A few good tales of cities

  • Amitava Kumar, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 03, 2015 20:41 IST

The Jaipur Literature Festival recently came to the US – to Boulder, Colorado, at the foothills of the tall Rockies. Partly as a result of the thin mountain air, and partly because of its wide skies and intense bright light, but maybe also because of its laws that make marijuana-consumption legal in Colorado, there is a sense of weightlessness on the streets. I enjoyed my days there.

In Boulder, there were many writers whom I had seen earlier on the grounds of Diggi Palace in Jaipur. But here we were meeting again and in new company. On this occasion, I often had a question for the writers I met: can you name a book that is a good example of writing about cities?

William Dalrymple, among whose well-known titles is City of Djinns, a travel-book about Delhi, said that he was most envious of Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City. “It is a perfect book of non-fiction,” Dalrymple said. He singled out the chapter on a family of Jain diamond-merchants renouncing their wealth to become monks. I agreed with Dalrymple but the kind of concentrated brilliance he was celebrating in Mehta’s writing is evident even in brief paragraphs.

One passage from Maximum City that I’ve never forgotten is about a kite dealer from Kandivli named Paresh Nathvani who provides free shrouds for those killed by trains in Mumbai. Every Thursday, Nathvani visits four railway stations and gives them fresh shrouds, two metres in length. This is because he had once seen a man run over by a train and the railway workers had torn down an advertising banner to cover the man. However, the cloth Nathvani supplies is never enough because, as Mehta had noted, “the trains of Bombay kill four thousand people yearly”.

There were other recommendations. Marie Brenner said that Katherine Boo’s prize-winning work, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, was “the ultimate exercise in empathy”. Laila Lalami mentioned Teju Cole’s Open City and Manjushree Thapa offered Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul. During dinner in a Nepali restaurant, Vikram Chandra suggested I read the novels of advertising-writer-turned-novelist Anuja Chauhan while, the next morning, apparently unaffected by the late-night partying, Hari Kunzru rattled off several names for me, including that of Walter Benjamin and his Arcades Project.

When I was growing up, our textbooks would say that India was a land of villages. It is possible that Mahatma Gandhi had once said this. But the truth is that by now a majority of India’s population is in the cities. Three of the world’s largest megacities are in India. The future that is unravelling in India is also the future of the world. As the physicist-turned-urbanist Geoffrey West put it recently, the world is urbanising at such a rate that a new Singapore is being added to the planet every month from now to 2050.

I like writing about cities because they provide a vast canvas. The voice of the writer ranges over a huge democracy of subjects. In my book on Patna, I was able to write about students and journalists, patients and poets, even the rats that carried away my mother’s dentures.

I hadn’t met the novelist Manil Suri before I saw him in the hotel in Boulder. I had been touched by a part in his first novel, The Death of Vishnu, when a young woman named Sheetal, dying of cancer, tries to get into the Guinness World Records. She wants to do this by memorising the dialogue of an entire Hindi movie. In India, the number of people attempting to find entry in the record books by doing the strangest things inspires both awe and comedy. But in Suri’s story, there was such pathos! Once again, the city, in this case Mumbai, providing a story of striving against the erasure of anonymity and death.

In Manil Suri’s Death of Vishnu, the city (in this case Mumbai) provides a story of striving against the erasure of anonymity and death.

Suri surprised me by saying that the story had been inspired by his own mother, Prem. She had petitioned Guinness to include her name under a new category: “most letters written by a son to a mother”. When I heard this it struck me that writers themselves are a part of the stories generated by cities. Suri told me that Guinness denied Prem’s petition – just as it had denied the claim made by Sheetal in The Death of Vishnu – but then she met with success when the Limca Book of Records published an entry under the category “Letters: Mother-Son”:

Mother Prem Suri and son Manil know that for close bonding, nothing can beat the exchange of loving and caring letters. Manil Suri (author of Death of Vishnu) sent his first letter to his mother in 1979 when he was a PhD student at Carnegie-Mellon University, USA. Since then, till May 2001 he had written 2,411 letters comprising a total of 13,24,996 words.

The Bookist is a monthly column

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