Book review

Suketu Mehta has written a new story, and it's a frenetic mixture of memory and desire

The first new work from the author of ‘Maximum City’ in some time is an astonishing, if unidirectional, work of fiction.

Jorge Luis Borges had once said, roughly, that there was no idea so big that he could not convey through a short story. He was explaining why he never wrote a novel. Suketu Mehta needs no such explanation for his story What Is Remembered, but the conceit contained in this story hammers at the boundaries created by its 14,000-and-odd words, clamouring to be allowed to expand into a larger narrative.

I cannot reveal that conceit. That wouldn’t just be a spoiler, it would kill the need to read this story.

A work of fiction by Mehta, who is still remembered and revered for his Bombay book Maximum City, the title having become a descriptor of the metropolis, is obviously something of an event. Publishing it is, arguably, a minor coup (more so since Juggernaut Books, which is looking to turn conventional publishing upside down with its app, has convinced Mehta to let it debut as a digital edition alone). Expectations are high, and, let it be said, the breathless prose, so American in its energy, doesn’t let you down.

But this is a fiction of ideas, much as Borges’ fiction was a masterful display of playing a game with an idea. Unlike the Argentinian, though, Mehta does not tease his theme, he unravels it with the relentlessness of a man on a mission. Mahesh, the Indian migrant to the US through whose mind the story is told, has forgotten almost everything (by choice?) about his past in his homeland – including, how irresponsible is that, really, his mother’s name.

This in itself would not be such a disaster; he always referred to his mother and thought of her as ‘Mummy’ but what was distressing was that since forgetting his mother’s name, he was gradually forgetting other things about his family too – such as his father’s occupation, where his grandparents lived, the correct term for his maternal uncle, his caste.

This is told early enough in the story for it not to be the sort of revelation that can make the reader lose interest. But what comes afterwards is a breakneck ride over a dream-like landscape – even though the physical setting is Jaikishan Height, NY, NY – on the magic carpet of fragmented memory, woven with the uneasiness of the immigrant.

An Indian (all Indians?) in the US

Mahesh is a shadowy figure, deliberately given no character traits that can be used to pin him down. Perhaps he is meant to be the archetypal Indian in the US – Mehta, who teaches at New York University, must have met enough of them to be able to construct a composite.

The immigrant experience, is of course, routine fodder in the hands of Indian writers in America. The sense of uneasiness at the possibility of reading yet another one is quickly dispelled, though. Mahesh is a solitary figure, the other aspects of his life being extraneous to the telling of this story.

However, the immigrant’s relationship with his birthplace, clichéd as it might be as a literary theme, is indeed at the heart of this story. Still, what Mehta does is to deny the tyranny of one definitive narrative. In fact, he shows that truth is a matter of probability, and that all possibilities exist.

Remembrance of things past, present or perhaps future

Mahesh rides his memory, real or imagined, individual or archetypal, dune-bashing his way through the past, remembering events and characters that seem drawn as much from life – perhaps many people’s – as from the writer’s frenzied imagination. And this is where the lines are blurred between the plausible and the fantastic.

Is there more of the writer’s creativity here than the constraints of actual lived lives allows? Are some of the memories fiction within fiction? Are all? Possibly, and yet, it does not matter. For by refusing to give Mahesh a clear identity besides his Gujarati surname Desai, which evokes recognition somewhere, Mehta opens the door to every tendril of truth, every figment of imagination.

The trouble, though, is that there is no pattern to the amalgamation of these back stories, nothing that adds up to something greater than the sum of the parts at the end. The point with which this story almost ends is almost obvious, and less than worthy of the richness of the themes it explores. There is, however, a tiny twist that is strangely satisfying in the way it symbolises the relationship between what we can imagine and what we can finally accept.

No matter. There are delicious tales in here, evoking the reader’s own memories, past or future, of other writers from the world’s literatures, intoxicating cocktails of personal and political history, of philosophy and logic, of family intrigue and loneliness. Oh, and a cameo by Nylex Nalini, in an unexpected role.

What Is Remembered, Suketu Mehta, published on the Juggernaut app.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.