I bankrupted myself while writing Maximum City: Suketu Mehta

New York-based writer Suketu Mehta is one of my favourite writers. I became a fan of his writing (he also loves Hemingway and Naipaul like I do) when I read his autobiographical account of his experiences in Mumbai (where he was born and partly raised before his diamond trading merchant family moved to New York), Maximum City. The book was published in 2004 and I read it shortly after I moved to Singapore. I loved the book because it was not a chore to read; it was like watching a Bombay film. Why was it an easy read? Mehta explains in an interview:

“… the impression readers have that Maximum City is a quick read is a false one because it was certainly not a quick write. But it takes a lot—Hemingway taught me this—to make writing seem effortless. It took me a long time before I learned how to write simply. My early sentences back in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were long. As Indians we tend to like longer sentences.”

Unlike many contemporary writers who are in a hurry to churn book after book, Suketu is a patient writer. He took seven years to research and write Maximum City. What I did not know though is that he had bankrupted himself while doing this book. This happened to him even though he had an advance from the publishers. In this interview with NDTV (Power of One), he reveals that he incurred a considerable amount of debt by the time he was done with the book. “When I finished my book, I was 40,000 dollars in debt,” he tells NDTV’s Srinivasan Jain.

How many writers will take this kind of risk?

In an interview with Karan Mahajan, Mehta revealed his method of working in Mumbai: he would hang out with his book’s characters until 3 am and would write down everything between 3am and 6am:

“I wrote as I reported [in Bombay]. So I would meet, say, a gangster, I’d go hang out with him, then I’d go to the beer bars and meet Mona Lisa [an alias for the bar girl in Maximum City], and then I’d come back home at 3 a.m. From 3 to 6 a.m. I would just write. It was the easiest writing I ever did. It was all in my head and I needed to get it out in real time. So I wrote these long sections—it was great. I was on speed or something, not literally. Better than speed”

In the same interview, Mehta says he also loves to cook his own meals and loves to take an afternoon nap–very much my kind of guy (but I can’t have naps; I am in office in the afternoons).

Suketu currently lives in a Manhattan apartment and teaches journalsim (narrative nonfiction) at New York University. In the NDTV interview, he says that he has been working on a book about the New York City immigrant experience. The current reality is that every two in three New Yorkers are immigrants, he says, and he wants to tell the story of the city from that point of view.

India books a big mistake

Mehta is skeptical about the recent crop of India books–big books that try to define the phenomenon of a changing India within a few hundred pages. “All big books that have recently come out about India are a big mistake,” he says. Why? Because it is insane to try to capture such a vast country within a book. However, he says Aakash Kapur has done a relatively better job in India Becoming where he follows a set of characters.

Mehta is also an admirer of Katherine Boo’s book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. “I was filled with envy when I read Kat Boo’s book,” he says. “She has done exactly the right thing with the book … and I am amazed that she could do it without (understanding) the language”.

Mehta then talks about Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, an American journalist who writes on the marginalized members of society (adolescents living in poverty, prostitutes, women in prison) and mentions her seminal book, Random Family (2003). “Her book was inspiration for our books,” he says, “mine and Kate Boo’s.”

When Jain asks him if he likes any nonfiction books done in India, he mentions Following Fish by Samant Subramaniam.

How 9/11 changed writing

At one point of the interview, Mehta says that “more students now want to do narrative nonfiction than fiction” in the context of his journalism classes.”9/11 had a lot to do with it,” he says. “After 9/11 we realised what kind of fictional image could be created that could compete with this image of two giant airliners
slamming into two giant towers and the whole world changing as a result.” Fact had become stranger than fiction and fiction could not compete with it–or was confused to deal with it for a while.

However, he says that now, some American novels are dealing with the 9/11 tragedy. He mentions Netherland by Joseph O’Neil as a good example.

On Social Media

Mehta is on Twitter but he rarely tweets. “I have only tweeted 7 times,” he claims. Even though there are very few writers on twitter (Salman Rushdie is there), some have made good use of it. “Teju Cole has taken the form and made it literary,” says Mehta about the writer of Open City. He likens the twitter form to the form of Haiku.

Mehta is not worried about the future of books or writing. “Storytelling is a basic human need,” he says. “It will always be there, only the forms of delivery will change.” How reassuring!

Fellow New Yorker Salman Rushdie is a friend and Mehta says he likes his memoir, Joseph Anton, and he is aware that some have not liked it and some complain of his artistic decline after the fatwa was imposed on him. Mehta has a very simple explanation for all the Salman-bashing: “People hate Salman because he gets a lot of chicks around him.”

Apart from the New York book, Mehta is also working on a new translation of Gandhi’s autobiography. This is what he told Karan Mahajan in an earlier interview:

“Once, I was telling my father how I think The Story of My Experiments with Truth is really not well written, how it’s long-winded, even if the material is certainly fascinating. My father said, “But it’s really beautifully written. It’s really elegant and concise.” I said, “We’re not talking about the same book.” He said, “Which one are you talking about? I’m talking about the original, in Gujarati.” Then we compared the Aatmakatha with the English version. This book was written in the salad days of the century and it was translated by two of his political secretaries—Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal—who were very good political secretaries but not necessarily good writers in English. Gandhiji did look over the translation and corrected it, but, you know, he had a few other things on his mind, like leading a country to independence!”

More power to your pen Mr. Mehta and may you get to take a lot of afternoon naps!

–by Zafar Anjum