Tuesday, December 07, 2004

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...


pennathur said...

A few minutes of loose talk that's going to take a long time to set straight.

So Mumbai is an "exclusionary" name? So then what about India's oldest newspaper the "Mumbai Samachar" published by Parsis since 1822 with the its Gujarati masthead saying Mumbai with an English tagline saying "Bombay Samachar"? Parsis, Muslims and Hindus speaking Gujarati make a fairly large proportion of the city's population (although the former aren't that many any longer). Wonder who was excluding whom in 1822. It's been Mumbai in Marathi and Gujarati for a very long time, Bambai to people from rest of India excepting the ones from Tamil Nadu to whom it was Bambaai (remember the Mani Ratnam film Bombay?) So since Brits and Portugese conquered a swamp they get naming rights? Tut-tut Suketu? How about saying that the descendants of the ancient folk who live in Alaska, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Mississippi etc? As the Brits did with many places in India they anglicised Mumbai (named after Mumbadevi the goddess of the fisherfok) to Bombay. So it's Ok for to "exclude" Bombay's pre-colonial communities for whom the place has always been Mumbai? Or the East Indian Christians and the Bene Israel Jews who talk of Mumbai?

Now would Suketu care to comment on the other name changes that happened around 1995? A "rationalist" "secularist" party the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam when it returned to power in Tamizh Nadu changed the name of Madras to Chennai (a name that has been used in Tamizh for a long time). The region around present-day Madras was never a part of the ancient and classical Tamizh territories, centered as they were around Poompuhaar, Madurai and Thanjavur - sorry Tanjore. It's the Brits who bought a trading post from some Andhra/Telugu suzerain and named the city and environs after the old church of Madre Dios - hence Madras. So do we let Madras remain or let it revert to Chennai which is what the original owners of that strip of land called it? And then what about oooh-no-we-are-secular Kolkata? Did the CPI(M) decide to act "exclusionary" and rename Job Charnock's Calcutta - Kolkata? Or is criticism reserved only for "Hindu nationalists" changing the names of cities? And then what about Kerala that has been ruled only by "secularists" like the CPI/CPI(M), Congress, IUML and Kerala Congress(A,B,C....Z) since 1954? All names were changed to read the same in English as they read in Malayalam. Any problems with that Suketu?

As for some of the other things he has said about the anthem in the movie hall - it is so way off mark that it is not worth commenting on. If personal experience is representative then how about my own? I had a Jehovah's Witness in my class in the 3rd Grade who would not sing the anthem was questioned by the principal and let off without punishment when he explained his reason - just as the Supreme Court of India decided to do in 1985 when it exempted JEhovah's Witnesses from singing the national anthem prompting the late Mohammad Yunus Badshah Khan's nephew to accuse the Supreme Court judgees of being anti-national and neither supreme nor just!

For a person who seems to sport cosmopolitanism on his sleeve Suketu seems to know very little and must have read a lot less.

6:49 PM  
Amardeep said...

Pennathur, Welcome back.

Just a quick point. In the book, he is a bit more careful in how he explains his choice. He says something along the lines that, while it was called Mumbai in Marathi and Gujurati before 1995, and that is fine, it's the Shiv Sena's insistence that it be "Mumbai" in *all* languages that makes him reject the title.

I'll have to get the exact quote for you. I'll also have to think a bit more about your other points...

In the meanwhile, this issues was discussed quite directly here. Many of the participants there agree with you. They bring up even more examples of name changing (including all the street names -- which nobody really uses).

Somebody should write a book that gets at all the facets of this phenomenon. (Maybe not Mehta!)

7:03 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

RE: Bombay/Mumbai the problem stems from the scale of analysis. Globally, Mumbai is the "progressive" toponym becuase it signifies a break from India's colonial past. This is why New Delhi finally agreed to the Shiv Sena requests that the name officially change to Mumbai.

But, locally it is meant to be "oppressive" in that it signifies Marathi chauvinism. To say that Gujuratis used this name as well is a little misleading since their is a big difference in the attitudes toward the official renaming between Marathis and non-Marathis (despite the fact that people in the city would use the names interchangably before the name was a political issue).

Also, my anecdotal evidence is that many people I know from the city will not call it Mumbai. For some it is a olitical statement. Most of them are Parsi (a very scapegoated group in a similar manner to Jews in America). I don't actually have cloase relationships with any Muslims from the city. But, Salman Rushdie takes the time to criticize the name in The Moor's Last Sigh.

For others, the refual to call it Mumbai is simply out of tradition. They've always called it Bombay and they don't feel like changing that practice.

It should be noted that Western media outlets protested the name change or looked down upon it. I posited in my Master's thesis that this was because the renaming had postcolonial reverberations that upset the sensibilities of the West's perception of India as peripheral and subservient.

9:14 AM  
zigzackly said...

Er, actually one school of thought says that the Brits didn't anglicise the name Mumbadevi. Have also heard people, the kind more learned than i can hope to be, say that Mumbadevi wasn't the name of that original group of islands at all, just the name of the goddess the inhabitants worshipped.

Anyway, if the deed was done, it was the Portuguese colonisers who were guilty. They named it Bom Bahia, or “good bay.” When they included it Catherine De Braganza's dowry when she married Charles II of Britain, the Brits then anglicised that.

And for the record, i say "Bombay" when i speak of it in English, "Bambai" when in Hindi.

10:56 AM  
Rob Breymaier said...

Yes, Bombay is Anglicized Portugese.

5:47 PM  
Yuvraj Arya said...

So..suketu u know whole of Mumbai...Yeah...?? I doubt.


12:20 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home