Suketu Mehta – India and USA

Suketu Mehta is the New York-based author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found … Mehta is Associate Professor of Journalism at New York University. He is currently working on a nonfiction book about immigrants in contemporary New York, for which he was awarded a 2007 Guggenheim fellowship. He has also written an original screenplay for ‘The Goddess,’ a Merchant-Ivory film starring Tina Turner, and ‘Mission Kashmir’, a Bollywood movie. Mehta was born in Calcutta and raised in Bombay and New York. He is a graduate of New York University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. (full text).

… Mehta moved from Mumbai to Jackson Heights when he was fourteen; his family lived on 83rd Street. Not many of the shops and restaurants from his youth are still in business–although he notes that his family didn’t eat out much anyway, unless it was to go for south Indian food (”That’s what Gujaratis eat when they go out.”) The neighborhood has evolved, as Indians who immigrated in the 70s move out to the suburbs and newer immigrants move in … (full text).

… He has attended New York University and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His autobiographical account of his experiences with the city of Mumbai, Maximum City, was published in 2004. The book explores the underbelly of the sprawling city. It was a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Suketu Mehta also co-wrote the screenplay to the Bollywood film Mission Kashmir with novelist Vikram Chandra. Suketu lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He is currently working on a book about the New York City immigrant experience. He will be joining the NYU journalism faculty in 2008. Awards: … (full text).

His official website.

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Suketu Mehta – India and USA

Watch these videos:

Two award-winning authors who feature one of the world’s most crowded and polluted urban centres in their books were a natural choice for a breakfast focussing on the city, moderated by York Professor Engin Isin, Canada Research Chair in Citizenship Studies. Suketu Mehta and Anosh Irani joined Isin on stage June 1 at the 75th Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences for a discussion about Bombay – or Mumbai as it is now called – and the role this city of dreams plays in their fiction, as both setting and subject … (full text).

He says: … It was very scary and continues to be so. But I wasn’t interested in making judgments because then I would be judging my own life. I would hope that they will find that I’ve been fair to them, presenting them as fully rounded humans … I don’t spare myself. I’ve changed the names of most – probably they won’t be identified – but there’s potential for really serious violence, or lawsuits. It’s a great risk one takes in writing nonfiction … As the famed Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert said, for anybody else, not telling the truth can be a tactical maneuver. But for the writer, staying silent is lying. So, if I write about these people without their darker side, then … I might as well be writing propaganda … (full interview text).

… To gain a deeper understanding of the city, Boyle urged Patel to read Suketu Mehta’s unparalleled account — part memoir, part travelogue — of modern Mumbai, Maximum City. When you walk out of the airport you are hit by all these people, and this heat, Patel says. There’s this smell in Mumbai — Mehta calls it the smell of sweat and dreams. Hard work and people pursuing their dream … (full text).

… In one voyeuristic flourish, Suketu Mehta describes in Maximum City how a slum goon thrusts a hand through an open window to grope a sleeping woman. Unless you can testify with conviction that no sick predator has ever sexually tormented anybody in offices, restaurants, homes, or trains – you will have to sing this dirge with me: Slums are us. (full text).

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He says also: … Well, I am doing something about it. I’m donating all of the Indian royalties of my book to set up a legal defence fund that will litigate on behalf of all the children in India. There are Acts of Parliament in India to protect children’s rights, and there are international covenants that India is a signatory to. Under these, every Indian child has the basic right to food, clothing, shelter and education. But you step off the plane in Mumbai, and immediately there are 1 million violations right there. The leading public interest lawyer, MC Mehta, has agreed to take on the responsibility. I’m really encouraged by that. There are some good people in government too who want some kind of outside pressure. What we’ll do is to first look at what’s happening with children on the streets and in prisons, we’ll prepare a report, and we’ll prepare a legal note of what the government is committed to and is not delivering. ‘MC’ will then take it to the Supreme Court, and hopefully the government can be persuaded to act. (full interview text).

He writes:

  • … Mumbai is all about dhandha, or transaction. From the street food vendor squatting on a sidewalk, fiercely guarding his little business, to the tycoons and their dreams of acquiring Hollywood, this city understands money and has no guilt about the getting and spending of it. I once asked a Muslim man living in a shack without indoor plumbing what kept him in the city. “Mumbai is a golden songbird,” he said. It flies quick and sly, and you’ll have to work hard to catch it, but if you do, a fabulous fortune will open up for you. The executives who congregated in the Taj Mahal hotel were chasing this golden songbird. The terrorists want to kill the songbird … (full text);
  • … The terrorists who swarmed the hotel on Wednesday ignored the gatekeepers, or shot them dead. They marched into the lobby with confidence, and in a rage. If, as seems likely, they are Muslims, then they are only the latest manifestation of the original sin of modern south Asia: the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. India has been congratulated, and has congratulated itself, for not supplying recruits to al-Qaida. India’s 150 million Muslims are different, it was thought. During partition, they voted with their feet; until recently, there were more Muslims in India than in Pakistan. But Muslims are poorer, and less educated, than other Indians. Urban Muslims have a poverty rate of 38% – much higher than any other segment of the population, including the lower castes. The 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, just north of Bombay, made many Muslims think that if the state could not or would not protect them, they would have to take matters into their own hands … (full text) ;
  • (Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Hardcover, on amazon). He writes about his book: I think there is a global hunger for learning about megacities, Bombay in particular. People know it’s special but they don’t know how so. I’m hoping that this book will be as much of a revelation to Bombayites as it is to others. I like to think that it reads like a good novel rather than urban history. It’s a group of interrelated stories and what’s links them all is my own story and my quest to go home again … // … He is currently writing a screenplay for The Goddess, to be directed by Ismail Merchant, in which Tina Turner is to play the lead as a Buddhist goddess (Shakti). (full text).

About the book: Maximum City, Bombay Lost and Found, written by Suketu Mehta, Sept. 2004: … A native of Bombay, Suketu Mehta gives us a true insider’s view of this stunning city, bringing to his account a rare level of insight, detail, and intimacy. He approaches the city from unexpected angles–taking us into the criminal underworld of rival Muslim and Hindu gangs who wrest control of the city’s byzantine political and commercial systems … following the life of a bar dancer who chose the only life available to her after a childhood of poverty and abuse … opening the doors onto the fantastic, hierarchical inner sanctums of Bollywood … delving into the stories of the countless people who come from the villages in search of a better life and end up living on the sidewalks–the essential saga of a great city endlessly played out … (full text).

… 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 … (full text, 02.04.08).

links:

Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel: an underdog no more, 06 Feb 2009;

Christina Patterson: Feel good escapism – for those that can escape, 17 January 2009;

After Mumbai, Beyond the War on Terror, January 15, 2009;

Suketu Mehta’s take on Bollywood’s special place in Indian hearts;

Lettre Ulysses Award 2006 (for the art of reportage) – photos.

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