An Interview with Suketu Mehta

Good fiction writers who are also good reporters:
Amitav Ghosh
George Orwell
V. S. Naipaul
by Karan Mahajan
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Suketu Mehta

Good fiction writers who are also good reporters:
Amitav Ghosh
George Orwell
V. S. Naipaul
by Karan Mahajan
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Suketu Mehta

Karan Mahajan
14 Snaps

Writing a novel “about” Bombay is undeniably a preposterous project. One could safely brick a house with recent Bombay tomes. But to set out to interview the city—as Suketu Mehta did for his book Maximum City—is its own kind of hubris.

For two years, Mehta made a daily ritual of touring the megopolis and recording the words of gangsters, policemen, bar girls, slumdwellers, and Bollywood directors on his beloved laptop. Many of these interviews turned into friendships: He co-wrote a script for the blockbuster Mission Kashmir. He got into a codependent (but nonsexual) relationship with a troubled bar girl. Once he was almost shot at by two gangsters in a hotel room.

The result is perhaps the greatest nonfiction book written about India. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found—a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005—has all the 3-D vividness of a Google Street View shot and the headlong arc of a sleek, journalistic, first-person account. Mehta, like Joseph Mitchell, is a silent interviewer, rarely stepping within quotation marks. He is adept at turning his nervy prose on himself, spinning the book into a study of the possibility—and frustration—of returning home to the city he left at the age of fourteen.

At present, Mehta, who is forty-five and comes from a family of Gujarati diamond merchants, is back in his second home, New York. Here, he is working on a book about immigrants in the city, preparing a new translation of Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, and also serving as a professor of journalism at NYU. His apartment, where we met twice for this interview, is on the twentieth floor of a faculty tower and bulges with excellent views of SoHo. Mehta appeared to make the most of this bounty: when an insect alighted on a bay window, he approached it quietly, crouched low, and stared through its wings at the sunlit rooftops spread out below. Then, as if this were a perfectly normal pastime, he directed me to do the same.

—Karan Mahajan


THE BELIEVER: I recently read Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow—

SUKETU MEHTA: That’s a great book. Bellow is one of my gods.

BLVR: Mine too! In Humboldt’s Gift there are these long passages where Charlie Citrine is sitting on his couch in his socks riffing on the difficulties of being productively lazy. One problem of being a writer, it seems, is to create and then utilize opportunities for laziness.

SM: You know, Bertrand Russell wrote an essay extolling sloth. I think [that’s] the difference between civilized and uncivilized society—societies where the afternoon nap is a regular feature. I nap every day, wherever I am. I have a big lunch, which I cook myself, and then I nap for at least an hour. It’s like having a second morning. The kind of stuff one writes after getting up from morning sleep and afternoon sleep is very different. When you get up from morning sleep, you’re writing straight from dreams. For me it’s much more wildly creative. But if I need to do detailed work—editing or paying my bills or writing a new scene for a nonfiction article in which facts are more important, then I write it after my afternoon nap. Someone should do a study on writers and their sleep habits and how that influences their work. Who wrote what sections of what book after sleeping at what time?

BLVR: Yes. The other reason I wanted to talk about sloth and solitude is that Maximum City is a very energetic, crowded book. While reading, I kept thinking of how addictive it must have been to meet all these fabulous characters and hang out with them. How did you tear yourself away from socializing to write? Did you write the book mostly in New York?

SM: I wrote as I reported [in Bombay]. So I would meet, say, a gangster, I’d go hang out with him, then I’d go to the beer bars and meet Mona Lisa [an alias for the bar girl in Maximum City], and then I’d come back home at 3 a.m. From 3 to 6 a.m. I would just write. It was the easiest writing I ever did. It was all in my head and I needed to get it out in real time. So I wrote these long sections—it was great. I was on speed or something, not literally. Better than speed.

BLVR: Coffee on an empty stomach?

SM: Usually a beer. It was great. The difficulty came when I left. I had to leave Bombay. I had to stop reporting at some point. These people’s lives go on, they aren’t going to stop. So I rented a studio—a beautiful studio on Clinton Street in Cobble Hill—and I just wrote. I went to the MacDowell Colony for two or three weeks. I’d written everything in these notebooks on my computer, and so it was like having an enormous mass of unwashed laundry and separating the whites and colors and the delicates and the knits, and just seeing what went in which world. The whole process of constructing and editing the book was another four years after the reporting. Then I worked with an international all-star team of editors who tore their hair out and helped me turn this thing into a book. Altogether I took six and a half years.

Also, the impression readers have that Maximum City is a quick read is a false one because it was certainly not a quick write. But it takes a lot—Hemingway taught me this—to make writing seem effortless. It took me a long time before I learned how to write simply. My early sentences back in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were long. As Indians we tend to like longer sentences.

BLVR: Clause after clause after clause.

SM: Curlicues, byways, gently meandering like the Brahmaputra River. Actually many of the writers I admire write short sentences. Bellow’s sentences are not short, but a Bellow sentence is a work of genius. They’re funny and incredibly colloquial and highfalutin at the same time. Then he’ll have a very long sentence and a short one next to it. The juxtaposition is what creates the magic.

Unlike Naipaul: he has only exclusively short sentences and later in his career his sentences are shorter and shorter with each succeeding book. I remember reading an interview in which he was very proud of himself because his word processor had some kind of feature where it could calculate the average number of words per sentence and that average number had come down to—I forget what it was—four or six. And then I did a check on my word processor—I think we were using the same one—and it gave me the same result as Naipaul! This doesn’t mean that I write as simply or elegantly as the great Sir Vidia, but maybe if you run a feature through any kind of long text in English, this is what the number of words per sentence averages out to.

BLVR: I’ve been reading a lot of Naipaul recently, too. His books about India, in particular, are extremely pessimistic. When I read Maximum City, he was a writer I was constantly thinking about, particularly on the issue of returning after years of exile. What is your reading of him?

SM: I read him like a textbook. Not only for his style, but how he got people to talk to him. In India: A Million Mutinies Now there is an entire chapter that is basically an oral history. It is called “The Secretary’s Tales” and it is about this obscure political secretary who comes from Bengal to Bombay and talks about his life. The story is very representative of middle-class mobility in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s beautifully done. Naipaul doesn’t interject or place himself in the narrative. The man is allowed to speak for himself.

So I read him for his techniques of interviewing people and then to imbue those interviews with the right balance of personal history and turn the product into an interesting narrative. Something with an arc, a beginning and an end. Something with a quest. There aren’t many good fiction writers who are also good reporters. There is Amitav Ghosh, George Orwell, Naipaul. Hemingway’s nonfiction I can’t really read. I’ve read his dispatches, notes on the war. They’re not my cup of tea.

BLVR: You seem to offer a counterpoint to Naipaul in the way you reacted to transplantation. You moved to Queens when you were fourteen and you wrote about how you had traumatic experiences in high school. But I found none of the self-hate in your work that I found in Naipaul’s. If anything, it appears that you became more Indian. You even go to the lengths of saying you make love like an Indian!

SM: I have pictures! I think the difference between alienated writers and sunnier writers—I don’t know if sunnier is a great term—is family. Every time I get alienated, my family comes and visits me. I don’t have the luxury of that French existentialist angst. I have a large extended family and we bicker and fight.

Naipaul never had children. I think he says somewhere that every child born is one book lost—which my friend Akhil Sharma [author of An Obedient Father] also believes in.

BLVR: Really?

SM: He will not have children. He is against them as a species. I have two of my own. For me, the greatest two moments of my life, bar none, were when I saw the heads of my sons emerging into the world—it was this incredible mystery.

Another difference between Naipaul and me is that I like people a whole lot more than he does. I like all kinds of people. I grew up in Bombay, a city where if you don’t like people you’re going to be extremely unhappy.

That said, certainly, as I grew up [and came to Jackson Heights, Queens], I was in an appalling school: extravagantly racist, violent. I was hated. For the first time in my life I knew what it was to be truly hated because of my national origins. I was one of the first minorities in this school. In retrospect I’m glad I went to that school, but because no matter what ordeal I go through after that, I look back and think, Well, this is a picnic compared to that school.

BLVR: Were there other minorities in your school?

SM: I was thrown in like meat to the lions. But toward my senior year I started writing—in response to that pain. I entered the school as a sophomore. By my senior year there were other minorities as well. There was another “HIND-oo, as the people in the school would say. He was actually Jain—my friend Ashish. I went through school and college with him, a friendship forged by fire. For instance, in 1980 during the Iranian hostage crisis, we were walking down the hall through the school and someone yelled: “Fucking Ayatollahs!” And I yelled: “We ain’t Eye-Ranians, we’re Indians!” And the guy turned around: “Fucking Gandhis!”

We formed this lunch table of the excluded: me, my friend Ashish, the school’s only acknowledged homosexual, a Cuban whose father was a plumber, a midget Irish angel-dust addict, a “mysterious Oriental”—a Korean who kept to himself and ate noodles (this was what was packed for him) and never said anything. So, all these rumors started circulating that he had some kind of exotic martial arts prowess and so people stayed clear of us because Kang—“You never knew when Kang might erupt. Man, you don’t know the weird shit the guy knows.” “Kang the mysterious Oriental”—protected us. He later went to engineering school at Columbia.

To amuse this little lunch table of the excluded, I would write skits about the other students and teachers, parodies of Shakespeare—I did it to make them laugh. This is when I started writing in earnest: the classes before lunch I’d be scribbling away these skits for my lunchtime friends.


BLVR: You studied fiction at Iowa. What was your experience there as a writer of Indian origin?

SM: I was young, maybe too young. When I went to Iowa I was twenty-two. I was the baby of the workshop, which was not a good thing. You were expected to have gone out in the world a bit more to collect experience and then shape it in writing. I went off all green. I did have these months of going around India.

I’d write these magic-realist stories, which did well for me. But the best thing was meeting my two gurus [U. R. Ananthamurthy and James McPherson] and the community of people—mostly not writers. If you go to any large university in America—hell, even a small one—there’ll be Indian graduate students all huddled in small apartments and cooking strange, spicy food and drinking whiskey and listening to ghazals or Bollywood music and re-creating India in drab student housing. And I found that world really wonderful. I met a group of Indian graduate students that knew contemporary India. I only had the India of my childhood—when I went back it was to meet relatives. So the stories I wrote—if I read them now—they were laughably ill-informed about India. And they had all the tropical clichés.

The standard story of the Indian NRI [Non-Resident Indian] exile is like this: I went back. I still remember the scent of grandmother’s cooking as the hot mustard oil splattered in the ghee and the breeze rustling across the mango orchard at noon and the sound of the ceiling fan….

BLVR: That’s an obsession! That and chai!

SM: I waited for my mother to marry me off in an arranged marriage.

BLVR: How did you end up as a computer journalist for so many years?

SM: I went out looking for a job with my creative writing degree and I realized if you change one letter in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop it becomes Iowa Waiters’ Workshop, an appellation far more indicative of the eventual state of most of its graduates. So I started writing for a technical magazine—a computer magazine. I knew nothing about computers, but the editors figured that because I was Indian it must be in my blood. What I was performing was an act of translation. I’d speak to the technical people and take what they told me and translate it into a language approaching English. One of these magazines—a computer dealer’s newspaper, called Computer Reseller News—is where I learned everything about journalism.

BLVR: What did you learn?

SM: I’d never been to journalism school. I’d never been a journalist. Computer Reseller News—some people call it the National Enquirer of computers, a dubious comparison—they needed to get information to their customers. It was a controlled-subscription periodical. You couldn’t just buy it; you had to qualify to receive the subscription. The readers were computer dealers and they needed to know the next product that Microsoft or Oracle was putting out ahead of time so they could integrate it in their inventory.

My editor was this guy who’d been a daily newspaper editor in Massachusetts—in one of these old mill towns where the paper had been shut down and he’d gone into computer journalism, again knowing nothing about it, but knowing how to get a story. I remember we were at a convention center in Las Vegas and IBM held a closed-door meeting for its staff. Late at night, around 1 a.m., my editor wakes me in my hotel room and says, “Hey! Let’s steal down to the IBM conference room. They’re all gone and the white papers—with their entire plan for their product offerings—are just lying there. Let’s go steal that stuff.”

And I did. [Laughs] We went down. We looked to see if there were security guards and peeped in and quickly ran off with these white papers. It was complete shit. There was no information there of any value whatsoever. But it was a great adventure in the middle of the night. And we were doing this like Woodward and Bernstein. So I enjoyed the zest with which people took this very, very seriously.

BLVR: When did you decide to leave computer journalism and start writing fiction and creative nonfiction again?

SM: After I left computer publications, McGraw-Hill hired me to be the European editor of the international edition of a magazine called Business Data Communications. They moved me to a beautiful apartment [in Paris]. I had an unlimited expense account, a fat salary, I was living in a beautiful place—I was set. Six months down the road I thought, If I’m doing this another ten years from now, I’ll wake up and shoot myself in the head.

I quit and went back to Iowa City because it was a cheap place to write. For a year I learned how to write again. Every morning I would sit in front of a computer and write sentences and learn again how word follows word.

After a year I came to the East Village to try my luck at freelancing. I wrote a couple of articles for the Village Voice—long pieces. I called up the Village Voice when I was leaving [on a trip to India]—I called cold and got an editorial assistant to put me on to an editor—and I said, “I’m going to India and there’s a big AIDS problem there.” The editor said, “India’s got AIDS?” I said, “Yes, strange things are happening. People who are suspected of being infected are actually being put in jail.” He said, “Ah, well, maybe you can do a five-hundred-word piece on it.” On spec! And I came back with a seven-thousand-word piece—my first long nonfiction article. “AIDS in India: Pandemic Out of Control” read the headline, back in 1995. I was roundly attacked here for allegedly exaggerating this problem, and now, of course, the figures speak for themselves. But back then there was a coalition of Indians who actually took out a petition against me and sent a letter to the Village Voice attacking my article.


BLVR: You’re working on a new translation of Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography. What’s driving this project?

SM: Once, I was telling my father how I think The Story of My Experiments with Truth is really not well written, how it’s long-winded, even if the material is certainly fascinating. My father said, “But it’s really beautifully written. It’s really elegant and concise.” I said, “We’re not talking about the same book.” He said, “Which one are you talking about? I’m talking about the original, in Gujarati.” Then we compared the Aatmakatha with the English version. This book was written in the salad days of the century and it was translated by two of his political secretaries—Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal—who were very good political secretaries but not necessarily good writers in English. Gandhiji did look over the translation and corrected it, but, you know, he had a few other things on his mind, like leading a country to independence!

It’s amazing, the difference between the two versions. He wanted the Gujarati version to be a book that could appeal to the masses, that anybody could pick up and read without being very learned. It was sold for one rupee. It was originally a series of chapters in his newspaper, the Harijan. When the book came out it was a landmark in Gujarati writing because before that Gujarati writing—like writing in many other Indian languages—was classical, long-winded, filled with poetical allusions. Gandhi’s style was like Hemingway: direct, short sentences, easily read, and subtle.

Not so in the English. In fact, the English version has in places been bowdlerized. In other places it makes him out to be a little bombastic, a Victorian lawyer. For example, there is this one section where Gandhi says in the English: “Let all the people of India, therefore, suspend their business on that day and observe the day as one of fasting and prayer.” The Gujarati is: “Everyone should fast and stop work.”

Gandhiji was intelligent enough to know that no one person could bring India’s religious communities together in a common cause of prayer. People don’t pray together. A Brahmin won’t pray next to a Kshatriya, far less a Muslim. In many cases, it’s just flat-out wrong.

BLVR: Nobody else has done a translation?

SM: Nobody else. And this is one book that still sells tens of thousands of copies around the world, and all the other translations, in every other language from Azerbaijani to Zambian, are from the bad English version. I would really love to be doing just this for six months. Go to Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad and just work on this translation. But as it is, with all the other things that I’m doing, I work on it in fits and starts.

This is just an example—there really could be revelations about what we have in Indian languages. Sanskrit, for example. I once went to the Oriental Research Institute in Mysore—the University of Mysore’s library for Sanskrit books. There were all these palm-leaf manuscripts just strewn across the floor: a librarian’s nightmare. The chief librarian was showing us the oldest extant copy of the Arthashastra. He had it in a steel cabinet in his office, without any kind of humidity control. He brings out this palm-leaf manuscript and shows it to us with pride. No special handling. I looked at the lettering and said: “Wow, this is amazingly bright and sharp. What kind of ink were they using?” I was in college, I didn’t know anything about palm-leaf manuscripts. “No,” he said, “they weren’t using ink. They had a metal stylus with which they wrote on the manuscript. Like this!” And then he writes an A on it, in front of our horrified eyes. I had to stop him before he started putting his name on it.

BLVR: How old was this manuscript?

SM: This was a two-thousand-year-old manuscript. The chief librarian of the institute added graffiti to the oldest extant manuscript of the Arthashastra. Can you imagine: it would be the equivalent of going to Florence and spraying Kilroy was here! on the oldest known manuscript of The Prince!

BLVR: You’re currently suing the Indian government on behalf of street-children in India and you’ve roped M. C. Mehta—India’s most famous public interest litigation lawyer—into your cause. How is that unfolding?

SM: A trust has been set up—it’s called the Maximum Child Trust. It’s the one thing that angered me most living in Bombay and having children of my own. Seeing how children on the streets are being taught to beg before they learn to walk. People living there had developed a Polaroid filter, which I guess is a survival mechanism. But I was young in the country and so it continued to outrage me. So I set up this trust. What I’d like to do is set up a legal defense fund on behalf of children—children in streets, children in prison.

Last time I was in India I took my children to the largest children’s prison in Bombay—it’s called a “remand home.” In India the police can pick up a child for the simple crime of being a runaway and can put the kid in jail along with hardened convicts, and you can imagine what happens. The same is true for mentally retarded children. When we went there we heard this screaming and there was this five-year-old mentally retarded child who was being bullied by the other prisoners. He was completely defenseless. I took my kids there because I wanted them to see it.

I remember, when we left, the social worker who was escorting us around the prison said: “You should all now take showers. You’ll probably have fleas on your bodies from the other kids.”

BLVR: This sounds like it’s straight out of Dickens.

SM: It’s a country that’s supposed to be “the new superpower of the twenty-first century.” It’s worse than shameful. I thought I could fund an individual orphanage or a school—but it’d be less than a drop in the bucket. Or I could force the government to take action. It’s a democracy, and in a democracy the government responds to people who either have money or the vote—children have neither. Children need someone to lobby and move the courts on their behalf. This is what the Children’s Defense Fund in the U.S. has done so wonderfully. I basically want to do that kind of work in India, and yes, I’ve been in touch with M. C. Mehta, the country’s leading public-interest lawyer.

The thing is, everything moves glacially slow in India. For setting up this trust you cannot imagine the amount of bureaucracy involved. Getting the permission from the charity commissioner—they sent me the trust deal, which was thirty pages long. I hid under my bed. So every time I go to Bombay I round up lawyers and trustees and so forth to get this going. Who do I have to sleep with to give away my money?

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