Literary Review

‘I like people. I like cities.’

We don't want time to be an arrow: Suketu Mehta.

We don't want time to be an arrow: Suketu Mehta.  

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Talking to Suketu Mehta, whose latest is a novella for a reading app; all about a man and his memories

Suketu Mehta’s latest offering isn’t the big New York book he has been working on for years — “the albatross,” as he likes to call it — but a short story about a man called Mahesh, who leaves India for New York, who from the minute his feet touch the “powerful static shock from the carpeting” at JFK begins to forget things like his mother’s name. What is Remembered , published on the Juggernaut app, deals with the vagaries of exile, the unreliability of memory, and the exuberance of cities. Mehta, most famous for his non-fiction book, Maximum City , about Bombay, reminds me that he is a “licensed fiction writer” with a degree from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and that the only reason he turned to non-fiction was because no one was paying him to write short stories. Excerpts from a Skype interview:

What’s this attraction you have for cities, where does it come from?

People! (shouting) I like people! So I like cities. Cities are where you find people. As Woody Allen says, I am at two with nature. This novella is very dear to me because, as you know, I grew up in Jackson Heights. I got there when I was 14 from Bombay, and it’s this Middle World. Whenever I feel nostalgic for India that’s where I go and I get this flood of memories. Joan Didion writes that the attraction of New York is that something extraordinary could happen any day any hour any minute, and I feel that in Bombay, I feel that in New York, I feel that in Paris.

You have a particular way of going into the underworld of a city and finding places that regular city lovers might not necessarily find.

I come from a middle-class Gujarati background. It’s a very ordinary, diamond merchant household. I never grew up around gangsters or prostitutes or movie stars, but as a journalist I had this licence to go among people who really lived their life on the edge and I became fascinated. I could follow them and listen to their stories without going to the edge myself. Borges was also fascinated by the lives of the demi-monde in Argentina — he got a lot of his fiction from these people because they had these extraordinary lives. I got good at getting them to tell me their stories because I’d listen with real interest. The attraction is that they’re doing something I could never imagine doing myself, they imagine it for me. That is, the terrain of my imagination is their lived lives.

How is the experience of making stuff up for fiction different from your other kind of writing?

As writers, we’re concerned with memory and desire. Whenever I go to Jackson Heights, I feel this onrush of memories from my childhood, which I can’t quite trust — I don’t know if this is what I experienced, if this was real or not, and that dissonance is fascinating to me, and it’s something I can play with much more in fiction that in non-fiction. You can’t make shit up in non-fiction, and I certainly don’t even try. But in fiction I have this wonderful licence to be opaque, oblique, leave things up to the reader, have untrustworthy narrators, and so it’s playing with the same issues, which is exile, love, family — but in this wonderful different way, and both of them inform each other. I couldn’t do non-fiction if I didn’t also write fiction. And I certainly couldn’t write fiction if it weren’t informed by hard-core reporting on the ground.

Are there different responsibilities when you write fiction or non-fiction?

I’m a notoriously irresponsible writer and human being. I tell stories in everything I do, and I really don’t care where it goes as long as it goes. Increasingly, around the world, young people don’t read physical books but they do look at their cell phones, so when Chiki (Sarkar) called about this app for Juggernaut, I thought this was the perfect length to get something across to people. I really believe as writers we live in this shrinking universe. It’s not enough to get on our high horse to declare that everyone should read books. In fact, I myself am reading fewer books, so I want to do more of this. I really don’t care what the audience is as long as they get the same delight out of the story as I did when I was sitting with my grandfather listening to stories of the epics.

What roles do memory and imagination play in your work?

In this story, the flood of memories that is released for Mahesh on his journey to Jackson Heights is prodded by a completely unreliable interlocutor called The Expert Liar, who feeds him these origin stories — some profound, some ridiculous. That’s the way memory functions. I often see scenes like the one I described of the whole family sitting around drinking ice-cold water in Surat; it was the thing to do because they had no fridge. The ice- wallah would come and we’d drink cold water. If you were to see a scene of that film you’d just see a bunch of happy Gujjus sitting around drinking cold water. Obviously, I don’t have gnostic access to these people’s heads so that’s where the fiction writer comes in, to surmise a universe out of a completely ordinary scene. In Indian philosophy we’ve given long and serious consideration to what links all our different selves that is the past and the present, what is real and what is not, what is family and what is not, what is us now and what is us tomorrow… we are very concerned with this evanescence of time and space and so what I wanted to do in this novella is throw together these different scenes.

How has your family reacted to the way you’ve treated their memories?

My family read everything I write and they’ve read this novella; they can see snatches of family story but they haven’t really taken objection. When I write my New York book, there’s going to be a lot about my divorce and the years after that, raising two kids as a single father, so there it might get more tricky, we’ll see. But as a writer I’m not writing public relations, and especially in non-fiction there will be people that you will piss off, but your first duty really has to be to the truth as you see it.

There’s a line in your story, “What is past is our present to you.” Would you say the way to survival for an immigrant is not to cut off from the past but to find a way of introducing it in some measure to the present?

For me this is very personal. I’ve gone back and forth between Bombay and New York since I was 14. In the beginning I was so homesick for Bombay, I missed it like an organ of my body. I kept feeling I need to go back to Bombay, and then I did, when I had a family. I lived there for over two years, but having lived there I realised I could once more venture into the world with confidence as I proved to myself that I could go back and be taken back in every way as an Indian, a Bombayite. So, now I don’t feel that same anguish because I realised that I also long for New York when I’m away.

In Maximum City I say that nostalgia is the simple desire to evade the linearity of time. We don’t want time to be an arrow, we want it to be a circle, but what we look for when we go into these places (like Jackson Heights) is a sense of self, a sense of connectedness to our earlier selves, which is essential for our sanity. If we are not connected to those earlier selves, then those memories are going to come up anyway and invade the carefully built fortifications around our hearts. Through some chink the memories will slip in and then we will be defenceless.

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 7:25:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/%E2%80%98I-like-people.-I-like-cities.%E2%80%99/article14633037.ece

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