THURSDAY

Fourteen million people live in Bombay, the largest city in the world. And, as is evident in Suketu Mehta’s epic work of journalism Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, it is big enough to contain many hells and unsatisfying heavens. In his first book, the Indian-American writer meets Bollywood actors and high-class prostitutes, and visits a latrine where giant piles of feces obscure the toilets. He talks endlessly with hit men in the Muslim underworld, who appear to be little more than young and nihilistic boys who listen to American pop music and claim to have nothing against India even as they work alongside Islamic terrorists. He interviews Bal Thackeray, the father figure of the Hindu Nationalist movement, and finds “the one man most directly responsible for ruining the city [he] grew up in” little more than “a tired, aging fascist.” Yet Mehta’s most chilling encounter in this noirish world may be with an honest cop who refuses to take bribes but is unscrupulous and brutal in an interrogation room. In spite of his belief in human rights, Mehta can’t help but sympathize with the cop’s use of leather straps and electric shocks when he is trying to extract information from a suspect if it means defending the city against even more violence. Unlike most of the characters in the book, the cop is “unaffiliated with any political party, gang, or religion,” and his story is emblematic of India’s enormous and unwieldy democracy. Mehta reads at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 21, at Olsson’s Books & Records, 418 7th St. NW. Free. (202) 638-7610. (Paul Morton)