The first 48 pages of Suketa Mehta's Maximum City have blown me away. I wish I had more time to read it though I'm happy to have grabbed a half-hour or so before bed the last couple nights. It's a dangerous book to crack when already pressed for extracurricular time.
Mehta was born in Calcutta before his family moved to Bombay for 9 years in the early 70's. From there they moved to Jackson Heights, New York where his father and brother transplanted their families for 8 years as they sought to carve out an even larger niche in the diamond business. Jackson Heights was, as Mehta writes, a "working-class enclave that was steadily being encroached upon by immigrants from darker countries" where he spent his formative teenage years living and pining, as any right-minded teenager should, for his native Bombay and the friends and culture he left behind. Ostracized by his white classmates as a "stinking heathen" who emitted "the foul odors of my native cooking," Mehta describes walking outside the schools "barged-wire-topped gates" on graduation day and kissing the ground in gratitude.
The book is also rich in stunning facts. Like many, I'm fascinated by urban spaces- their people, the energy they exude, their infrastructures both physical and political, the communities they support or deny. I'm especially curious about their population densities. For example, in the 2000 Census, Chicago had a population density of 12, 447 per square mile. Taken by itself, Edgewater, the Chicago neighborhood Cathy, Abby and I live in, had a 2000 density of 36,587. Of Bombay's population density, Mehta writes:
India is not an overpopulated country. Its population density is lower than that of many other countries not thought of as overpopulated. In 1999, Belgium had a population density of 130 people per square mile; the Netherlands, 150; India, under 120. It is the cities of India that are overpopulated. Singapore has a density of 2,535 people per square mile; Berlin, the most crowded European city, has 1,130 people per square mile. The island city of Bombay in 1990 had a density of 17,550 people per square mile. Some parts of central Bombay have a population density of 1 million people per square mile. This is the highest number of individuals massed together at any spot in the world.
1 million people per square mile is intense. How does that work exactly? Mehta has the gift of any great journalistic reporter fervently trying to take the pulse of a kaleidoscope. "All great cities are schizophrenic, " Mehta writes, quoting Victor Hugo. "Bombay has a multiple-personality disorder."
I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this one.