This fucking city... It should be bombed from the air," he declares disagreeably in the opening chapter of this book.
But this is far from his final view on the matter. He proceeds to explore this teeming, sweaty megalopolis of 19 million people, committed to understanding Bombay (he chooses not to use the politically correct official name, Mumbai) from the point of view of the aspirations of its inhabitants. "Cities," he says, "are gateways: to money, to position, to dreams and devils." Mehta is drawn to the seediest sides of Bombay, spending large amounts of time with murderers, corrupt policemen, call girls and movie directors. And by the end of this remarkable, harrowing, deeply personal book, we are presented with a view of Bombay that is as full of redemption and admiration as of anger and disgust.
Mehta is a master at extracting confessions. He makes friends with a large number of unpleasant characters who tell him, in shockingly intimate and colourful detail, how they have raped and tortured and murdered. This is not a book for the weak of stomach. (At the end, even the indefatigable Mehta has had enough. "I am sick of meeting murderers," he declares before heading back to New York.) One political hoodlum tells him in terrifying, graphic detail what it looks like to watch a man burn to death. The hoodlum, from a Hindu political party, had himself set the man, a Muslim, on fire during sectarian riots. Mehta watches policemen beating up suspects - and introduces us to "a good cop", one who tortures suspects only when it is absolutely necessary and does not really enjoy it. Other policemen admit to killing suspects whom they know to be guilty, but whom they say a court will not convict.
Mehta then devotes a large part of the book to the life of a modern-day courtesan, Monalisa, who tries to make men fall in love with her and buy her lots of presents without having sex with them. She seems to be rather successful in this - and even Mehta appears to succumb to her charms.
Mehta is an excellent storyteller, and the central chapters of the book dealing with Bombay at its most sleazy are remarkable for their compelling, jaw-dropping detail. He also attempts to give a wider impression of Bombay and the more prosaic lives of its millions of "ordinary" residents.
However, these parts of the book feel like an afterthought and have little of the energy and drama that sustain the central narrative.
Despite this, Mehta achieves something very important in Maximum City. He reminds us of the necessity of taking the future of the world's megacities more seriously. Most of these cities are in developing countries, and India has three: Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta, each with a population of more than 13 million. They are all crucibles of discontent and aspiration. Each is an incubator for an uncertain urban future - a future that will matter to the whole world. We ignore them at our peril.
Sam Miller is a BBC journalist based in Delhi.
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
Author - Suketu Mehta
Publisher - Review
Pages - 498
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7472 2159 6