The Walrus

Cities in a Raw Young Century

Bombay, Tehran, and Prague, in all their madness and excess, refuse to conform to Western notions of the modern city

by Randy Boyagoda · Photograph by Peter Bialobzeski/liaf
Books · From the April 2005 magazine
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books discussed in this essay:
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
by Suketu Mehta
Alfred A. Knopf (2004)
542 pp., $40

In The Rose Garden of the Martyrs
by Christopher de Bellaigue
HarperCollins (2005 )
283 pp., $38

Time’s Magpie: A Walk in Prague

by Myla Goldberg
Crown Journeys (2004)
140 pp., $23

Here is a Bombay story for you: Padma is born in Dharavi, one of the city’s larger slums. Municipal authorities arrive to demolish it for the fifth time. The Hindu mob has decided not to front the money or issue the threats necessary to save it again, waiting instead for the more lucrative kidnapping and bribery opportunities that accompany redevelopment. Watching her fibrous heap of a house crumple, Padma’s mother finally gives up. She grabs her baby by the legs and swings it around her head, preparing to bash it against the piss-heavy, shitcaked ground. A policeman decides to intervene. Padma is saved, sent to an overcrowded state orphanage where she’s a sexual plaything for local politicians who visit frequently to make high-minded inspections. At twelve, she starts dancing in one of the city’s thumping beer bars, withholding her youthful favours for the highest bidder so that she can send the extra money to her newly in-touch mother, who’s now living in faraway Bihar.

If Padma isn’t killed by a gun-packing Gujarati jealous of her smiles at a money-fat Dubai roller, if she isn’t successful in slicing her wrists with a razor when a crafty boyfriend ‘s promise of a Bollywood audition fails to pan out, if she is able to make it to twenty with enough of her looks and wits about her, she might land a position in one of the better brothels in Golpitha, Bombay’s humid red-light district. Getting dressed beside a chatty diamond merchant, she might hear about his colleague who’s decided to become a Jain monk. He’s rejected samsara, worldly life, and will abandon his millions in a ritual parade the next day, marching out of the sinful city to begin his lifelong search for moksha, salvation. If Padma can wake before noon, if she can squeeze into one of the reeking, crammed cars of Bombay’s railway, and if she can jostle through the 35,000 others who have gathered on the street in hopes of catching a coin, she might find enough money to buy groceries for the following week, or, more importantly, the latest celebrity magazines and a new cellphone. Because more than anything, she wants to look like she fits in when next she strolls down posh Marine Drive, her still-young eyes greedy with wonder and longing. This is one story, a reasonably fortunate one, out of the 19 million that careen through contemporary Bombay, the world’s Maximum City.

Suketu Mehta, a New York-based Indian writer, spent two-and-a-half years in Bombay chronicling the city’s dizzying arcade of peoples and dramas. The result, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, is a barbaric yawp of a book that confronts us with a twenty-first-century megalopolis both terrifying and alluring, like the archetypal sinful city of centuries past. Together with Christopher de Bellaigue’s In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs and Myla Goldberg’s Time’s Magpie, books that explore the jagged terrains of contemporary Tehran and Prague respectively, Mehta’s book of Bombay demands that we radically reconfigure our understanding of the globe’s most important cityscapes. The gnashing struggles of our tense new age are being played out in cities like Bombay, Tehran, and Prague; this trio of books portrays them as the delirious hosts of bawling anarchies, overripe indulgences, political schizophrenias, and, more often than not, neighbours struggling against each other to the death.

In Mehta’s handling, Bombay outstrips the decay of Augustine’s Rome and the decadence of the Bible’s Sodom, the criminality of Dickens’ London and the intrigues of Proust’s Paris. Louder than Tokyo, hungrier than New York, poorer than Mexico City, more pleasure-filled than Amsterdam, Bombay surpasses any modern city imaginable, save perhaps contemporary Baghdad, in its offer of daily opportunities to be kidnapped or to die violently and randomly. Bombay crams 19 million human beings onto one smallish island. Twenty thousand of its buildings have been condemned, its population density reaches one million people per square mile in some areas, and two-thirds live on 5 percent of the land while the wealthy and rent-protected hoard the remainder. As Mehta knowingly observes, “A city this densely packed affords no privacy. Those without a room of their own don’t have space to be alone, to defecate or write poetry or make love.”

Like Bellaigue in Tehran and Goldberg in Prague, Mehta tries to make sense of life in an urban setting that spectacularly fails to correspond to orderly Western notions of what a city should and should not be. Proud and comfortably self-proclaimed “world cities” like Toronto and Sydney, are multicultural jamborees compared to Bombay in its blood-splattered pluralism. In the feral wake of the 1992–93 riots between Muslims and Hindus over the Ayodhya mosque and temple controversy, ethnic gang culture has become so darkly commonplace in the city that extortion payments are now tax-deductible. The city’s infrastructure is more offending: 40 percent of Bombay’s policemen live in slums; the court system—turgid amid a cloud of incompetence, fear, and corruption—receives 40,000 new cases every year, and it would take 350 years to get through the backlog. Meanwhile, the always overworked, malfunctioning sewage system conspires with catastrophic levels of urban poverty, allowing the cleverest of the desperate to extract water from drainage ditches that gurgle and reek of human waste. Unbelievably, this prize lets them grow spinach to feed their families.

What of virtue and hope, in such a place? This is Mehta’s concern, and his book is loud with conversations and biographies from across Bombay’s strata that try to account for the desire to live here. As he explains in a passage as unrelenting as the city it describes:
“Every day is an assault on the individual’s senses, from the time you get up, to the transport you take to go to work, to the offices you work in, to the forms of entertainment you are subjected to. The exhaust is so thick the air boils like a soup. There are too many people touching you: in the trains, in the elevators, when you go home to sleep. You live in a seaside city, but the only time most people get anywhere near the sea is for an hour on Sunday evening on a filthy beach. It doesn’t stop when you’re asleep either, for nighttime brings the mosquitoes out of the malarial swamps, the thugs of the underworld to your door, and the booming loudspeakers of the parties of the rich and the festivals of the poor. Why would you want to leave your brick house in the village with its two mango trees and its view of small hills in the east to come here? “

Bombay, like New York, is a city of talkers, and so Mehta is barraged with answers to that question, which, among others, cite the lucrative clutches of the city’s all-pervading criminal enterprises and the moony hopes of stardom in its ever-present movie industry. There are people who come to Bombay as part of an old story: country youths eager for better prospects and excitements in the big city. And those who come as globalization’s privileged migrants: American-educated, nonresident Indians who return for private gain and personal restoration, deadened by their profitable time in the soulless West and looking to get even richer by putting their Silicon Valley smarts to use in the East.

The Bombay that thunders across Mehta’s pages takes a wrecking ball to tidy divisions of Third and First World. These are always toe-to-toe in the twenty-first century’s pre-eminent version of the universal city, that “locus classicus of incompatible realities,” in Salman Rushdie’s smart phrase. To enter Maximum City is to be cinched up in a bright, screaming, muddy sari and eavesdrop at the overcrowded, gossipy “intersection of everything that makes the city fascinating: money, sex, love, death, and show business.”

Of Bombay’s primal elements, modern Tehran shares one andd a half: it also brims with death, while its perpetual mobs—religious, revolutionary, anti-revolutionary, anti-American, and, always around the corner, thuggish—grow so berserk in their theatre at times that one wonders if the citizenry is collectively employed in some bizarre civic-sponsored show business. If so, then at least they would have jobs, not to mention a rationale for their days in Tehran, because otherwise, these goods are in short supply. If Bombay throbs with life, Tehran coughs and rattles. Much like the wider nation, it is a city sterile with contradiction, as Christopher de Bellaigue reveals in his stark memoir In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs.

Bellaigue, a Tehran resident since 2000 who writes for the Economist and the New York Review of Books among others, traces out the numbing consequences of the 1979 Islamic Revolution on the present-day city. It suffers from many of the problems that plague all metropolises—stagnating infrastructure, a widening gyre of poverty and drug addiction, terrible air pollution, bald mismanagement of public funds, and brittle divisions between districts cut along economic and cultural lines. But Tehran cannot look to a better future; any chance of urban renewal is precluded by Iran’s evermore desperate need to define itself as permanently in revolution and at perpetual war with the outside world. One outcome, Bellaigue explains, is that living in Tehran is like “listening to the sea in a shell”; after being bluntly reinvented, the city has been hermetically sealed to erase any vestige of a past before Khomeini. The streets have been renamed for martyrs; the infamous former US embassy is today officially known as the Nest of Spies; the city’s main southern cemetery, which contains the bodies of 70,000 soldiers, is proudly called Zahra’s Heaven; and colonial Tyburn, west of the city’s uneasy bazaar, is now grimly, if appropriately, designated Execution Square.

Twenty-five years after the expulsion of the Shah and his Persian pleasures, and now that the hoped-for “Tehran Spring” of Khatami’s reform-minded leadership has rotted, Bellaigue moves through the city’s tense population in hopes of clarifying its scores of problems and divining its prospects. His findings can be as absurd as they are depressing. He chats with a recalcitrant editor who has had six consecutive newspapers closed down by judges; he traces out the hyperactive espionage, ridiculous lies, and brutal solutions that the mullahs favour to catch and punish talkative journalists and misbehaving moles; he spends time with an expatriate Iranian artist, Parastu Forouhar, recently returned to Tehran to secure justice for her dead parents, who were efficiently murdered by state agents for purported dissident activities.

In fact, Bellaigue’s time with Forouhar best reveals Tehran in its all-conquering grey, brown, and black swatches. He hears her speak with passion at a rally whose other attendees seem split between nervous, nervy supporters of reform and “informants and agents. . . not bothering to hide their identity—scowling through dank beards, pocketing notes made on a pad.” Outside, another of the regime’s watchmen brazenly videotapes all who leave the building as they form into a chanting mob, only to be silenced by policemen, counted by plainclothes agents, and crushed by the ever-ready thugs.

Perhaps the most incisive image of Tehran that Bellaigue uncovers in this arid, dispiriting book is a framed blank space. When Parastu attempts to mount an exhibition in Tehran that she had recently staged with success in Berlin—provocative photographs of a bald man bedecked in an embroidered chador—the Intelligence Ministry intervenes, “deem[ing] them at odds with the official designation of the chador as the most virtuous feminine garment.” The exhibition is summarily cancelled, but, Bellaigue notes, “Parastu’s opening went ahead and the public found the walls of the gallery bare except for frames that had contained photographs of a bald head.” Theocratic obstinence begets protest art, and Tehran’s citizens come to look, hungry for some reminder of the city’s cosmopolitan past and lamely seeking what meagre respite they can from its otherwise calcified future.

Time has atrophied in Tehran; in Prague, it beats on, awkwardly straddling ten centuries of experience as the city itself straddles the Vltava River, Myla Goldberg suggests. But the twentieth century has claimed from Prague much of its well-aged charm: world wars, Nazis, Soviets, generations of clod-headed town planners of every stripe, and now clumsy, greedy capitalists have made and destroyed and remade the city into a monument-strewn amusement park for its indifferent citizens and easily pleased tourists. The latter group’s satisfaction results from Prague’s hammy conversion of history and culture into consumables and postcards. Its cobblestone streets and Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, and art nouveau architecture today provide pathways and storefronts for the gluttonous best of the West: “a T.G.I. Friday’s inhabits an eighteenth-century mansion; signs posted on elegant antique streetlamps display the word casino in Czech, English, Japanese, and Hebrew; a fourteenth-century boulevard contains a McDonald’s, a Pizza Hut, and numerous discos,” writes Goldberg.

This is but one of the many epic lists of the city’s “spectacular street mélange of consumer culture, international tourism, and incipient capitalism” on offer in Time’s Magpie: A Walk in Prague. These inventories, while clever and critical, overwhelm this slim meditation from Myla Goldberg, an otherwise thoughtful American novelist who returns to Prague to check on its progress ten years after westernization first took hold. The evidence she brings back is as brazenly ugly as the graffiti sprayed across the city’s ancient buildings, and as casually distasteful as the images of cavorting naked women that serve as backdrops for children’s carnival rides in a city park.

Goldberg is insightful when she moves beyond cataloguing the crass excesses of post-Cold War Eastern Europe to contemplate the vestigial Soviet bureaucratic culture that clogs the city’s public buildings and services; or when she covers the gimpy, sparse protests against the war in Iraq that take place in city squares that have for centuries hosted major historical events; or when she turns up examples of brutality in Prague over the past century. Visiting the city’s statuesque burial grounds, potted with obelisks to celebrated Czechs of the near and distant past, the graves of Kafka, Dvorák, and others are not nearly as affecting as the blank headstones dating to the 1930s that Goldberg finds in the New Jewish Cemetery—so many stark reminders of diverted lives.

Goldberg’s Prague, like Mehta’s Bombay and Bellaigue’s Tehran, often seems to be “half-joke and half-dream.” These cities curry our desire for the familiar chaos of places like Rome, so neatly captured in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, as “a moderate, tranquil jungle where one can hide well.” Bombay, Tehran, Prague, the tumid cityscapes of the new century, offer no such refuge. Their citizens are awash in the roiling waves of religion and politics and history and money and sex and death that surge through their boulevards, bazaars, and back alleys. Crowded in by strangers and kin, tricksters and killers, those who endure turn to the old human verities of hope and desire and still more hope. So outfitted, they wait for the city to make good on its eternal promise: that daily temptation of a better life.