Suketu Mehta central: Denver Post, NPR interview

The Suketu Mehta Maximum City publicity juggernaut continues. Today he is in the Denver Post, where the book reviewer praises the book, but makes what I feel is an unnecessary reference to his accent. (Via Kitabkhana)

And yesterday, he was on Fresh Air. It's an interesting interview, about 15 minutes long. Topics covered include: "Bombay" vs. "Mumbai", the role of third world mega-cities, communalism (Bombay riots), and Bollywood. I'm feeling a little generous this morning, so I'll include some excerpts that I transcribed by hand while listening to the interview. You should really listen to the whole thing.

NOTE: All quotations below are approximations.

Terry: Why don't you refer to Bombay as “Mumbai”?

Mehta: Bombay changed its name, or rather the name was changed for Bombay in 1995 by the Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist party. The British and the Portuguese created the city from a clump of malarial islands, so they should get the naming rights. The name is exclusionary. A number of people in the city refuse to call it Mumbai.

Terry: So it's a political statement you're making?

Mehta: Very much so. The politics of the Shiv Sena are nativist and exclusionist, which runs against the cosmopolitan spirit of the city of Bombay. I refuse to go along.

Terry: Is the Shiv Sena a Hindu fundamentalist party?

Suketu: The phrase 'Hindu fundamentalist' doesn't make much sense. There isn't a fundamental scripture. "Hindu nationalist" is more appropriate.

[...skip a few minutes: on "mega-cities"...]

Terry: You interviewed all kinds of people, including a Hindu nationalist leader who actually set a Muslim or two on fire.

Suketu: This was during the riots after Ayodhya. There was a group of Hindus out early in the morning looking for Muslims to kill. He knew a man who sold him bread every day. He set him on fire for no other reason than that he was Muslim.

A mob assaulted him and poured Kerosene on him. As this was happening, he was weeping and he was crying, and reminding Sunil, the Shiv Sena man, that he used to sell him bread every day. He was begging for his life, saying that he had children.

Sunil, the man I interviewed, said to him, “When your people were killing our people, did you think of your children?” And he proceeded to kill him. I talked to a number of people who told me that they had killed Muslims. And I talked to Muslims who said they had killed Hindus.

I asked them about what it feels like to take a human life. As I was listening to them, I tried to withhold judgment. I had to remain expressionless, I could not show shock or horror. They were telling me what they had been living with for years. I was there, just writing it down.

At some point, they stopped talking to me, and were just explaining something to themselves. That was when I got the best stuff.

[...skip a few minutes: more on communalism...]

Terry: Seeing how Muslims and Hindus do not get along, famously, in Bomay now, and having researched what happened in the riots, and having talked to people who had participated in communal killings, what are your thoughts about the growing role of religion in American politics?

Suketu: I lived in Iowa for several years. I had some experience with the Evangelical churches there. Just as many people say that much of India is a Hindu nationalist country, much of the US is a Christian nationalist country. It's a troubling development. It's really a reaction to modernity, people who don't know how to respond to changes. [...]

One difference is, in India, Communalism is largely an urban problem. In India, you hardly ever hear about riots in the country. The opposite is true in the U.S. Most of Christian fundamentalism is found in 'flyover country.'

Also, in India, this spring, the Hindu nationalist party was voted out of power. People got tired of that kind of politics. I frankly was hoping the same thing would happen this fall in the U.S. Perhaps people here may need to live with that kind of government for a little while before they do the same.

Terry: You write that, since moving to the U.S., you've never felt any patriotism.

Suketu: Yes, growing up in India we were inundated with patriotic songs. [...] Every time you went to see a movie, you had to stand for the national anthem, on pain of arrest. And then I came to America, I found much the same sort of thing. Anthems playing, people thinking that America is the best country in the world...

It seems like lunacy. I think that migration is the best antidote to patriotism. These countries have had lots interactions with each other. [Refers to the influence of the Gita on Thoreau and the influence of Thoreau on Gandhi]. I'm most interested in the idea of looking outward from oneself. I really feel that a passport is just a travel document.

[...skip a few minutes of basic intro to Bollywood films...]

Terry: Where do the songs come in?

Suketu: The songs are in my view the most delightful part of the films. They aren't just a diversion from the plot. It's part of a Complete Entertainment.

There's a movie out called Veer Zaara, which I was also part of the making of. It's 3 ½ hours long – most Americans would be killing themselves if they had to watch a movie that long. But if you take a villager in India, he comes in from a long day's work, he wants to get his money's worth. He wants to watch these gorgeous people for 3 ½ hours, he wants the songs, he wants the action, he wants a bit of titillation -- he wants it all. When he goes back, there's not that much to go back for.

Terry: So do you think you'll ever live in Bombay again?

Suketu: I think so. I began this book with the question – can you go home again? I found that, not only can you go home, you can also leave again. Home for people like me moves with me. I have a room in New York and a room in Bombay.

Home is where my people are. And they are in the cities of the world. I have family in Paris, Antwerp, etc.

Everywhere you go, you find similar elements. There are piece of the first world in the midst of the third world – islands of convenience and wealth in the midst of urban squalor.

Terry: Thank you...

While I don't think this take on Bombay is the most exciting thing ever, I do think Suketu Metha does a good job as a kind of cultural ambassador for the new, cosmopolitan India. Warts (gangsters, capitalists, filmmakers...) and all.

I'll probably be recommending the book to friends and colleagues...