Suketu Mehta: City Slicker

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The chronicler of metropolises returns to fiction to tell the story of memory and displacement

JACKSON HEIGHTS, LOCATED in Queens, is where you head when you yearn for the colours, sounds and smells of home. Indians in New York travel here to catch the latest Bollywood movies, source their monthly supply of ghee and hing, to window-shop blingy fashions and to get their eyebrows threaded (not waxed). With 167 languages spoken in this one New York neighbourhood, and with streets named Little India, Little Bangladesh, Little Pakistan and Little Colombia, everyone is bound to find a corner to call their own. Author and professor Suketu Mehta wanders here to overhear snatches of Gujarati conversations, to eat a samosa, and to polish off a plate of paranthas with his hands, without being asked questions. It is also here that Mehta’s character Mahesh from his latest novella, What is Remembered (available exclusively on Juggernaut app), recovers memories, reckons with the past, and finds a bit of himself.

Mehta’s magnum opus Maximum City (2004) set the gold standard for biographies of cities. He thought it would be a “quick and dirty book about a quick and dirty city”, but it consumed seven years of his life. This rigour made it a benchmark that only a few other non-fiction books by Indian authors have neared, let alone, surpassed. Maximum City combined extensive reportage with finely chiselled prose and emotional acuity. By conjuring the character of a city through its people, it became that one essential book that people read, re-read and passed on to others in order to understand Bombay. It was the book gifted to newbies, discussed and dissected by the old-timers and held up as an example of all that was glorious and tragic in the city. It is no surprise that it created a legion of fans.

Over the last decade, while the 53-year-old Mehta has written screenplays and articles, his fans have wanted another book from him. Word has spread that he has been working on a long-term non-fiction book about immigrants in contemporary New York. In the interim, we will have to satisfy ourselves with What is Remembered, which he started back in the 90s, and has worked on over the years.

What is Remembered serves as a teaser for Mehta’s forthcoming NY book as it explores the same themes—relocation, memories, identity—but through the lens of fiction. And does so expertly. This novella centres around Mahesh, a successful immigrant to the US, who has forgotten much of his past. But the one question that pesters him is: what is his mother’s name? Speaking on the phone from New York, Mehta says, “I was interested in ways in which as immigrants and exiles, as refugees from the past, we want to forget our histories, especially, as so many people who come to America want to make a new history.”

Mehta notices that many Indians who have migrated to the US have “consciously eliminated” their past. You wouldn’t find even a small Indian god in their drawing room, let alone the fragrance of Indian spices in their kitchen, he says. Scandinavian furniture fills their halls and French cuisine weighs down their dining table. Mahesh, who is emblematic of those affluent Indians, forgets more and more and worries less and less as he settles in American society. One day, by a quirk of fate, he finds himself in Jackson Heights (or ‘Jaikisan Heights’ as pronounced by Indians). Here he has a Proustian moment, not with a Madeleine, but a piece of chiki that serves as a ‘memory cake’. As he bites into each nut—peanut, cashew, pistachio and almond—he travels into different episodes of his past. But memories are seldom factual, layered as they are by time and perception. There is no telling which is real and which is not. Mehta explains, “Often when we Indians overseas think about India, the India that we came from, or the India that we might return to, it is a mixture of what is real and what is not. It is a mix of high and low. The things that I remember from my time in India as a child are very small things, things that happened to me in school. And the myths and legends that my grandparents told me. It is a confusing mixture. And that is what I wanted to play with. [This novella] is really about loss and recovery and self.”

For Mehta, Jackson Heights is not just a site of exploration, it is also where he grew up.

I was interested in ways in which, as immigrants, we want to forget our histories. Many people come to America to make a new history

He first moved here as a 14-year-old. He studied at a Catholic school, which he hated because he was bullied. As one of the few minority students in the school, his teachers called him a ‘pagan’. He was part of ‘this lunch table of the excluded,’ he said in an interview. The others in this coterie were his friend Ashish, ‘the school’s only acknowledged homosexual; a Cuban whose father was a plumber; a midget Irish angel-dust addict; and a Korean who kept to himself and ate noodles’. He says, “The school was an enclave of these Whites who thought they were being besieged by these minorities. I can well understand [Donald] Trump who is from that Queens world. I understand that mind set because these are the guys I went to high school with.”

Today the White population of Jackson Heights is a mere 17 per cent, whereas the Hispanics and Asians make up nearly 80 per cent. His forthcoming New York book—with the working title The City of Second Chance—will chronicle some of these migrants and their narratives. The demographic changes in Jackson Heights, within a few decades, tell the larger story of migrations and the movements of people across the globe at a particularly fraught time.

For Mehta, Mahesh’s story is also that of a second chance. And an app is the appropriate site for it. He acknowledges the reality today that while most people don’t read, they do own cellphones. He says, “I am a storyteller. I don’t care how my stories get across to the audience. People can read them, listen to them on a pod cast, watch it on a movie. For all I care, I can communicate with them telepathically, as long as they get a sense of the state of the mood that I write. What is Remembered is a mood piece. There is a level of uncertainty in it. But this is what fiction does. And it is the kind of fiction that I have always enjoyed. Which leaves me with a certain mood and questioning. And sets me on my own journey.”

I am a storyteller. I don't care how my story gets across. People can read them, listen on a Pod cast, watch it on a movie. For all I care, I can communicate with them telepathically

With What is Remembered, Mehta returns to his roots as a fiction writer. Today he is an associate professor of Journalism at New York University, but he started out writing short stories. His other long-term project is a translation from Gujarati of Mahatma Gandhi’s Atmakatha, known in English as The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Believing that the translation by Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal does not do Gandhi’s writings justice, he is working on a version that reflects the brevity of the original.

WITH MEHTA’S PREVIOUS book chronicling Bombay and the next one profiling migrants of New York, it is clear that cities fascinate him to the point of obsession. Especially the port cities like New York and Bombay which have seen the influx of migrants for centuries. But Mehta is also keenly attuned to the fissures of injustice that run through metropolises and the disparate quality of life that people experience. He addresses these issues of migration, alienation and community in a forthcoming short book called The Secret Life of Cities, which is a “writer looking at human beings in the city”.

For Mehta, the idea of a city is best epitomised by New York’s Coney Island. Here a Bangladeshi in a hijaab eating her ilish maach can be seen rubbing shoulders with a Russian in a bikini drinking vodka. In an article in the Guardian, he describes Coney Island as a place where, ‘It’s not that everyone is included. It’s that no one is excluded. It’s not that you’ll get invited to every party on the beach. It’s that somewhere on the beach, there’s a party you can go to.’ That is the kind of city that he would like to see grow and flourish, one where everyone can find a corner to be as they wish to be.

But in the last few decades, cities have become less equal and less liveable. Mehta dotes on Bombay but shines a light on its aberrations. He says, “I would not raise my kids now in Delhi or Bombay because I would be giving them lifelong breathing illnesses and stunt their brain development. But people are still coming in. Bombay is still the sone ki chidiya. Young people can come in and not just to make money, but to live with a certain degree of personal freedom. But I think it’s appalling, the lack of investment that the Indian Government makes in it. When I see kids on the streets, when I go into children’s prisons, it is unforgivable what we do to them.” To address this, Mehta has set up a legal defence trust with the royalties he’s received from Maximum City called the Maximum Child Trust, run by editor and author Naresh Fernandes.

He chastises the governments of Mumbai and Delhi which seem impervious to lessons learnt. In the cities of the West, he says, public housing that was erected in the 20th-century has been demolished, as it led to massive social illnesses. But “people in Bombay insist on demolishing the settled communities and erecting in their place block after block of the worst public housing imaginable,” he laments.

If the metropolises of India are becoming unliveable with the pollution in the air, the traffic on the roads and the collapsing infrastructure, cities like London and New York are simply becoming unaffordable. There is such a thing as too much money coming into a city, feels Mehta. Thirty per cent of all the apartments on the Upper East Side, in New York, are vacant 10 or more months a year, because they are held by absentee landlords or speculators. He says, “That is another way of ensuring the death of a city, by keeping the best parts of it for big money.”

A city cannot be judged or celebrated for its Michelin-star restaurants or the rents of its high-rise apartments. For a city to be a celebration, it must be ‘like Coney Island: open, affordable and accessible,’ believes Mehta. Like the perfect beach party, the signboard at the city’s entrance should read: ‘All are Welcome’.