Suketu Mehta, author of the justly feted Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, speaks to Nitin Chaudhary on belonging and exile, on the ideas of Bombay and New York, on Indian politics, and on the writer’s voice in society.
Bombay has touched you in more than one way. Your work on the city is celebrated and the poverty that you saw on the street gave you a cause — you are litigating on behalf of the children on the street. Does getting involved in your own subject not influence your objectivity?
I am deeply involved with my characters. There was a review of my book once in Vogue, and it said: “Less a work of journalism but a chronicle of evolving friendship.” I still hang out with the characters of my books whenever I go to Bombay. But there is one line that I drew — you’ll notice that there aren’t any street children in my book. I analysed that if I actually follow a street child as I followed the other characters in my book, then after the second or the third day, that child won’t be a street child anymore but will be in my home with my kids. That’s where I could not maintain objectivity because the children on the street affected me deeply and personally. With everyone else, I could go around, watch the stuff they were doing and be friends with them. Most of them continue to be my friends.
Let’s talk about the role of the writer as activist. You are both an author and an activist. Rushdie recently made a comment that the voice of the writer is fading. Do you feel the same and is that the reason some writers like Arundhati Roy are taking up the role of social activist quite literally?
Well, my activism is quite nascent. The fund I have setup for children is still a slow process because I am in New York. I admire people who are activists but I write and teach and that’s more than I can handle while raising two sons. I’d like to get involved in certain causes like the Maximum Child trust. But I also feel that I can get certain causes moving by writing about them. So I do write about a lot of issues. I wrote a piece in The New Yorker last year about asylum seekers. I was invited to a conference of judges and prosecutors who were making policies around asylum. I went there to present the human side of the story. That, to me, is activism, where I am using my voice as a writer to make the world a better place.
I agree with Salman that the voice of the writer is fading. In Soviet Russia, poems of poets like Anna Akhmatova were banned and people would recite them orally. Writers were tremendously important in countries like Russia and Czechoslovakia (when it was still one country). Poets could fill entire stadiums in the Soviet era. Now we are lucky to fill a room in a library. Russia needs its writers as much today because of the repression there.
The voice of the writer has been replaced by television and Twitter. Now, everyone has a voice. The Arab Spring was a Twitter revolution. There wasn’t a single writer as the voice of the revolution. Rather, it was the mighty chorus of the voices of the revolution. So that’s what has changed. We have all become writers now.
India needs its writers too. It is a good time to be a writer writing on India — there is so much going on. There is a big debate on graft, a popular movement, and numerous corruption cases out in the open. As a social commentator looking at India from a distance, is this a scene of hope or hopelessness?
The trouble about saying anything on India is that anything you say is true and false at the same time. Yes, there is all this corruption and the economy seems to have stalled. Then there is this unbelievable Maoist insurgency; the territory they control in India is larger than some of other countries.
But at the same time there is this tremendous entrepreneurial energy. I personally know a lot of people who have gone back to India and taken projects on literacy, energy, and medicine. There is a self-confidence about the country, which wasn’t there in the 1970s when I was growing up. There is both good and bad about the country. It’s too large a country to make any general statements about. That is why I feel that all these recent non-fiction books that came out on India are mistakes. Can you imagine writing a book called “United States”?
So when I talk about India, I like to talk about specific segments of the country, and certain trends that I see. People have been forecasting the end of India since the time India existed, saying that we will become Balkanised. Well, the Balkans Balkanised but we stayed one. There is still enough faith in the idea of India, in the idea of democracy.
There has been a substantial improvement in the lives of a majority of people, like Dalits in general. In 5000 years of India’s history, these people were told that they were poor and have low life expectancy because of sins in their past lives. Since Independence, such people constitute a numerical majority in India and cast their votes, though not always in a manner that everybody likes. But these people realise that they now have power. As they migrate into the cities, an enormous amount of human capital and talent is freeing up.
People often ask me if in the long run I am optimistic or pessimistic about India, and I give them Keynes answer — “in the long run, we are all dead”. I don’t think the country is going to split. Neither do I believe that the country will rule the planet. It will muddle along, making incremental gains in the lives of many of the people. The horrific stuff remains too. We have the largest illiterate population in the world; the number of malnourished children in India is higher than that in the sub-Saharan region. It’s a matter of shame for a country that claims to be a technology superpower.
Your views on the BJP’s brand of hindutva are well known. Narendra Modi is being projected as a prime ministerial candidate in the coming elections.
In Gujarat, all my relatives love Narendra Modi. He has definitely helped certain sections of Gujarat’s economy. I am not certain if everyone in Gujarat is better off because of Modi but he has definitely attracted industries in the State and instilled a tremendous sense of economic confidence among Gujaratis. This is real and should be acknowledged. He seems to have done a better job in managing Gujarat’s economy than the other Chief Ministers in the past. But under his rule, we saw the most widespread pogrom of 2002. It is good that the courts are finally holding the perpetrators of the riots accountable. The perpetrators of the 1992-93 riots in Bombay are still walking on the street.
The concept of Modi as prime minister is not only scary, but also impossible in my opinion. I don’t think the rest of the country will accept him. He is still too tainted with what happened in 2002. When you look after the rights of the minority, you are also looking after the rights of the majority. India is actually lucky to have the world’s fourth largest Muslim population. It’s because we take care of this enormous percentage of Muslims that we also have this system of civil rights which in turn protects Hindus’ rights also. Countries which don’t have substantial minorities find that the law can ride over everyone else’s rights.
Indian Muslims, because they are politically active and can bring down State governments if they choose, will not let Modi become prime minister, and that is going to save all of us.
You write about people of Bombay being “impossible dreamers”; have you become one yourself?
Now my impossible dream is to write a book about New York. This book on New York is as mammoth a project as the Bombay book was. Writing about New York might be a more impossible dream because the best writers in history — Joseph Mitchell, Tom Woolfe — have written about New York.
I am writing about contemporary New York, the city of immigrants. It is also my story because I got there when I was 14. So I am a New Yorker as well as a Bombayite. These are the only two cities that I want to write about. I am not going to write a book about Paris or Sao Paulo. I want to do New York justice. My two sons were born there and it will be my explanation of their hometown to them.
Bombay too has been defined by different authors. Salman Rushdie, Rahul Bhattacharya, you... What is it about Bombay that attracts writers even though they may not have spent a considerable part of their lives there?
Yes, Bombay stays in your bones. I write in my book that I am identified as a Bombay Boy wherever I go. My accent is still very much that of a Bombayite. I like to eat Bombay street food wherever I go. I make Pav Bhaji at my Manhattan apartment. Once you have grown up in Bombay and spent your formative years there, then you can go all over the world and come back — the city will still make a place for you.
I was born in Calcutta and spent six years of my life there. It is a city I like but I can’t make it my home. I can’t speak the language but I do speak Bambaiya Hindi. Bombay remains unique in India. It’s a compact city. It is getting spread out now but is still an island city. I find it much more accessible than Delhi, where I have to drive everywhere. In south Bombay, with some difficulty, I can still walk around.
The longing for home has been good fodder for the writers…
Exile has always been a good topic for the writers. But I am always getting tired of all these Indian writers who write about arranged marriages, the scent of grandmother’s cooking, mango orchids. The India they reproduce is the India of their summers when they have gone back and stayed with their cousins. It’s not that these experiences are not authentic. You can still write about this India but this experience is not deep enough. The writer should be careful about nostalgia as it can cloud your vision.
It can bring this unintended romanticism.
You can mistake the experience of visiting a place with the experience of living in it.
You recently introduced the concept of ‘interlocals’. You define interlocals as migrants who retain the texture of their nearby surroundings wherever and whenever they move. They would not want to transform their identities completely, as it would have happened say 20 years ago. Is it also a reflection of the growing confidence of Indian migrants that they want to stick to their roots?
Not necessarily. Interlocals could also be very poor. I have been studying these Mexicans; they live in one neighborhood in Queens and go back to their villages in Puebla, Mexico. They know their villages in Puebla and they know their neighbourhood in Queens. Beyond that they don’t really care. So they are deeply familiar with the texture of their surroundings. They may not be familiar with New Jersey and back in their villages, they may not be familiar with any other place outside Puebla.
It’s the same with certain Indian migrants. There are Patels who run candy stores in Queens. They know Flushing and they know their villages in Gujarat and they move back and forth between these two locations. So economy does not affect this level of interlocals. The interlocals are firmly rooted in two or sometimes three locations.
There is another kind of interlocal — the rich interlocals. They split across cities easily. A lot of corporate transfers would fall under this category. But these people are not rooted in a place and do not have allegiance to any city. However, when I speak about interlocals, I speak about migrants who go to another place in another country, but keep coming back to very specific places back home. So when most Indians return to India, they don’t really come back to India. They go back to Gujarat or Bengal or the Punjab. They stay in the same village and see the same people on their way back. The allegiance is very specific to certain parts, and there is no melting pot for the interlocals. Interlocals are very confident of their identities.
Is writing a daily discipline for you or does it happen in fits?
Every single day, I wake up and go straight to my computer. The first couple of hours are spent writing. It’s been that way for decades. If I don’t write in the morning, I can’t do anything else.