WHAT IS REMEMBERED
Suketu Mehta has written a new story, and it’s a frenetic mixture of memory and desire
Scroll.in, September 6, 2016
Suketu Mehta’s perfect novella for Trump’s America
daily O, July 9, 2016
MORE REVIEWS OF
MAXIMUM CITY: Bombay Lost and Found
If You Can Make It There…
America Magazine, May 9, 2005
Not Losing Hope
The Economist, April 7, 2005
Underworld: Capturing India’s impossible city
Harper’s, February 2005
Promise Amid the Potholes
The Financial Times, February 25, 2005
A Tale of Two Cities
The Observer, February 6, 2005
Sun, Sin and Sewage
The Times, February 5, 2005
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
The Age, February 5, 2005
Life lessons in a city of hope
The Independent, February 4, 2005
The Daily Oakland Press, December 5, 2004
‘Maximum City’: Bombay Confidential
The New York Times Book Review, November 21, 2004
Kala-khatta for the soul
The Hindu, November 7, 2004
Four Star Review from People Magazine
The Enigma of Return
The Nation, October 18, 2004.
The Seattle Times, October 3, 2004.
Pico Iyer’s essay in Time magazine on Maximum City
In the flesh: maddening, captivating Bombay
LA Times, September 26, 2004
San Diego Union-Tribune, September 26, 2004.
The poet of the mean streets
Nilanjana S Roy, The Business Standard, September 21, 2004
Vogue, September 2004
The Village Voice, September 14, 2004
India Today, September 2004
REVIEW OF THIS LAND IS OUR LAND: AN IMMIGRANT’S MANIFESTO from The New York Times, June 4, 2019
Expat, Immigrant, Migrant, Refugee: Why ‘This Land Is Our Land’ No Matter the Label
By Lauren Markham
In almost any other country on earth, Central Americans attempting to reach our southern border would be considered refugees, a designation that would guarantee them protection under international law. But in the United States, they are mere migrants who must, as a result of this label, fight desperately for a chance to cross over and to stay.
Such tricks of language abound in the contemporary war against migration — and against migrants themselves. Is it a border wall or a border fence? Are the teenagers who flee gang violence victims or criminals? Did the chain link separating children from their parents constitute a cage or a cell? “Etymology is destiny,” Suketu Mehta writes in “This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto,” his searing new book about migration past and present. The category a person is assigned at a border — asylee, refugee, forced migrant, economic migrant, expat, citizen — is determined by where she comes from, and will in turn decide her fate, and even, at times, whether she lives or dies.
In an age of brutal anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy, “This Land is Our Land” offers a meticulously researched and deeply felt corrective to the public narrative of who today’s migrants are, why they are coming, and what economic and historical forces have propelled them from their homes into faraway lands. We are, and always have been, a planet on the move, Mehta observes. Yet migration tripled between 1960 and 2017, and, with war, climate change and income inequality, mass migration will only get worse.
“In the 21st century, your humanity is defined by your nationality,” Mehta writes. So, too, your mortality. Mehta’s own family immigrated to New York from India in 1977, when he was a boy. In the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, he found himself part of a so-called “model minority” class of Indian-American engineers and doctors, yet this didn’t spare him and his family the indignities of being new (and brown-skinned) in the United States. A teacher called him a pagan, and, during the Iran hostage crisis, a fellow teenager yelled, “[Expletive] Ayatollah,” as he and the only other Indian student in his high school walked by. “We’re Indians,” Mehta replied. “[Expletive] Gandhis!” the kid shouted.
Mehta introduces us to migrants who weren’t as fortunate as he was: people who fear death in the desert, on a small boat in the Mediterranean or even high above the city of Tangier, jumping from roof to roof to evade the police: “One of them didn’t make it; he fell into the alleyway and died,” Mehta writes. To migrate is to risk everything.
He takes us to the ironically named Friendship Park on the California-Mexico border, where family members can meet one another through thick wire fencing — that is, when the park is open. “There’s a semi-hidden place,” Mehta explains, “where a section of the mesh ends, next to a supporting pole, big enough for part of a whole palm to slip through, four fingers all the way up to the knuckle.” Week after week, a girl meets her boyfriend on the other side of the fence. One day there’s a ring on her finger.
“This Land Is Our Land” reads like an impassioned survey course on migration, laying bare the origins of mass migration in searing clarity. To the question of why a migrant left home yesterday or last month, one such person might answer: gang violence, drought, floods, war, lack of income. Mehta travels back further, to deeper, more distant causes; the global North’s fingerprints are everywhere.
The book makes a convincing argument that contemporary migration is a direct descendant of colonialism. Europeans and Americans stole gold, silver, cash crops and human beings from the places people are now fleeing en masse. People migrate, Mehta says, “because the accumulated burdens of history have rendered their homelands less and less habitable.” Put another way, “They are here because you were there.” (Though one might wonder who this “you” is — the assumed reader of this book. Do migrants not also read?)
How to quantify what is owed? Mehta offers some numbers to get us started. The amount of silver shipped between 1503 and the early 1800s “would amount to a debt of $165 trillion that Europe owes Latin America today.” This pattern of extraction has not waned with time, nor has the mass violence it facilitates. Mehta reports that every day 700 guns cross the United States border into Mexico, where they are sold for triple the price back home. To say nothing of climate change: Wealthy countries’ enrichment is destroying the planet, hitting the poorest countries hardest of all.
“This Land Is Our Land” is, in large part, a case for reparations. Between 1970 and 2010, Mexico lost $872 billion in illegal financial outflows, most of it going from corporations doing business in the country to American banks. In nearly the same time period, 16 million Mexicans came to the United States. “They were just following the money,” Mehta writes. “Their money.” He points out that “forty percent of all the national borders in the entire world today were made by just two countries: Britain and France.” Why shouldn’t there be a formula, like a carbon tax, by which wealthy countries would be required to take in migrants in numbers proportional to those countries’ wealth theft and contributions to climate change? “If the rich countries don’t want the poor countries to migrate, then there’s another solution,” Mehta suggests. “Pay them what they’re owed.”
He began this book in the wake of the 2016 election; he confesses that it was “written in sorrow and in rage — as well as hope.” It’s possible to read the book as a breathless rant, but it’s a rant that is well argued, cathartic and abundantly sourced. If some of his arguments sound familiar, it’s only because, in response to the Trump administration’s bombast and cruelty, they have been made again and again. “The new robber barons have come to power, and intend to hold on to it, on the wings of xenophobia,” Mehta writes — a postelection explainer that has become a truism. Or take a sentence like, “The migrants are no more likely to be rapists or terrorists than anyone else.” Must we read such obvious truths?
Perhaps we must. The rhetoric against immigrants is so baldfaced and insipid that it’s hard not to be dragged down into a wrestling match in the mud. But Mehta mostly rises above, making a strong economic case for more migration. Far from being a drain on society, migrants contribute both to the places they leave (in the form of remittances) and the places they go. They represent 3 percent of the world’s population but contribute 9 percent of its gross domestic product. Immigrants constitute 40 percent of the home-buying market in the United States, and far from stealing jobs, in fact help create new ones. Places like Buffalo, with its failed industry and rows of empty houses, need people to kick-start the economy again.
“For many countries, immigrants are, literally, the future of the nation,” Mehta writes. “The immigrant armada that is coming to your shores is actually a rescue fleet.”
REVIEW OF THIS LAND IS OUR LAND: AN IMMIGRANT’S MANIFESTO from The San Francisco Chronicle, May 2019
‘This Land is Our Land’ points out the hypocrisy and hope behind America’s immigration beliefs
America’s origin myth is that we’re a nation of immigrants, a haven for the Pilgrims arriving on the Mayflower, and the millions who followed in the centuries since. Yet the country’s relationship toward newcomers is much more complicated than that storybook view.
Ever since President Trump rode to power, xenophobia has been on the rise. His administration has separated thousands of migrant children from their families at the southern border, and most recently pushed to upend decades of family-reunification policy with a system that favors what he calls the “totally brilliant.”
Journalist Suketu Mehta, an associate professor of journalism at New York University, enters the fray with “This Land is Your Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto,” an urgent and impassioned call for why countries should accept more migrants.
“I am not calling for open borders. I am calling for open hearts,” he writes. “The false story of the populists, their fear-mongering, their bigotry, can be fought only by telling the true story better, so it isn’t lost in a fog of numbers and arguments and counterarguments.”
The book’s four sections —“The Migrants are Coming,” “Why They’re Coming,” “Why They’re Feared” and “Why They Should Be Welcomed” — examines the drivers of immigration, which includes the impact of climate change, global inequity and the legacy of colonialism that continues in the guise of multinational corporations.
With scathing wit, he points out hypocrisies — such as the past mass migrations of Europeans that led to the genocide of native peoples — and details the many ways that immigrants contribute to the places where they settle. In upstate New York, Guyanese immigrants revitalized the decrepit industrial city of Schenectady; nearby in Utica, Bosnian refugees did the same; and so, too, in Hamtramck, Mich. (a city almost entirely surrounded by Detroit), which is now dense with newcomers.
Countries with too many restrictions will lose their competitive advantage, Mehta argues, citing the example of Germany, which sought out tech workers from abroad to fill a shortage, but only if they left their families behind, went home after five years, and learned German beforehand. Only 160 Indians applied for the 20,000 entry permits, with no desire to come to a country whose “welcome mat was studded with nails.”
Mehta himself is among the quarter billion people living in a country other than the one they were born in. In the United States, 44 million, or 13% of the population, is foreign-born. He weaves in his experiences of immigrating from India as a teenager to New York City, alongside the poignant stories of migrants he interviewed while reporting on the border of Mexico and the United States, Abu Dhabi, northern Morocco and southern Spain, and the border of Hungary and Serbia.
His first book, the Pulitzer Prize finalist “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found,” was a maximalist masterpiece, an account — at times sprawling, at times intimate — of the history, politics, culture and economy of the biggest city in India.
His latest moves at a faster clip, with arguments backed by examples that skip from country to country within a single chapter. With this overview, he’s covering much ground, literal and historical, and some readers may wish Mehta could have lingered in places or followed the fates of migrants we meet only briefly.
He ends on a hopeful, personal note. His brother-in-law, a progressive Democrat, became the first Indian American state senator in North Carolina after knocking on 10,000 doors and garnering the support of his neighbors. As the country heads into the 2020 presidential election, Mehta’s moving, cogent book can help us find a way forward.
PRAISE FOR MAXIMUM CITY: Bombay Lost and Found
Bombay native Mehta fills his kaleidoscopic portrait of “the biggest, fastest, richest city in India” with captivating moments of danger and dismay. Returning to Bombay (now known as Mumbai) from New York after a 21-year absence, Mehta is depressed by his beloved city’s transformation, now swelled to 18 million and choked by pollution. Investigating the city’s bloody 1992-1993 riots, he meets Hindus who massacred Muslims, and their leader, the notorious Godfather-like founder of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party, Bal Thackeray, “the one man most directly responsible for ruining the city I grew up in.” Daring to explore further the violent world of warring Hindu and Muslim gangs, Mehta travels into the city’s labyrinthine criminal underworld with tough top cop Ajay Lal, developing an uneasy familiarity with hit men who display no remorse for their crimes. Mehta likewise deploys a gritty documentary style when he investigates Bombay’s sex industry, profiling an alluring, doomed dancing girl and a cross-dressing male dancer who leads a strange double life. Mehta includes so-called “Bollywood” in his sweeping account of Bombay’s subcultures: he hilariously recounts, in diary style, day-to-day life on the set among the aging male stars of the action movie Mission Kashmir. Mehta, winner of a Whiting Award and an O. Henry Prize, is a gifted stylist. His sophisticated voice conveys postmodern Bombay with a carefully calibrated balance of wit and outrage, harking back to such great Victorian urban chroniclers as Dickens and Mayhew while introducing the reader to much that is truly new and strange. Agent, Faith Childs Literary Agency. (Sept.26) —Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
REVIEW OF MAXIMUM CITY: Bombay Lost and Found from Vogue, September 2004
Bombay Dreams: From Street Rebels to Bollywood, a Superb Account of the Giant Rags and Riches Indian City
By Nell Freudenberger
While leaving Bombay a few months ago, I was rhapsodizing to a friend about the city’s charms—the lights on Marine Drive, the old Art Deco movie houses, the still, green water tank on Malabar Hill. My Bombayite friend, who was navigating heavy traffic in
order to drive me to the airport, listened to this litany for a few minutes before remarking, “Yes, Bombay is becoming the perfect city: slums below, fly-overs in the
middle, and billboards on top.”
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (Knopf), the brilliant first book by journalist and fiction writer Suketu Mehta, captures this layered quality, which can make the Indian capital of the movies seem like a city projected on top of itself.
Calcutta-born, Bombay and New York-bred, Mehta is unusually well positioned to diagnose the “multiple-personality disorder,” both charming and horrifying, of India’s most crowded city. Next year,
Bombay’s population will top 27.5 million (greater than the continent of Australia’s); by 2014, it is likely to outrank Tokyo as the world’s most populated urban area. “Bombay is the future of urban civilization
on the planet,” Mehta projects. “God help us.”
Like V. S. Naipaul’s first nonfiction about India, Maximum City is the chronicle of an uneasy return by an author extremely conscious of his status as an outsider. In contrast to Naipaul, however, Mehta is
immediately eager to be accepted—not only within his own community but among his subjects: mafia dons, hired killers, gang members, and a family of billionaire diamond merchants who renounce their worldly goods for an ascetic life as wandering Jain monks. Mehta doesn’t conduct interviews so much as make unusual friends; over the course of two and a half years, he pursues an overwhelming amount of what might chastely called “research” but is really much closer to obsession. “I had the freedom—indeed, the mission—to follow everything that made me curious as a child: cops, gangsters, painted women, movie stars, people who give
up the world.”
If each city has a “catalytic” event, as Mehta suggests, then the anti-Muslim riots and retaliatory bomb blasts of 1992-93 were to Bombay what the destruction of the World Trade Center was to New York. Mehta meets the men at the top—even the instigator of the riots, Bal Thackeray—but the most illuminating parts of Maximum City are his interviews with their followers. He recognizes the roots of communal hatred in the daily humiliations of life at the bottom and shows how insufficient housing, water, toilets, and leisure time can be highly effective recruiting tools. The young men who fight these “street skirmishes in the larger worldwide war” do it “not to convert
the kafirs—the infidels—but to protect their own honor.”
Maybe the most important quality for a writer about India is balance. He must measure some of the grimmest social problems in the world against the country’s extraordinary successes, without
becoming either fatalistic or starry-eyed in the process. Even as Mehta rages about the Indian legislative bureaucracy like the Bombay Rent Act (a set of laws that makes New York City rent control look enlightened), he maintains his faith in Indian democracy. In one of the book’s most fascinating passages, he explains the appeal of Sonia Gandhi to India’s poor, who see her as a “dutiful wife,” drawn into politics against her own inclinations after her husband’s tragic death. Writing long before the recent general elections, Mehta essentially predicts the upset by Sonia Gandhi’s Congress Party, which shook India and the world last spring. “This is the biggest difference between the world’s two largest democracies,” he observes. “In India, the poor vote.”
Every good writer’s strength is also his weakness, and Mehta can occasionally get too involved with his subjects. At Sapphire, a “ladies’ bar,” he meets 20-year-old Monalisa—a dancer who sometimes makes twice as much as a high-class stripper in New York, in spite of the fact that she “doesn’t have to sleep with her customers, is forbidden to touch them in the bar, and wears more clothes on her body
than the average Bombay secretary.” Her business is to make the customer fall in love, coaxing cash out of him in the process. Mehta observes that there is a “beery fraternity” in the bar, and even the
girls were “enjoying themselves … making money, being fawned over.” Mehta is too smart for this delusion (popular among fraternity boys all over the world), and in better moments he paints an empathetic portrait of Monalisa’s self destructive desperation and loneliness.
Mehta is the best kind of investigative reporter—a voyeur who knows the limits of voyeurism. Just as he seems to be getting too close, his focus changes and another Bombay presents itself to the reader. As he moves from the cops to the gangs to Bollywood—where he co-writes a hit Hindi movie—Mehta finds that the movies offer the perfect metaphor for a city where there are always several reels rolling at once. The cinema “is fundamentally a mass dream of the audience, and Bombay is a mass dream of the peoples of India.”