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Suketu Mehta: ‘No wall can stop a person who is desperate’

Migration is as central to his writing as it is to his life. Raised in Mumbai, the Indian writer and Pulitzer finalist migrated to New York City when he was 14. The author of ‘This Land is Our Land’ and ‘Maximum City’ spoke with EL PAÍS at his apartment in Manhattan

Suketu Mehta
Suketu Mehta, photographed in his Manhattan apartment.Víctor Llorente

Suketu Mehta (Calcutta, 60 years old), the Indian writer who narrates the life of cities through the eyes of their inhabitants, has lived in New York since he was 14. His apartment in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood is owned by New York University, the institution where he teaches. A brutalist structure on the outside, the building’s apartments are spacious, though by no means luxurious. In the hallway outside his apartment, a man teaches his son to return a tennis ball with a racket. Amazon packages pile up where once there were mailboxes.

Mehta opens the door barefoot. He tells me that his parents will be visiting. They arrive with another woman, but it is not Sunita, the mother of his children who appears in his books as a metaphor for migration. Mehta remarried in 2020 and bought a house in North Carolina (“A rural place where our neighbors are half gun nuts and half yoga teachers. I’ve never lived anywhere but cities, but maybe the time has come.”) He tells me that his two sons are journalists, and his new wife, a neuroscientist. He grew up in Bombay, now called Mumbai (“A schizophrenic city with multiple names. I don’t like to privilege any one over the other”), and his best-known book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, narrates the hidden life of that sprawling metropolis.

There will soon be more people living in Bombay than on the entire mainland of Oceania. Why do people keep coming there?

Delhi and Bangalore are also expanding. But no city is as mythical as Bombay for a young Indian. Partly because of Bollywood: when people arrive, they already know the city. They’ve seen it in movies. It’s a lot like what happened in New York. The attraction is not just about economic survival; it’s that, mixed with dreams of freedom: the possibility of marrying someone outside your caste...

Does that happen?

Less and less. Inequality in Bombay, like in New York, has grown dramatically. But myth outweighs reality.

In Bombay, there are people dying of hunger, and there are also weight loss clinics.

Victor Hugo said it best: “All great cities are schizophrenic.” But Bombay has a multiple personality disorder. There are many Bombays. Fewer and fewer people are dying of starvation in India. But yes, there are weight loss clinics, even in the poorest of the slums. The poor are fat because they eat industrialized food. Whatever we can say about India is both true and false. It’s a poor country: we have some of the highest rates of malnutrition. And it’s a rich country: some of the wealthiest people on the planet live there. The same can be said of Mumbai. It’s a miserable city: it lacks good public services and pollution is on the rise. But it’s also the cultural capital of the country: India’s greatest artists live there. Many writers used to live there too, but now they can’t afford to.

How much bigger can it get?

A report published in 2000 titled Vision Mumbai 2020 claimed the city would be the size of Shanghai by 2020. Architect Charles Correa — who created New Bombay [Navi Mumbai] across the harbor, for poor people to live in — said the city was more a hallucination than a vision. Today, skyscrapers have risen on land reclaimed from the sea. Elevated freeways are being eliminated in cities around the world, but in Bombay, they’re building more of them.

Do cities not learn from the mistakes of other cities?

Associating progress with freeways has been one of the great feats of the car manufacturing industry. But all they do is get you stuck in traffic jams faster. The more highways you build, the more cars are produced.

You described your childhood as a constant battle against cars.

Yes, but children no longer play in the streets where I grew up. Other parts of the world have come to realize that the life of a city is driven by its people, not by cars. New Delhi and Bombay are among the 10 most polluted cities on the planet. The rich are ensconced in their air conditioning. And everyone else has so many problems that they try not to think about the pollution.

You came to New York when you were 14 years old.

It was a journey from childhood to adulthood in 24 hours — the pivotal event of my life. I had never left India. I was miserable at the all-boys Catholic high school I attended in Queens. I missed Bombay with every pore of my skin. But I ended up loving my neighborhood, Jackson Heights, which has since become a little India. At the time, teenage immigrants didn’t yet know who they were; they were supposed to be someone else. The kids arriving now have spent half a lifetime living mentally in New York, through social media or Netflix. They dress the same. And music is the cheapest airline there is; it connects the world.

Is North American culture the global culture now?

There is a universal America that is not real, but that has managed to absorb other cultures. Yesterday I went to the premiere of the musical Monsoon Wedding. It was the first Indian play to premiere in Brooklyn. It might make it into Broadway. This would have been unthinkable when I came here in the 1970s.

Have cities become more open or more closed? Today, it wouldn’t be possible to just bring your whole family to New York…

Borders have become more closed. In the 70s, we came through family reunification and within a few months, we all had papers. Now it takes decades.

But you still see migration as a solution.

No wall can stop someone who is desperate: people fleeing war or famine caused by droughts from climate change. People risk their lives at sea. They lose all their savings. If you’re a woman, you will almost certainly be raped on your way to your new, and also harsh, fate. People go through all this in the hopes that their miserable lives will change when they cross the border. It’s not a dream of freedom, it’s a dream of survival: the desperation that compels people to flee from places where it has become impossible to live.

Does climate change cause more migration?

Of course. In Latin America, it is becoming harder and harder to produce coffee. By 2050, it will be difficult to live in northern India. Last year, a third of Pakistan was hit by floods. Today, it is almost impossible to plant anything there, which is why you see so many Pakistanis living in Europe. People will continue to endure it all: having their boats sunk, being shot at... They’re fleeing from hunger. They have no choice.

Indian writer Suketu Mehta, photographed in his Manhattan apartment.
Indian writer Suketu Mehta, photographed in his Manhattan apartment. Víctor Llorente

You coined the term “interlocal” to describe a person who is from two places at once. Is it from two places, or from neither?

As a teenager living in Jackson Heights, I wanted to be in Bombay. And in Bombay, I also wanted to run away. I became a citizen of the land of nostalgia. But once I settled in New York, I started to feel like I was from both cities. We should think of immigration as a circle, not an arrow. This makes our homes almost into places of passage.

Does migration change our understanding of family?

At the beginning of the 20th century, Italians, Irish or Galicians who came to America dreamed of returning to their home countries. Today, a person can be an emigrant for 10 years. Migration was happening more and more, until the pandemic arrived. In the U.K., there is now a private company, VFS Global, for obtaining visas. They cost hundreds of pounds. Borders are closing in the face of a growing wave of immigrants applying to enter because of climate change. Immigrating is going to become increasingly difficult and violent.

Your family didn’t come to New York for survival.

No. Nor for freedom: Indian democracy was stronger back then than it is now. They were looking for money. They were buying and selling diamonds and wanted to expand their business. The U.S. decided that family was important, and because my aunt lived here, we were able to come.

Family was important and so was the need for workers.

Of course. Countries whose economies work are those that are open to immigration.

India leads the world in computer programming but has neighborhoods that lack electricity.

They have an optimistic view of technological progress: if you try to reach the Moon, you’ll end up skipping the annoying intermediate steps. But there are fewer and fewer places without electricity.

And without bathrooms?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Clean India Mission and there have been improvements. I don’t support his government, but he deserves credit for that.

Is Slumdog Millionaire no longer true?

Not as true as it was. A lot of that script was taken from my book Maximum City. Danny Boyle paid me royalties.

What is modern India like?

Lévi-Strauss loved tribal India and so that’s how he decided to tell it. The same is true for many Western writers. It’s a kind of hysteria: they love Indian cities, but they’re disgusted by the people. If you don’t like people, don’t go to a city. Modern India dresses like the rest of the world and people spend their days in shopping malls. It’s an optimistic country. At least in biological terms, we’ve been incredibly successful: as of May, there are now more Indians in the world than Chinese people.

You lived in Bombay with your children for almost three years, so you could write.

They were very young and had health problems, but they loved it. There were animals from the stories they had read, there were elephants in the streets. And people would just pick them up. Little ones don’t need space, they need people around them. And in India, everyone touches you, brushes up against you, blows smoke in your face. And children fall asleep anywhere. You can call it disorder or you can call it freedom. But in the end, it was hard on my ex-wife. Bombay is a big city. There is wealth in Bombay. The Ambani and Adani families are some of the richest people in the world, but it’s also a hostile, polluted place... Everything is intense there.

How have these families made their money?

Mainly with polyester. And by knowing how to work with whoever is in power in Delhi. The only remaining independent television network went from being owned by the Ambanis to the Adanis. The former opposed the Modi regime, the latter did not. They solved the problem by selling out.

Is corruption widespread?

You can’t even buy bread in Bombay without corruption. And it’s only gotten worse with Modi. He cultivates the image of being immune from corruption because he doesn’t have a family, and only does what’s good for the country. But he’s been in power for too long. And power corrupts.

India used to be the world’s greatest democracy, because the poor voted.

The elites never gave up economic power, but they did give up political power. But now the country is in danger. Over one hundred writers recently signed a letter denouncing the fact that, under Modi, India is becoming a Hindu-nationalist state. They want India to be for Hindus, and for Muslims or Christians to live by Hindu rules. There are 200 million Indian Muslims. It is the third largest Muslim country in the world. Many of those Muslims are being attacked, imprisoned or killed. If you alienate 200 million people, you are creating the conditions for a civil war. First you persecute religions, then journalists... India is turning into a place like Turkey, with very little freedom of press.

Suketu Metha
Suketu Mehta.Víctor Llorente

Is there any place in the world where a person can denounce someone powerful and be safe?

As the saying goes: in America, there is freedom of the press for those who own one. But even during the Trump era, the left-wing press made a lot of money because people were angry. As long as you make money you can mess with anybody. Though there are figures, like George Soros, who fought for an independent press, which is essential to democracy.

Maximum City is an intimate portrait of the criminal underworld, of murderers...

I was searching for the truth of the underworld. I grew up middle class. I had never known the underworld. And I never felt as alive as I did when I was investigating it. I felt I had a mission. I was aware that I was putting my life on the line. But I became addicted to people’s stories. During one interview, a man pulled out a gun because he didn’t like my questions. He asked me if I was afraid; he had killed several people. Killing is a business. Some of my acquaintances told me that they would have killed me without question if someone had paid them to. But I wanted to know how far I could take my reporting.

In that book, you write about your relationship with a prostitute named Mona Lisa…

I had a profoundly intimate relationship with that woman. And met her parents. But I never slept with her. She could have had anyone… and she chose to be my friend.

Like all the strippers featured in the book, her wrists were covered in scars.

It’s a sign of their schizophrenic way of life.

You wrote about falling in love with a young woman: “It is not her body, it is her mind without cynicism or cruelty, her coolness...”

It’s the possibility of drinking that youth. That freedom.

Now that you are an older man, do you have all that? That cynicism, that cruelty…?

Possibly, that’s why I love coolness. I applaud the interlocal and the intergenerational. For an older woman to have a relationship with a younger man is a celebration of life. Or with another woman. We live very unfree lives. We have schedules, forms to fill out, taxes to pay, expectations of ourselves and others. In the Bombay underworld I found freedom. In New York, I’ve also gone out with prostitutes and drug dealers. If I don’t get out of my apartment, how can I write about a city? A life outside the rules is very attractive.

Is your life like that?

I was expected to continue my father’s business but I got off track. It took him a while to understand. Now he’s happy because of the recognition I’ve had.

And if you had been a woman?

One of my sisters is a lawyer and the other is a writer. None of us continued the family business.

What did your wife say about that story?

Our marriage did not survive the book’s publication.

How many years older are you than your new wife?

Twenty.

What is love?

Something extreme. Passion. Especially in the part of the world I come from.

Is it not interlocal?

Love isn’t binary. It’s not: either I love you or I hate you. I’m going to teach a class at NYU on obsessive love, which is an extreme form of narcissism. I think love is one of the few things with transformative capacity. Never before in the world has there been such capacity to love beyond class, beyond race or gender.

“What is worth more than gold? Self-control.” Do you agree?

That’s what Krishna says in the Mahabharata.

Is a person who they are because of their self-control, or because of how they lose control?

I lose it. I’ve raised two children. And at the same time, I play with life. I’m attracted to what can’t be controlled. I’m like Bombay: pure contradiction. I seek in others the life I cannot have.

Your disposition contrasts with you family’s Jainist origins.

Aristotelian logic concedes only two options: true or false. The Jainist logic extends the range of possibilities to seven: true, false, both, neither… It’s the doctrine of truth’s multiple faces. If we all abided by it, the “are you with me or against me” attitude that does so much harm would disappear. We should use “maybe” in every aspect of life: from international politics to personal relationships. If we had more “maybe” in our minds, the world would be a better place.

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