An Interview with Suketu Mehta

Compiling a novel concerning Bombay is absolutely a daring endeavor. Recent works on the city are plentiful enough to build a house with.

But attempting to interview Bombay, as Suketu Mehta did for _Maximum City, takes an extra degree of audaciousness._

Mehta visited the megapolis every day for two years and documented the conversations of gangsters, police officers, bar girls, people living in slums, and Bollywood directors on his trusty laptop.

Numerous of these interviews developed into friendships; he even wrote a script for Mission Kashmir, the famous movie.

A copacetic but platonic relationship with a bar girl in distress was also formed. One time, he was nearly attacked by two mobsters in a hotel room.

The outcome of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found is arguably the most remarkable nonfiction work written about India.

This book — a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 — offers a three-dimensional illustration similar to Google Street View and follows a journalistic, first-person account.

Mehta, similarly to Joseph Mitchell, does not insert himself with quotes, yet has the ability to express his own thoughts through his writing, creating a look at the experience of coming back to the city he departed from at the age of fourteen.

Mehta, originally from a Gujarati diamond merchant family and now 45 years old, has once again made New York his second home.

He is writing a book about immigrants in the city, translating Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, and teaching journalism at NYU.

His home, where this interview was conducted, is in a faculty tower on the 20th floor and offers a splendid view of SoHo.

He seemed to really appreciate it; when an insect landed on a bay window, he went up to it with curiosity and gazed out at the rooftops below illuminated by the sun.

After admiring the scene, he encouraged me to do the same.

— Karan Mahajan penned


The sun rises again, heralding the start of a new morning. It is a chance to make a fresh start, to embark on a new journey.

The promise of a new day brings optimism and hope.

Recently, I encountered Humboldt’s Gift, a novel written by Saul Bellow, and I was moved by it.

SUKETU MEHTA: I think that’s a terrific book. Saul Bellow is one of my favorite authors.

BLVR: Same here! In Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, Charlie Citrine is often described as lolling around his living room in his socks, musing about the issues that come with being a writer, particularly the challenge of finding ways to be lazily productive.

SM believes that the difference between civilized and uncivilized societies lies in the practice of taking afternoon naps, which he does every day.

According to him, the writing that one does when they wake up from a morning sleep is more wildly creative, but if they need to do detailed work, then it should be done after their afternoon nap.

He suggests that a study should be conducted to observe how writers’ sleep habits affect their work: which sections of which books were written after sleeping at what time?

BLVR: Indeed. Another point I wished to bring up regarding sloth and solitude is that Maximum City is a highly vibrant, bustling book.

As I was reading, I kept pondering how alluring it must have been to encounter all these extraordinary people and socialize with them.

How did you manage to pull away from mingling to compose? Did you mainly write the book in New York?

SM stated that when he was in Bombay, he would converse with gangsters and go to beer bars to meet Mona Lisa.

He would head back home at 3 a.m. and then spend the next three hours writing – which he described as the easiest writing he ever did.

It was as if he was on speed and the material was already present in his mind, so he just had to get it out.

SM noted that he was able to write long sections during this period, which he found great.

BLVR: Consuming coffee without having eaten anything prior?

SM commented that it was great, but the difficulty came when he had to leave Bombay.

Consequently, he rented a studio on Clinton Street in Cobble Hill and did nothing but write.

For two to three weeks, SM attended the MacDowell Colony and went through all the notes he had written on his computer, which was like sorting through a mountain of laundry and deciding which belonged in which world.

After the reporting, an international team of editors took another four years to edit the book. All in all, SM spent six and a half years on the project.

Maximum City does not appear to be a simple read, as it took a great deal of time and effort to create. Hemingway’s teachings taught me that making writing appear effortless requires a lot of work.

Initially, I had difficulty achieving simplicity in my sentences while attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, as Indian writing often employs longer sentences.

Sentence after sentence after sentence.

I’m a fan of authors who craft short sentences, though Saul Bellow is an exception. His sentences are masterful, combining wit and grandiose language.

He has a knack for juxtaposing long and short sentences, and it’s this combination that gives his writing its charm.

Naipaul has a tendency to write shorter and shorter sentences throughout his career, and he was quite proud of himself when his word processor revealed that the average number of words per sentence was down to either four or six.

To my surprise, when I ran the same feature on my word processor, I obtained identical results to his.

This does not suggest that my writing style is as sophisticated as Vidia Naipaul, but it could be possible that this is the average number of words per sentence when any text in English is run through a feature.

I’ve been immersing myself in a lot of Naipaul’s writing lately, specifically his works concerning India, which are incredibly despondent.

When I read Maximum City, his name kept cropping up, particularly when considering the topic of coming back after an extended period away. What are your thoughts on him?

SM: I found Naipaul’s work very informative. Not just in terms of its style, but also his ability to get people to open up to him.

In India: A Million Mutinies Now there is a chapter where he documents the life of an obscure political secretary from Bengal who moved to Bombay.

The details provided in the story are a perfect example of middle-class mobility during the ’70s and ’80s.

The way Naipaul handled it was admirable, he let the man tell his own story without any interference from himself.

I studied his approaches to interviewing people and then blended each conversation with the right amount of personal history to create an engaging story.

It should have a beginning, middle, and end. It should have a mission.

There are not many authors who can write both fiction and nonfiction well; Amitav Ghosh, George Orwell, and Naipaul are some of them. I can’t quite get into Hemingway’s nonfictional works; his war accounts are not my style.

BLVR: It appears that you reacted to transplantation in a completely different way than Naipaul. After moving to Queens at age fourteen, you wrote about the traumatic experiences you faced in high school.

However, there was no self-hatred present in your work as compared to Naipaul’s.

Instead, you seemed to embrace your Indian heritage and even go as far as to say you make love like an Indian!

SM asserted that the contrast between disaffected authors and those with a more positive outlook could be seen in the presence of family.

They continued that in their life, when feeling alienated, their family would come to visit, thus not allowing for the experience of the French existentialist woe.

SM went on to expound that they have a big extended family and that, unsurprisingly, arguments were quite common.

Naipaul never had any offspring. He apparently once declared that each newborn means one novel that will never be written – something Akhil Sharma, author of An Obedient Father, appears to accept.

BLVR asked, “Is that so?”

SM shared that he is not planning to have any kids, since he is against them as a species.

On the other hand, the speaker is a parent of two children and described the two most memorable moments of his life as the time when he witnessed the birth of his sons–which was a miraculous event.

In contrast to Naipaul, I am an individual who enjoys interacting with people. I was raised in Mumbai, a city in which it is essential to have an affinity for people in order to find contentment.

As I matured and moved to Jackson Heights, Queens, I was exposed to a terrible school environment; one that was highly racist and violent.

I was despised by many. It was the first time I was so thoroughly disliked due to my cultural background. I was one of the earliest minorities to attend the school.

In hindsight, I am grateful for the experience since the struggles I have endured since then seem like a picnic in comparison.

BLVR: Did you go to school with other minority students?

SM experienced a difficult transition when they entered a new school as a sophomore. Despite this, they eventually found solace in writing and even made a friend, Ashish, who was Jain.

The two remained close throughout school and college. During one particular incident in 1980, when the Iranian hostage crisis was taking place, they heard someone in the school yell out a slur.

SM responded by pointing out that they weren’t Iranian, but rather Indian – to which the individual then retorted with a comment about the Gandhis.

We came together at the lunch table, a strange group of outcasts: me, my friend Ashish, who was the school’s only openly gay student, a Cuban whose father was a plumber, a midget Irish angel-dust user, and a Korean who preferred to remain aloof and eat his own noodles.

The rumor spread that he had some kind of martial arts ability, so we were generally left alone due to the fear of what “Kang the mysterious Oriental” might do.

He eventually went on to attend engineering school at Columbia.

To keep my excluded lunchtime companions amused, I would compose skits and parodies of Shakespeare.

I began writing with great enthusiasm in anticipation of the upcoming laughter I knew my work would bring. During the classes before lunch, I devoted myself to writing my skits for my friends to enjoy.


BLVR: During your time at Iowa, you studied fiction writing. What was it like for you as an Indian-origin writer?

I had just turned twenty-two when I came to Iowa for the workshop. I was the youngest there, which I soon realized was not a great spot to be in.

It seemed like the others had more worldly experience that they could pour into their writing. My only worldly experience at that time was traveling around India for a few months.

My writing of magic-realist stories was successful. But the most rewarding part of it all was being able to meet my two mentors [U.R. Ananthamurthy and James McPherson] as well as getting to know the people in the community–most of whom were not writers.

At any university, it’s possible to find Indian grad students living in cramped apartments, cooking exotic food, drinking whiskey, listening to ghazals or Bollywood music, and trying to bring India with them to the often-drab student housing.

This world was intriguing to me and I was able to connect with a group of Indian grad students who had an understanding of the current India.

As for myself, I only had knowledge of India from my childhood, so when I went back, it was just to visit family.

The stories I wrote were humorous in their lack of information about India, and they were filled with the typical tropical cliches.

The typical narrative of an Indian NRI’s expatriation is something like this: I returned home, and the memories of my grandmother’s cooking remain vivid in my mind.

I can still recall the hot mustard oil sizzling in the ghee, the mango orchard rustled in the noon breeze, and the sound of the ceiling fan was ever-present.

BLVR: That’s an infatuation! And I’m also a fan of chai!

I was expecting my mother to arrange a marriage for me.

For how long have you been covering computer journalism?

My journey of looking for a job with my creative writing degree made me realize that if you change one letter in Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it becomes Iowa Waiters’ Workshop, which is more fitting for a lot of its graduates.

To break into the industry, I started writing for a technical magazine that focused on computers; I had no knowledge in this field, but the editors assumed that because I was Indian, it must be in my blood.

My job was to take what the technical people told me and translate it into a language approaching English.

It was through writing for Computer Reseller News that I learned the ins and outs of journalism.

BLVR: What was the outcome of your learning?

I had never pursued a formal education in journalism and I had no experience as a journalist.

Computer Reseller News, which has been compared to the National Enquirer of computers (a less than complimentary comparison), was a publication that was only available to those who qualified for a subscription.

It provided information to the computer dealers so they could be aware of upcoming products from Microsoft or Oracle and incorporate them into their stock.

My boss was a man who had been a newspaper editor in Massachusetts.

He was in one of those cities where the paper had gone out of business and he had gone into computer journalism, even though he knew nothing about it.

I remember when we were at a convention center in Las Vegas and IBM held a private meeting for its staff. At around 1 a.m., my editor woke me up in my room and said, “Let’s sneak down to the IBM space.

Everyone’s gone and the documents containing their whole product strategy are just sitting there. Let’s grab them!”

I had the opportunity to partake in an adventure that felt like it came right out of a Woodward and Bernstein movie. We managed to locate some white papers, but unfortunately, they had no useful information.

Nonetheless, everyone involved took the mission very seriously and had a good laugh about it afterwards.

At what point did you make the determination to depart from writing about computers and go back to crafting fiction and creative nonfiction?

After leaving the computer industry, McGraw-Hill offered me the position of European editor for the international edition of Business Data Communications.

They relocated me to a stunning apartment in Paris, and provided me with a generous salary plus an unlimited expense account.

At first, I felt I was living the life. However, six months later, I started to worry that if I stayed in that role for another decade, I would be driven to take drastic measures.

I decided to go back to Iowa City, which was an inexpensive area to compose. During that year, I taught myself how to write again.

Every day I would sit in front of a computer and piece together words and relearn how to come up with sentences.

After a year living in the East Village, I decided to try my luck at freelancing. I pitched a few long pieces to the Village Voice, and called up their editorial assistant.

I mentioned that I was planning a trip to India, and that there was a large AIDS problem there. The editor suggested writing a five-hundred-word piece on the topic.

I ended up writing a seven-thousand-word article entitled “AIDS in India: Pandemic Out of Control”.

The article was met with criticism from a coalition of Indians who took out a petition against me, and sent a letter to the Village Voice attacking my piece. Now, the statistics support my article’s claims.


BLVR: What is motivating you to start a new translation of Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography?

I was discussing with my father one time about my opinion on The Story of My Experiments with Truth being poorly written. He argued that it was eloquently composed and concise.

I clarified that it was not the same book I was referring to. He asked which one I was referring to, then we compared the Aatmakatha to the English translation.

This book was created during the beginning of the century and was translated by two of Gandhi’s political secretaries, Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal, who were great political secretaries but not the best English writers.

Gandhi did review the translation and made corrections, but he had other essential tasks like leading the country to independence.

The contrast between the two versions is remarkable. Gandhi aimed to create a Gujarati book that would be accessible to the public, regardless of their level of education.

He sold it for a mere one rupee, initially publishing it in his newspaper, Harijan.

The book was a significant development in the realm of Gujarati literature, since before that the texts in Indian languages were typically lengthy, poetic and full of references.

Gandhi adopted a Hemingway-like style, consisting of succinct, clear phrases and a subtle undertone.

The English rendition of Gandhi’s words deviate from the original Gujarati in certain cases. It could be argued that some of the passages have been toned down and that the oratorical style is that of a 19th century legal professional.

As an example, in English the quote reads: “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, on the other hand, simply states: “Everyone should fast and stop work.”

Gandhiji was knowledgeable enough to understand that it was not feasible for one individual to bring India’s various religious groups together in a collective act of worship.

The fact is that people don’t usually pray together.

Generally, a Brahmin would not offer prayers beside a Kshatriya, let alone a Muslim. In a lot of cases, it is simply not done.

Has anyone else attempted to translate this?

SM: Just me. Despite that, this particular book continues to be sold in the thousands globally and all the other versions in different languages, from Azerbaijani to Zambian, are derived from the original bad English version.

I honestly wish I could dedicate six months to work on the translation at Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, but I have other commitments that keep me from making consistent progress on it.

This is just one example–there could be some remarkable discoveries about what is written in Indian languages such as Sanskrit.

During a visit to the Oriental Research Institute in Mysore, which is the University of Mysore’s library for Sanskrit books, I noticed that there were many palm-leaf manuscripts scattered across the floor.

The chief librarian then proceeded to proudly show us the oldest known copy of the Arthashastra that he had stored in a steel cabinet in his office without any humidity control.

The lettering of the manuscript seemed incredibly sharp and the vibrant hue of the text was remarkable.

I then asked him what kind of ink they were using. He replied that they weren’t using ink at all, but instead they had a metal stylus with which they wrote the manuscript, and to demonstrate this, he began writing an A on it in front of us.

We were horrified and I had to stop him before he started putting his name on it.

BLVR inquired as to what age the manuscript was.

The chief librarian of the institute had done something unthinkable: they had inscribed graffiti onto the oldest existing manuscript of the Arthashastra.

It would be comparable to someone going to Florence and etching Kilroy was here! into the oldest known version of The Prince.

This two-thousand-year-old document was the recipient of such an act.

BLVR: What is the current status of the lawsuit you are pursuing against the Indian government in support of street children in India?

It is notable that you have recruited M. C. Mehta–India’s most well-known public interest litigation attorney–to your cause. How is that situation progressing?

I was so disturbed when I lived in Bombay, where I had my own children, to see children being taught to beg before they learned to walk.

I think the inhabitants had developed a sort of coping strategy, but I was too young and it still shocked me.

That’s why I created the Maximum Child Trust. My ultimate goal is to establish a legal defense fund to help young people living on the streets and in prison.

When I was in India with my children, we visited the largest remand home for kids in Bombay.

In the country, if a child runs away, the police can arrest them and put them in a cell with adult convicts, which is a terrible situation.

We heard a lot of screaming when we got there and saw a five-year-old mentally disabled child who was being harassed by the other inmates and had no way to defend himself.

I wanted my children to witness what was happening, so we went there.

The social worker who was our guide in the prison said to us right before we left, “It would be a good idea for all of you to take a shower now. The other inmates probably left you with fleas.”

BLVR: This has an undeniable resemblance to a Charles Dickens novel.

SM expressed frustration with India being labeled as the “new superpower of the twenty-first century” when, in his view, the country is worse than shameful.

He considered funding an individual orphanage or school, but was aware that this would be a small contribution.

He considered forcing the government to take action, but, as children do not have money or the vote, he realized that someone needed to lobby and move the courts on their behalf, which is what the Children’s Defense Fund in the U.S. had done.

As a result, SM has been in contact with M. C. Mehta, India’s leading public-interest lawyer, in order to attempt to do similar work in the country.

In India, everything progresses at an incredibly slow pace. Establishing a trust requires a lot of paperwork, and I was sent a thirty-page agreement from the charity commissioner.

I was so overwhelmed that I ended up hiding under my bed! Whenever I’m in Bombay, I have to contact lawyers and trustees to get this trust running smoothly.

I often think to myself; who do I have to bribe in order to donate my money?

Possibilities to Consider

It can be argued that there is a connection between physical health and mental wellbeing.

This correlation is due to the fact that physical exercise and diet have a direct influence on one’s mental state.

For instance, eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly can lead to improved mood and a sense of contentment.

Conversely, a lack of physical activity or unhealthy eating habits can lead to a decrease in mental health.

Therefore, it is important to recognize the bond between physical and mental health, as taking care of one’s body is essential for maintaining a healthy mind.

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