Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City
It all started with the balcony.
Yes, all the high drama, the tall tales of tall cities like Bombay and New York started on a narrow balcony on a narrow street in Bada Bazaar in an old and densely packed part of Calcutta. The son of a Gujarati diamond merchant, Suketu Mehta lived in this very old house on Burtolla Street with his entire extended family till the age of six.
“The first floor was my grandfather’s gaddi – an old style office where the men would sit on these beds with takkias and conduct business,” recalls Mehta. “All kinds of traders would come in, my grandfather dealt with GIs during the war, travelers and ambassadors.
There was a balcony which overlooked the street and on the street all day long there was a constant procession of all the wonders of the world – the rickshaw-wallas and poor people and rich people and people with animals and sword-swallowers and fire-breathers.”
In the hurly burly of the street there was even a temple with clanging bells and religious ceremonies going on all day long. Nearby was the milk seller who would miraculously get hot milk flying from vessel to glass endlessly. People were constantly selling things, coming and going. Says Mehta, “It was a real feast for the eyes – I’d just stand on the balcony and look all day long.”
This balcony was Suketu Mehta’s kaleidoscope into the larger world and it has not only made him a very visual writer, but it also made him love crowds. These are the rare talents which helped him pull off that maximum feat – telling the many layered story of that many layered city – Bombay. Like a wandering bard, he went into the high towers and deep recesses of this complex city to get Bombay’s x-ray, warts and all.
‘Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found’, his powerful debut book, went on to get glowing reviews internationally, won the Kiriyama Prize, was nominated for the Samuel Johnson Book prize for non-fiction, the Lettre Ulysses Prize, the Guardian First Book Award, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Mehta, who is also a fiction writer, has won the Whiting Writers Award, the O. Henry Prize, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for his fiction. Just recently he received the prestigious 2007 Guggenheim fellowship to pursue his new venture, a book on New York.
Suketu Mehta’s Other Big City by the Sea
And so now Suketu Mehta is tackling that other Big City by the Sea – New York. After all, it is his other home, having lived there for three decades. He had moved there with his parents at the age of 14, and so knows many of the byways of the city like the back of his hand.
‘Maximum City’ took 7 years of research and writing. Will New York be a similar gargantuan effort? “God, I hope not!” groans Mehta in mock horror. “I was asked once if I’d write a book about New York, and I said, ‘Only if I’m very drunk!’ You can’t write a small book about a big city.”
The challenge with New York is that it has already been written about by some of the greatest writers but Mehta hopes to shine the light on new immigrant communities which have yet to be depicted in contemporary non-fiction. He says this will be a bigger challenge because he will be writing about the Congolese and Mexicans and Russians and Bangladeshis and the myriad other communities that make up frenetic New York.
“I’m much more of an outsider so it’s harder to get access. But it’s the city that I’ve lived in for 30 years on and off and why should Indian writers write only about India? So I decided that I may fail spectacularly but I’m going to try it. I’m going to try to do for New York what I did for Bombay – write a book about the city and my place in it.”
And so these days you find Suketu Mehta shadowing the city, finding stories in its crevices and corners. He says, “When we walk about these cities as individuals these cities can make us feel crushed. If you look at the buildings all around us, we live like insects in insect colonies. So we’re fungible, it’s very easy to lose our sense of individuality. So I’m interested in these individual lives, in going deep into their characters.”
Mehta is currently an associate professor of journalism at New York University, his alma mater. Growing up in the outer borough of Queens, he was never allowed to live on campus by his strict parents and so now he is getting to fulfill a boyhood dream – living in Greenwich Village.
Fortunately his teaching and his writing research gel because he’s teaching literary reportage and a journalism course about New York. With the skyscrapers and concrete canyons of Manhattan as his open campus, he is data-collector, fact-finder, story-gatherer, architect of tales.
“Architects write about buildings,” he says. “I write about the people in the buildings. I’m constantly thinking about the city – it’s all New York all the time, complete immersion journalism.”
Mehta, who is divorced, often takes his two young sons with him on his expeditions into the outer boroughs of the city. He says, “I think I’m doing this book most of all for my children. Both of them were born in New York and I want to give them a book about their city – it’s their father’s understanding of the city where they were born.”
Suketu Mehta: Diamonds on the Shag Carpet …
Many years ago, Suketu Mehta’s father had tried to make a diamond merchant out of his writer son. He laughs ruefully: “I was a disaster. Once, I remember, my father brought home these diamonds and I spilt them on this shag carpet and I had to spend the next few days unraveling the carpet, picking the diamonds out of the yarn! I was not a natural fit for the diamond industry.”
And yet, years later he put his experience in the diamond market to good use. He has written the script for a soon to be released short film by Mira Nair, called ‘Kosher Vegetarian’ in which Irrfan Khan plays a Jain diamond merchant to Natalie Portman’s Hassidic broker, a brief romantic encounter set in New York’s diamond district.
Even now, Mehta wanders the city looking for diamonds in the rough, uncut histories of ordinary immigrants which can be burnished and shone to tell the larger story of New York. And when it comes time to write his opus, he will move back to Bombay to get perspective and distance, just as he moved to New York to write about Bombay.
“New York and Bombay are cities of my heart,” he says. “I give myself freedom to get mad at them. They will give you a chance but no more than that. They can beat you down but they can also lift you up.”
(C) Photo and text: Lavina Melwani