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Review: Suketu Mehta’s What Is Remembered

books Updated: Sep 26, 2016 15:14 IST
Manjula Narayan
Manjula Narayan
hindustan times
suketu mehta

Suketu Mehta at the "Bombay Maximum city" exhibition inspired by his first book, Lille, France on October 21st, 2006.(Getty Images)

Expecting Suketu Mehta to write a great second book after his magnificent debut Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found is like jumping onto the 8.15am Virar fast at Andheri on a Monday morning and expecting to glide inside unimpeded and be offered a window seat. It’s not impossible but it is improbable. The first gushing review makes you wonder. The first vicious review in The Wire makes you wonder too. You wonder if Mehta had spilt his drink down the front of reviewer Omair Ahmad’s sparkling white shirt at some genteel garden party or refused to let him sleep on his couch in New York. On a Skype call, Mehta says he hasn’t yet read the review which whacks him with the three-headed club of classism, casteism and Orientalism.

“Me, casteist?” Mehta says incredulously, “I’m not even Brahmin!”

You have to confess here that Ahmad’s review pushed you to read the novella. Left to yourself you might have skipped it. Writing by immigrants stuffed full of fancy saris, foods-explained-for-foreigners (‘a dosa is a kind of rice pancake’), and moth-balled memories of home is plain boring. Mehta’s latest is called ‘What is Remembered?’ Oh dear Lord, it’s probably full of sentimental flashbacks, loving sepia-tinted grandparents and ah, many damned succulent mangoes.

Read more: Podcast of Suketu Mehta’s What Is Remembered

As it turns out the slim volume is stuffed with exactly these immigrant clichés. There’s even a bit where the humble chiki is called a nut brittle:

…For want of anything else to do, Mahesh opened the packet the old woman had given him. Inside was some kind of nut brittle. He put a bit inside his mouth. It was very sweet. But he had a sense that he had eaten something like this before. He shut his eyes, concentrating on the taste, and tried to remember…”

In the hands of a lesser writer this would have degenerated into a tiresome story of mummy making chikki lovingly in some subcontinental kitchen redolent with spices that don’t smell like they should in Amreeka. Instead, Mehta does something quite unexpected:

“Mahesh was eating chiki, the memory cake. Each bite had in it a nut – peanut, cashew, pistachio, almond – that contained an individual scene. The peanut is base, low, and tells of the time Mahesh shat his pants in the fourth standard. He was sitting in the classroom, with his reek slowly climbing up all around him.”

And with that, despite the ‘nut brittle’ and ‘lentil wafers’ and ‘sago cakes’ Mehta manages not to become that NRI bore always thinking of home as he rides the New Yawk subway and then subjecting a cringing readership to his unexceptional memories.

An old piece of writing that Mehta pulled out and dusted up for a new medium, What is Remembered will first be available on the Juggernaut mobile phone app, where young people and folk with atrophied attention spans, like this reviewer, can happily read it. This line of conversation gives way to a contemplation of the reading habits of the young, which leads onto one on the pleasures of reading, and finally, on smelling physical books.

“The reason why books from India, the US and UK smell different is because of the kinds of glue that are used in the binding,” Mehta says looking straight at you all the way from New York.

Right now, he is working on a big book on cities. “It’s not a doorstopper; it’s a mountain-stopper,” he says of The Secret Life of Cities.

“People like going to mountains but I like cities. I like people,” he says revealing that after Maximum Bombay, he got offers to “write Maximum Delhi and Maximum Calcutta”. Thankfully, he desisted. He is also working on a book on New York, though, and insists it’s nowhere near completion.

You couldn’t find the casteism, classism and raging Orientalism that set off Ahmad but What is Remembered isn’t brilliant either. The problem really is that it feels too episodic, too short. A few of its themes could be developed into whole novellas by themselves. This is especially true of the two ‘princes’ who bookend the volume – the Maratha who gazes out at imaginary horsemen on the horizon and the Prince of the Parisian island who demands that Arabs show him their identity papers. But perhaps you expected too much from a book that’s clearly a morsel to chew on, a morsel that’s not gourmet but still good enough to remind you of Maximum City and to make you want to read Suketu Mehta’s next big book.