By Nick Leech When it comes to thinking about cities, the view from his temporary home at New […]
A new book from Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld seeks to explain why some groups succeed in America, and some fail. But when does cultural pride cross over into racism, asks Suketu Mehta in Time
Recently, though, the language of racism in America has changed, though the plot remains the same. It’s not about skin color anymore–it’s about “cultural traits.” And it comes cloaked in a whole lot of social-science babble. The new racialists are too smart to denigrate particular cultures. Instead, they come at things the other way. They praise certain cultures, hold them up as exemplary. The implication–sometimes overt, sometimes only winked at–is that other cultures are inferior and this accounts for their inability to succeed.
Suketu Mehta was the first famous Indian writerI saw after moving to New York. I was at a monthly South Asian party called Basement Bhangra when I noticed a man dressed older than everyone else walk in. “Aren’t you reading that guy’s book,” my friend asked. I squinted and indeed, it was Mehta, yet to achieve the fame that would accrue as his book went out into the world. In the hope that if I congratulated him I would bank some karma with the cosmos that would subsequently be returned when my novel was published, I went up to him. After thanking me, he took me around the corner into the VIP area and said: “Meet Salman Rushdie.”
My Brazilian friend Marina and I were picking up a visiting friend from New York, who heads an NGO, in her hotel lobby near Paulista, the most prestigious avenue in São Paulo. It was 7:30 on a busy Friday night last October.
We walked up to a taxi outside the hotel. I sat in the front to let the two women chat in the back. Marina asked me to Google the restaurant menu. I was doing so when I saw a teenage boy run up to the taxi and gesticulate through my open window. I thought he was a beggar, asking for money. Then I saw the gun, going from my head to the cell phone.
“Just give him the phone,” Marina said from the back seat.
I gave him the phone. He didn’t go away.
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?