Insightful exposé

Maximum City by Suketu Mehta; Penguin Group; Price: Rs.395; 584 pp

Although it debuted almost two years ago in India, this magnum opus penned by New York-based writer-journalist Suketu Mehta over a period of three years during which he relocated to the city of his youth, is still being discussed in the drawing rooms and social circuits of the chattering classes in Bombay, aka Mumbai, India’s richest city and its financial capital. Like the fiction bestseller Shantaram published in 2003 (reviewed on this page — EW February 2006) which it resonates in terms of content, Maximum City exposes the slimy underbelly of this resilient megalopolis which following open, continuous and uninterrupted loot, rape and plunder by its incorrigibly crooked politicians, mafia dons and amoral businessmen, is in a state of imminent collapse.

For sheer diversity, population pressure and socio-economic iniquity, contemporary Mumbai is sui generis. Yet despite its mind-boggling civic management and infrastructure problems, variety and innovation continue to thrive in this city of gold which offers greater upward mobility than any other habitat in India. This is perhaps why over 300 citizens from the farthest corners of the country migrate to it every day. This is perhaps also why Mumbai attracts the attention of myriad social scientists, writers and civic biographers. But what distinguishes Maximum City is the insights and interpretations of a nostalgic prodigal son, who has modestly prospered in the Indian diaspora.

With the benefit of historical memory and perspectives of several other cities worldwide, he is the rare insider and outsider who provides deep insights into the precipitous decline of this once charming city transformed into the world’s most competitive megalopolis in which acquisition of every ordinary convenience — residential space, water, electricity, transport, school admissions, cooking gas etc — is a primeval fangs-and-claw struggle.

If ever there was a classic illustration of the high price that ill-considered, irresponsible policy formulation extracts from civic society, it is provided by contemporary Mumbai. Mehta is perhaps the first writer to highlight the critical linkage between the passage of the Bombay Rents, Hotel Rates and Lodging House Rates Control Act, 1947, popularly known as the Rent Act which froze all rents payable on housing at then prevailing rates, and the dire straits in which the city is mired today.

Reaffirmed in 1948, the Rent Act compounds its original sin by permitting subordinate courts to determine ‘standard rent’ — routinely assessed at 6 percent return on outdated, standard costs of construction — payable by all occupants of dwelling units in the city.

In effect this ill-conceived populist legislation which in 1971 was specifically enlarged to cover ‘licencees’ has driven all rented property off the market. The consequence is that half a century later, even as 400,000 flats in the city remain under lock and key (because their owners are afraid of standard rent fixation), 60 percent of the city’s population resides in squalid slums lacking the barest amenities of civilized existence. Indeed Mumbai is perhaps the only major city worldwide in which even highly paid business executives commute to work from slum colonies because while they can afford to pay market rents, they lack the huge capital deposits demanded by property owners as insurance against lessees resorting to seeking relief under the Rent Act.

This status quo legislation dressed up as progressive socialism, has proved to be a veritable Pandora’s box which has let loose a plethora of evils which define present-day Mumbai. The author quotes a police commissioner saying that most of his time is spent attending to complaints of landlords and tenants compelled to tolerate each other by the Rent Act. Moreover much of the time of the city’s mafia (and Shiv Sena) bosses, whose power of life and death over the citizenry is detailed in this revealing civic biography, is allotted to resolving landlord-tenant disputes in rough-and-ready parallel justice systems which have acquired popularity because of another policy failure — neglect of judicial infrastructure. As Mehta perceptively observes, India provides 10 judges per million citizens as against 107 in the US.

Indeed a whole host of evils have been let loose upon this beleaguered city by the state government’s encroachment of the property rights of citizens and interference with the sanctity of contract. Commendably Maximum City makes — and explains — this connection.

In fact all the other evils that have dragged this thriving metropolis to the brink of anarchy can be traced to misconceived and hasty policy decisions. If the Union government had not foolishly banned the import of gold into India for over 40 years, this coastal city’s violent and powerful mafia gangs would not have struck such deep roots. Moreover if in the 1980s the state government had expanded the city eastwards, building a massive San Francisco style bridge to connect Bombay with the mainland of India (only three miles as the crow flies from the Gateway of India), the crunching land shortage and prohibitive property prices of contemporary Mumbai would never have happened.

Instead a conspiracy of major builders ‘persuaded’ the then chief minister V.P. Naik to expand southwards by reclaiming a few hundred acres of land from the sea. Through this corrupt strategem the supply of land available for business and residential purposes was artificially choked, enabling the builders to make huge fortunes as real estate prices spiralled skyward.

A compelling feature of Maximum City is its exposé of the beating heart of Mumbai’s underworld whose powerful bosses — gang leaders, hitmen, smugglers, drug peddlers and assorted low life unsuccessfully supervised by a thoroughly compromised police force — rule India’s commercial hub after nightfall. But commendably unlike other tomes written about this larger-than-life city, it doesn’t stop there. It also highlights the vital connection between flawed policy formulation and the ubiquitous despair of Mumbai’s citizens who to their credit, seem to have withstood continuous civic negligence and misgovernance to prosper in the city’s hostile and disabling environment.

Although Maximum City doesn’t hold out much hope for its beleaguered subject held hostage by a low-life cartel, the author’s blind spot is that it also boasts a resilient and inventive business and intellectual community which is fighting back. True, India’s commercial capital is experiencing unprecedented hard times, but the battle for Bombay is by no means over. Its forces of enlightened self- interest are also beginning to amass and gather momentum.

Dilip Thakore

Simplistic injunctions

Success Yogi by Dr. Hiru Bijlani; Price: Rs.250; 281 pp

Wellness is the new buzzword coined to denote an optimal combination of good health and interior happiness and predictably, its become a billion dollar global industry. According to Paul Zane Pilzer, well-known economist and author of The Wellness Revolution: How to Make a Fortune in the Next Trillion Dollar Industry, the aggregate revenue of this new-age industry is all set to cross $1 trillion (Rs.4,100,000 crore) by 2010. Products and services devoted to keeping people healthy, looking better and happy, and spiritually fulfilled, are being rolled out in rapid succession. Unsurprisingly books offering advice on how to achieve wellness are fast disappearing from shelves in bookstores around the world.

Inevitably desi writers have climbed aboard the wellness bandwagon. Enter Hiru Bijlani, a Mumbai-based management consultant, educator and trainer with Success Yogi — Your Guru for Success & Happiness. Divided into five sections offering formulae for personal, professional, health, spiritual and values enhancement, Success Yogi claims to offer a roadmap to a healthy, productive life. But within a few pages it becomes clear that the author has under-estimated the magnitude of his chosen assignment.

"I have opted in this book, as in my earlier books, for crisp brevity and trust my readers will appreciate it," writes Bijlani in his foreword. Yes, but "crisp brevity" is not a substitute for content and perspective.

Unfortunately Success Yogi has nothing new to offer readers. It’s replete with clichéd motherhood statements like "Identifying your strengths is a great way of boosting your morale", "Be liberal with your praise, but discreet with your criticism", "If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation" and "Positive thoughts are the wings to success and happiness". Beyond a point these simplistic admonitions and injunctions unsupported by examples and case histories, make tedious reading. Surely being a transnational management consultant, educator and corporate trainer the author has a bagful of case histories which could have garnished this bland advice!

For instance in the chapter on etiquette Bijlani writes, "In today’s global world, you need to gear up appropriately for other cultures when dealing with foreigners". It’s unbelievable that the author is unaware of even one of the thousands of case histories illustrating how clumsy and gauche Indian businessmen lost big deals because of cultural ignorance and insensitivity. The lack of real life examples and illustrative anecdotes makes Success Yogi a failure.

Except for some random research studies that have been quoted cursorily through the book, there is little evidence to show that Bijlani, author of five titles including Globalisation — an Overview and Succeed in Business: India, has developed insights and/or has spent time analysing how human beings can achieve the elusive but universal goals of success and happiness. For instance in chapter 21 titled ‘Giving and receiving feedback’ he quotes with evident approval an astonish-ingly inane injunction of a mysterious Elbert Hubbard who advises: "To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing."

One wonders: if some gullible simpleton were to follow this advisory pearl of wisdom, how far would he get particularly in the attainment of professional and personal goals which also fall within the purview of Bijlani’s ambitiously titled magnum opus? Regrettably there are absolutely no breakthrough revelations on the big questions of life in this self-improvement manual. Moreover the clipart images which accompany each chapter are juvenile and irritating as are the exaggerated font sizes and generous leading.

However, perhaps the case in favour of Success Yogi is its ambition. It takes a holistic view of success: the pursuit and attainment of happiness requires balancing physical, professional, emotional and spiritual objectives. But this insight is not adequately developed in this hastily written guidebook which promises much but delivers little.

Summiya Yasmeen