Bombay nightmares

SUKETU MEHTA WAS ALONE IN MUMBAI, waiting for his wife and sons to join him in the city to which he had returned to write about the violent, corrupt and chaotic metropolis where he grew up. One blistering afternoon, through the heat and dust, he saw a little, barefoot family approaching. The mother had wild, ragged hair, and was walking with a baby boy fast asleep on her shoulder, and leading by the hand another boy, maybe four or five, who was rubbing tired eyes.

They came up to a street stallholder and the mother held out her hand, but she was ignored. Automatically, Mehta, a writer, Bollywood screenplay author and journalist from New York, thrust a 50 rupee note - about 60p - into the woman’s empty hand. Without looking back, he hurried to an air-conditioned bookshop where he stood in a corner and closed his eyes.

The identification with his own absent family was so powerful and so painful that he started constructing a past and a future for the woman and her sons: "A hundred times a day the boys would have seen their mother hold out her hand to beg. A hundred people would be watched by those clear young eyes as these strangers curse their mother, tell her to move on or throw change at her."

All that day he felt ashamed of spending money - "everything became multiples of that note". Within 20 minutes he had spent six times as much on books. "For me, 50 rupees meant nothing: pocket money change, less than a New York subway token." For the mother it might have bought medicine for her younger child’s cough, or perhaps she gave it to her man for liquor.

And that, sighs Mehta when we meet in New York, to which he has now returned with his wife Sunita and their boys, Gautama (9) and Akash (6), is the obscenity of Mumbai (as Bombay has been renamed). "Our lives have two entirely separate systems of currency." He had only just returned to his homeland - he was 14 when his diamond merchant father took his family to the States - so the desperate plight of the street children had not hit him until that afternoon. Now, he plans to use all the Indian royalties earned by his fine book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, to sue the Indian government on behalf of the country’s destitute street children.

A boyish-looking 41-year-old, Mehta says that while working on his remarkable 500-page book - it took him seven years to research and write - he became ever more aware of children in the city. It has 18 million inhabitants crammed into its 169 square miles - in some places the population density exceeds a million per square mile. Soon Mumbai will have more people than all of Australia. By 2015 it will be the most populous city on the planet, with an estimated 55 million living there.

Through his sons’ eyes he saw a city that was a perfect, richly Dickensian landscape for privileged children such as his own, with camels, elephants, monkeys and peacocks on virtually every corner. "But it also broke my heart. Every day I was seeing kids begging for food, being chased away with sticks, being sold, being bartered - gangs of them. It was heartbreaking. I saw children who had to learn to beg before they could walk. A city this rich - there’s a lot of money in Bombay, indeed in India - should not put its children through such an ordeal. I’ve contacted high-profile, public-interest lawyers in Bombay and we plan to sue the government because it’s written into the constitution that it is obligated to take care of children on the streets, but the government is not doing it because children don’t have a lobby. The Indian government is like a large elephant - it will only move in the direction you want it to if prodded with a stick.

"So I’m taking a stick to it by setting up a children’s legal defence fund. Personally, I can improve things for, say, a thousand kids at most, but ultimately this scandal is the government’s responsibility. I want to force them to fully fund and implement the legislation which is already on the statute books."

Over a modest lunch of toasted sandwiches and orange juice in New York’s "Little India", in the city’s East Village, Mehta speaks passionately about his hopes that his book, already a bestseller in India, might change the lives of millions of children, especially in Mumbai, where dark slums fester beneath glittering skyscrapers.

ALREADY PUBLISHED IN THE STATES, Maximum City has been much praised. The New York Times critic wrote that Mehta had succeeded brilliantly in taking the pulse of Mumbai’s riotous urban jungle and that his book was the best work of non-fiction to come out of India in recent years. Meanwhile, Indian reviewers have suggested that Mehta has achieved in non-fiction terms what Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children did for Mumbai, a place Mehta memorably calls "a city in heat" and "humid with sex".

Written beautifully in documentary-like prose, Maximum City is in the style of the work of Gonzo journalists such as Hunter S Thompson, whom Mehta admires, although his role model is the New Yorker’s late Joseph Mitchell, the journalist many regard as the greatest reporter of all time.

Part travelogue, part history, part memoir, Mehta’s compassionate book lives through the vivid portraits he paints of the lives of the people he tracks, from the bent cop and the mafia don to the struggling poet, from the shadowy right-wing Hindu fundamentalist to the tragically beautiful Nautch girl dreaming of escaping her sad existence in a seedy bar by winning a Miss India beauty pageant. Her life is measured out by the slashes on her wrist after many futile suicide attempts.

He began writing the book after being asked by the Glaswegian writer and editor of Granta, Ian Jack, to interview the neo-fascist Bal Thackeray, who heads the notorious arch-nationalist Hindu Shiv Sena party. Thackeray, writes Mehta, is "the one man most responsible for ruining the city I grew up in".

Mehta remembers a peaceful, tolerant city, but it was transformed by brutal riots in 1993, when a Hindu family living in a Muslim-dominated slum was burnt alive. Allegedly incited by Bal Thackeray, Hindu mobs went on a murderous spree, stabbing, raping and burning men, women and children. When the Thackeray interview appeared, Mehta was immediately offered a book deal. "So I owe it all to a Scotsman," smiles Mehta, who has used a version of the story in Maximum City.

Despite living happily in Brooklyn, "with a bedroom in London and another in Paris," thanks to his large circle of family and friends, Mehta leapt at the chance to take his family to Bombay. He admits he put them through appalling privations - the water, for instance, is often filthy and in the book he agonises about bringing his boys to a city where they have to clean their teeth in water with excrement floating in it.

"I owe my family a great debt," he says. "But I was filled with the desire to find out whether I could go home again - and that’s the thread running through the book." His first draft was 1,667 pages long and the book was eventually edited by the renowned New York publisher and writer Sonny Mehta ("no relation"), head of the publishing house Knopf. So many good stories did not make the final cut that Suketu Mehta has been offered a second book deal to accommodate them. "Minimum City!" he jokes, adding that he has so many stories from Mumbai that he could live off them for years. "I put a lot into this book," he says.

Next up is a work of fiction, probably written from the point of view of a foetus. Ironically, he believes fiction is his true metier and is currently writing the screenplay for the next Merchant Ivory film, Shakti, starring Tina Turner in the title role of the goddess.

Recently, he’s been spending time with the glamorous rock legend at her Zurich home, where she treated him to a solo performance of the dance routines she’s been working on for the movie. "It was sensational stuff," he confides, imitating Turner’s sensual arm movements.

After Mumbai, he finds New York "somewhat boring", so plans to return for a long holiday with his family. But surely Mumbai is in its death throes? "When 500 new people come in every day to live, Bombay is not a dying city," he replies. "A killing city, maybe; but not a dying city. It’s one hell of a place."

• Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, by Suketu Mehta, is published by Headline, price 12.99.