& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Suketu Mehta interview - 1


Mayank: Maximum City – there is no book written on a city like Maximum City. It is the first of its kind. And I don't think there have been many that have followed that were as ambitious.

Suketu: About once a month, I get a request to write a blurb for a book that is the Maximum City of Johannesburg, or the Maximum City about Beijing. There have been some books similar to Maximum City. But to me Maximum City evolved into the book that it became.  When I began, I had no idea what I was doing. It was part memoir, part travelogue, part investigative journalism. And it was my first book. I began with an idea – that I wanted to go home. I was a Bombay boy who had been abroad long enough, and I wanted to go home. I wanted my children to have a sense of what home meant to me and to them.

But that home turned out to be very different from what I thought it was. So, I just followed my nose and wherever I found interesting story I just followed it. When the book came out, no one had any expectations of it. I remember the editor of The Times of India’s Bombay edition, asking me, “Why would the Knopf reader be interested in a book about Bombay?” And I said, “You live here, and you don’t understand why?” I met Murli Deora, who was this long-time Member of Parliament. I met him at a party at the US Consulate, and he asked me, “How long will you take to write the book?” At that time, I was being optimistic, and said, “a couple of years.” And he responded, “Couple of years? Bapa na paisa bahu vadhi gaya chhe? Chha mahin ma patavi do.” (Couple of years. Does your father have a lot of money? Complete the book in six months).

Nobody had any clue what I was doing. One of the gangsters who I had interviewed, asked me, “Book likh rahe ho? PhD thesis jaisa book?” (You’re writing a book, just like a PhD thesis).

But it was a big book. It took me seven years.

I attribute its success to the interest that people have in the notion of a global city, the megalopolis. Since then, there have been a few wonderful books on Bombay.
I wanted my book to reach more than a certain kind of audience. My book is widely pirated on the streets of Bombay. So, once while I was in Bombay, this kid came up to me at the traffic lights carrying a stack of books and on the top was Maximum City. And he is shouting, “Chalo le lo, Maximum City, Maximum City…”

Gavin: That’s probably the ultimate compliment – to be sold a pirated version of your own book on Bombay on the streets of Bombay.

Suketu: I asked the boy, “Kitne ka hai?” (How much is it for?” And he replied, “Panso rupiya.” (Five hundred rupees). I tried to bargain with him and said, “Panso ruipya? Tere ko malum hai yeh kitab maine likhe hai?” (Five hundred rupees! Do you know, I have written this book?) Without losing momentum, the boy replied, “Thek hai, agar apne likhe hai to charso rupiya de do.” (OK, if you have written it, then give four hundred rupees).

I called my publisher and told him, “David, fire your sales force and hire this kid.”

Mayank: I don’t know whether Gavin has introduced himself, but his book of poems is being published next year.

Suketu: Congratulations!

Gavin: Thank you. I have a story about this involving Ranjit (Hoskote) and Nissim Ezekiel. I don’t know whether you know Nissim.

Suketu: Oh, I know Nissim. I’d meet him at the Theosophical Society at Churchgate.

Gavin: Yes, me too.

Suketu: And then, he would take me to the Udupi across the street, and then when I put in the tip, he would, with his boney hands, push back some coins to me, muttering, “too much, too much.”

Gavin: My goodness! You have a Nissim story. I can’t believe it. So, the story I have is that Nissim was to publish me when I was young, as part of Rupa’s Young Poets series, which I believe now doesn’t exist because they went bankrupt. They published Ranjit and two other poets. They were to publish 14 poets in that series. And that was the end of it. Now, I am an old poet, and some of the same work is being published now in 2020. Jerry, I think, was among that group, too. Do you know Jerry? Jerry Pinto?

Suketu: Maybe a little too well.

Gavin: I was a member of the Bombay Poetry Circle. I was there at its very first meeting. Ranjit was there, I was there, so was Anju Makhija, and a couple of others, George Oommen, and Nissim was also my professor when I was doing my MA at Bombay University. He was wise, witty, gentle, all-in-all a remarkable man.

Mayank: Coming back to our Q&A. You have written a book on immigration, and as you explained earlier today (at Toronto International Festival of Authors) it is a manifesto. You are very angry with the situation and you want the world to know that the entire debate around immigration has been wrongly construed. But immigration is not a new phenomenon. Opposition and resistance to immigration is also not new. Why now?

Suketu: There is a global backlash against immigration. There is this new populism against immigration and immigrants. Around the turn of the century, it seemed like globalisation had won the day. It was supposed to be end of history and we could all go wherever we wanted to go. Tom Friedman wrote in the New York Times that no two countries that have a McDonalds ever fought a war against each other. But then Russia and Ukraine went to war. There was a kind of backlash against this kind of global invasion and around the same time, more people started moving than ever before.

I felt my position as a migrant being challenged. I can’t stay silent as a writer.

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