The View from Malabar Hill

Amit Chaudhuri reviews Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta, in the London Review of Books:

Like Suketu Mehta, I was born in Calcutta, a city ‘in extremis’, in Mehta’s words, and, like him, grew up in Bombay. His father, who worked in the diamond trade, and mine, then a rising corporate executive, probably moved to Bombay from Calcutta for the same reasons; to do with the flight, in the 1960s, of capital and industry from the former colonial capital in the east to the forward-looking metropolis in the west, in the face of growing labour unrest and radical politics in leftist Bengal – the troubled context that ‘in extremis’ presumably refers to.

By the early 1970s, Calcutta had ceased to be a major centre of commerce and industry. Howrah, just outside the city, where the factories were once located, became a purgatory for small enterprise, with businesses – among them my uncle’s – waiting, sometimes for years and years, to die. The lights went out in Calcutta, literally: ‘load-shedding’, or power rationing, became frequent, until, in the early 1980s, the city had occasionally to make do with only eight hours of electricity a day. Jyoti Basu, the astringent, unsmiling Communist chief minister of West Bengal, a barrister from London and a bhadralok (that is, a member of the liberal, patrician middle class), whose first name means ‘light’, began to be called Andhakaar, or ‘Darkness’. Bombay, on the other hand, began to dazzle; I have no memory of it ever not dazzling. From the 12th-floor apartment in the not altogether extravagantly named Il Palazzo where I grew up, in Bombay’s most exclusive locality, Malabar Hill, I could see the row of lights on Marine Drive known as the Queen’s Necklace, fluorescent and aquamarine (they’re now a pale golden sodium), and, further on, great neon signs saying ORWO and BOAC and other things. It was an existence remarkably open to breeze, birds and rainfall, to the arrival of daylight and evening, and it was also strangely, unselfconsciously, enclosed. It was not Suketu Mehta’s Bombay.

More here.