How the talented Mehtas conquered New York

  • Ramachandra Guha
  • Updated: Nov 09, 2014 01:26 IST

There is a rich literature on how the culture of modern cities has been nourished by immigrants from other countries. Books have been written on how American writers (from Ernest Hemingway and Richard Wright on to James Baldwin and Edmund White) did some of their best work in Paris.

Other books explain how London was made less insular by talented individuals fleeing Hitler and Stalin — such as the writers Arthur Koestler, Sebastian Haffner, and George Mikes; the historians EH Gombrich and Eric Hobsbawm; the publishers Andre Deutsch and George Weidenfeld.

It seems to me that a wonderful book is waiting to be written about the Indians who have enriched the literary and artistic life of New York. When I was last in that city, I received an email from Rukun Advani, a publisher who lives in Ranikhet and is passionate about Western classical music.

Advani said that he largely identified New York with two men who lived there: an editor he greatly admired, and a conductor he hugely respected. Then he continued: both are called Mehta, although one is a Punjabi, the other a Parsi. The Parsi Mehta’s first name is Zubin. A native of Mumbai, and still an Indian citizen, he has made an immense reputation in the world of music, conducting orchestras in Tel Aviv, Berlin and Vienna apart from New York.

The Punjabi Mehta’s first name is Ajai, though he is more familiarly known as Sonny. He is one of the two or three most respected figures in American publishing, having for several decades run the prestigious imprint of Alfred A. Knopf, Jr. There must be hundreds of Mehtas listed in the telephone directories of New York’s Five Boroughs.

There are probably Mehtas who are traders on Wall Street, Mehtas who are software engineers, Mehtas who are grocers. And, as it happens, even some Mehtas who are writers. Ved Mehta moved to Manhattan even before Zubin or Sonny did. He worked for many years at the New Yorker, writing a series of widely read books on politics and literature. Born in 1934, Ved is nine years older than Gita Mehta, herself a writer of works of fiction and non-fiction, and also a long-term resident of Manhattan.

The last Mehta I shall mention is 20 years younger than Gita — this is Suketu, who lives (I think) in Brooklyn and is the author of that fine book about Mumbai/Bombay, Maximum City. Another writer who, for many years, has maintained a home in Brooklyn is the gifted Amitav Ghosh, author of novels set in Burma, Egypt, China and the Sunderbans.

A film-maker whose oeuvre is likewise varied is Mira Nair, her work also set in different continents and time periods. Nair, who now lives in New York, was an almost exact contemporary of Ghosh at the University of Delhi, where he studied at St. Stephen’s College, she at Miranda House.

A ‘Manhattan Mirandian’ of an earlier generation is the ageless Madhur Jaffrey. Jaffrey is now better known as someone, who — through television and books — has made Indian (more particularly North Indian) cooking better known in the West. But before she became a celebrated chef and writer on food she was a successful actor — performing on theatre and in film, where she worked closely with a New Yorker originally from Mumbai, Ismail Merchant, the producer of (among other films) ‘Remains of the Day’ and ‘Howards End’.

Wikipedia lists some 140 universities and colleges in New York. Many or most would have Indians on their faculty. Among those who have name recognition outside their field of academic specialisation, perhaps three stand out. All teach at Columbia University. These are the literary theorist Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak, the historian Partha Chatterjee, and the economist Jagdish Bhagwati.

The first two are Bengali, and also (and perhaps not coincidentally) left-wing in their political orientation. The third, who is a Gujarati, is nowadays increasingly claimed by the right.

Bhagwati however is best seen as a classical liberal, a fervent advocate of free trade and of intellectual freedom. A resident of Manhattan who has made major contributions to both politics and scholarship is ES Reddy.

As a senior United Nations official, Mr Reddy played a stellar role in the campaign to end apartheid. After he retired, he turned to the collection of rare materials by and about Gandhi, which he selflessly shares with scholars of all ages (and nationalities). I have left to the last the person who, if not the most impressive of the Indians in New York, is certainly the most controversial.

He is, of course, Salman Rushdie. Rushdie has had the good luck — or good taste — to have lived for long periods in what (to my mind, at any rate) are the three most interesting cities in the world.

He was raised in Bombay, wrote his first novels in London, and now lives in New York, to whose very different rhythms he has seamlessly — although not always noiselessly — adjusted. Down the decades, Indians living in New York have enriched the worlds of literature, scholarship, drama, film, and music. And also art and dance — as in Francis Newton Souza and Indrani Rahman respectively, who both lived for many years in the city.

These Indian residents of New York have worked in different but overlapping worlds. They have known, or known of each other, as friends, associates, colleagues, and rivals.

A book about them would have to be based on solid research in primary sources — manuscripts, letters, newspapers, etc. — but also on interviews and folklore.

If properly executed, such a book could be a real contribution to cultural history. I hope someone writes it. I can’t wait to read it.

Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India
You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha
The views expressed by the author are personal

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