Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found is one of the great books of our generation, an intimate portrait of a metropolis that is at the centre of the Indian imagination. Now, 12 years later, Suketu Mehta is finally back with What is Remembered — a delightful novella about Mahesh, who has the perfect NRI life in the US, so perfect that he doesn’t remember anything about India.
Suketu on his novella, his love for cities, and what it means to be an NRI:
Why are cities so important to you? Maximum City, this novella and your forthcoming non-fiction book on cities are all about places.
I like cities because I like people. I was born in Calcutta, and grew up in Bombay and New York. As Woody Allen once said, I am at two with nature. For the first time in human history, more people are living in cities than in villages. Architects consider buildings; urban planners consider roads; I consider the human beings in the buildings and on their roads.
We always knew you liked New York and Mumbai. But Paris, too, is written with so much love in this story. Does it rank among your top five cities? And what are the others?
I once lived in Paris for a year, and fell in love with it. The beauty of Paris is in its architectural harmony, just as the beauty of New York is its chaos; it seems as if the Manhattan skyline was thrown up all at once in an earthquake. I’ve spent a lot of time in London and in Sao Paulo as well. I really could pack up and live in just about any large city on earth, as long as I can get a drink and a meal at 4AM somewhere.
When we talked about the story, you said it had been waiting in your drawer. Tell me how it came to be written?
I started writing it in a bout of homesickness in the '90s. Then I realised I was homesick, not just for India, but for Jackson Heights, which is a kind of middle world between India and America. Wembley in London occupies a similar position, these bridges between that world and this, between past and present. I didn’t know if it would grow into a full-fledged novel; at some point, I realised that the length was perfect.
I’ve always liked the novella format — Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist come to mind. Something longer than a short story, which is merely a taster, but shorter than a novel, perfect for our harried times. And besides, I realised I’d said what I wanted to say and didn’t want to say any more.
Do you think all NRIs have faulty memories when it comes to their homeland like your protagonist does in this novella?
All human beings have faulty memories about their past, but exiles have particular memory issues. Particularly those who came to America — so many came here to forget their personal histories, to forge a new history. I see this with many of my fellow NRIs, like the way some of us avoid Indian food or you can walk into their homes and find nothing Indian in the decor, not even a little god somewhere. This erasure of memory, and the way memories keep invading your cocoon as you get older, is fertile ground for a fiction writer, or a memoirist. The most foreign country is childhood.
Why do NRIs like Narendra Modi so much — and Donald Trump?
For the same reason: many of the NRIs are looking for order in a chaotic situation. Their idea of India is that it is a disorderly, corrupt place, and has too much democracy — what the country needs is a strongman like Modi, with his 56-inch chest. When he came to speak at Madison Square Garden, he was greeted like a rock star; Narendra Modi is the Gujarati Elvis. Although the majority of Indian-Americans have always voted Democrat, there’s a small but growing section that likes Trump, because they share his antipathy for Muslims.
What is Remembered by Suketu Mehta is exclusively available on the Juggernaut app.