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.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Following a mountaineer as he reaches the summit of Mount Everest

Accounts from Vikas Dimri’s second attempt reveal the immense fortitude and strength needed to summit the Everest.

Vikas Dimri made a huge attempt last year to climb the Mount Everest. Fate had other plans. Thwarted by unfavourable weather at the last minute, he came so close and yet not close enough to say he was at the top. But that did not deter him. Vikas is back on the Everest trail now, and this time he’s sharing his experiences at every leg of the journey.

The Everest journey began from the Lukla airport, known for its dicey landing conditions. It reminded him of the failed expedition, but he still moved on to Namche Bazaar - the staging point for Everest expeditions - with a positive mind. Vikas let the wisdom of the mountains guide him as he battled doubt and memories of the previous expedition. In his words, the Everest taught him that, “To conquer our personal Everest, we need to drop all our unnecessary baggage, be it physical or mental or even emotional”.

Vikas used a ‘descent for ascent’ approach to acclimatise. In this approach, mountaineers gain altitude during the day, but descend to catch some sleep. Acclimatising to such high altitudes is crucial as the lack of adequate oxygen can cause dizziness, nausea, headache and even muscle death. As Vikas prepared to scale the riskiest part of the climb - the unstable and continuously melting Khumbhu ice fall - he pondered over his journey so far.

His brother’s diagnosis of a heart condition in his youth was a wakeup call for the rather sedentary Vikas, and that is when he started focusing on his health more. For the first time in his life, he began to appreciate the power of nutrition and experimented with different diets and supplements for their health benefits. His quest for better health also motivated him to take up hiking, marathon running, squash and, eventually, a summit of the Everest.

Back in the Himalayas, after a string of sleepless nights, Vikas and his team ascended to Camp 2 (6,500m) as planned, and then descended to Base Camp for the basic luxuries - hot shower, hot lunch and essential supplements. Back up at Camp 2, the weather played spoiler again as a jet stream - a fast-flowing, narrow air current - moved right over the mountain. Wisdom from the mountains helped Vikas maintain perspective as they were required to descend 15km to Pheriche Valley. He accepted that “strength lies not merely in chasing the big dream, but also in...accepting that things could go wrong.”

At Camp 4 (8,000m), famously known as the death zone, Vikas caught a clear glimpse of the summit – his dream standing rather tall in front of him.

It was the 18th of May 2018 and Vikas finally reached the top. The top of his Everest…the top of Mount Everest!

Watch the video below to see actual moments from Vikas’ climb.


Vikas credits his strength to dedication, exercise and a healthy diet. He credits dietary supplements for helping him sustain himself in the inhuman conditions on Mount Everest. On heights like these where the oxygen supply drops to 1/3rd the levels on the ground, the body requires 3 times the regular blood volume to pump the requisite amount of oxygen. He, thus, doesn’t embark on an expedition without double checking his supplements and uses Livogen as an aid to maintain adequate amounts of iron in his blood.

Livogen is proud to have supported Vikas Dimri on his ambitious quest and salutes his spirit. To read more about the benefits of iron, see here. To read Vikas Dimri’s account of his expedition, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Livogen and not by the Scroll editorial team.