Thursday, September 22, 2005

Suketu Mehta Interview in CJR; Indian Literary Non-Fiction

There's an interview with Suketu Mehta in the Columbia Journalism Review. (The interviewer, Carl Bromley, was kind enough to send me the link.)

Mehta is, as many readers are undoubtedly aware, the author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, which I've talked about a bunch of times on this blog. Highlights of the interview include Mehta's discussion of the value of doing interviews with a laptop, rather than a tape recorder, as well as his discussion of what drew him to all these Bombay tough guys to begin with.

Here's the bit about laptops, and keeping his interviewees on point:

So initially they’d be much more hesitant than if I had put a tape recorder in front of them. But then I noticed this subliminal thing started happening where as they spoke, I was literally typing. My fingers were dancing, and they would look at me and pick up these cues from when I’m typing or not. Now, in India the problem isn’t getting people to talk, it’s getting them to shut up or to stick to the topic. And I didn’t have to tell them to stick to the topic, but you know I’d be nodding and typing and when they wandered off into a tangent I’d still be nodding, but my fingers weren’t dancing. And so they would, without my ever having to say anything to them, come back to the topic that I was interested in, which would get me typing.

The idea that the sound (or lack thereof) of his fingers on the keyboard as a kind of cue to his interviewees is really interesting.

The other snippet that caught my eye was the following paragraph, about Mehta's attraction to "tough boys" like the Shiv Sena characters, gangsters, and "special task force" police he talked to:

Why was I attracted to these tough boys? And it’s because in school I was a weedy kid, and I always looked up to the tough boys. The short and the smart sat at the front of the class. We had these two student benches and in the back were the people who had failed the grade and were taking it again or the really tall kids and we called them the LLBs — the Lords of the Last Bench. And I always looked up to these guys. These were the ones who were good at cricket, could get the girls. And here they were — they were grown up, and they were my protectors.

Ah, school days. I knew there had to be something back there...

Bollywood fans might be interested to hear Mehta's response to Vidhu Vinod Chopra's outraged response to Mehta's portrayal of him in Maximum City (this interview is Mehta's first public statement on that tempest-in-a-teapot). And there is a bit more about the dance bar girl Mehta calls "Mona Lisa" in the book. But read the rest of the interview to see for yourself.

* * *
More generally, I'm hoping that the success of this book will trigger more creative nonfiction about contemporary Indian life.

It reminds me of what might have been the best point made in William Dalrymple's controversial piece on Indian literature in the Guardian last month, which is the glaring absence of serious books of history and literary non-fiction in the Indian literary scene:

The other odd absence from the English-language literary scene in India has been the startling lack of any biography, narrative history or indeed any serious literary non-fiction of any description. Earlier this year, Suketu Mehta published what is without doubt the best travel book published by an Indian author in recent years: Maximum City, his remarkable study of Bombay. But Mehta's achievement only highlights the absence of any real competition, for with the notable exceptions of Naipaul and Pankaj Mishra, and one book each by Seth and Ghosh, there are no other Indian travel writers.

The situation with history is even more dire. Although brilliant young Indian historians such as Sanjay Subramaniam produce many excellent specialist essays and learned academic studies, it is still impossible, for example, to go into a bookshop in Delhi and buy an up-to-date and accessible biography of any of India's pre-colonial rulers, even of the most obvious ones such as Akbar or Shah Jehan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. Why is it that much the most popular biography of Mrs Gandhi was by Katherine Frank, an American living in England, and the most authoritative study of Hindu nationalism by a Frenchman, Christophe Jaffrelot? Why are there no Indian authors writing this sort of thing better than us firangi interlopers?

This seems true to me. Can anyone think of other Indian travel writers? (Who write about different parts of India, that is?)

Dalrymple made many other interesting points in that article, some of which were criticized by people like Pankaj Mishra, Vandana Singh (at Kitabkhana), and Samit Basu.

[See an earlier post of mine about Suketu Mehta's Maximum City here]


Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

The situation with history or travel is quite different regional languages. Well, at least one regional language. There is a plethora of travel and history published in Bengali. And there is a long history to do so. Bankim Chattopadhyaya and Rabindranath wrote historical monographs as well as travelogues. The tradition continues with very famous authors writing travelogues and histories. One of my favourite renaissance man in Bengali Purnendu Patri has written histories and travelogues in addition to designing covers and directing movies.

8:18 PM  
Pankaj said...


Among the blogger/writers Dilip D'Souza writes a good travel tale. He also writes on a number of other topics of course, but a number of his recent posts relate to travel and people in India. Simple clear language, and excellent word pictures of India, Indians, issues and frustrations.

The URL:

Among his recent posts: and other Tsunami travel blogs...

and the moving...

11:29 PM  
kuffir said...

i can think of a very recent travelogue by gollapudi maruthi rao in telugu. most other top writers/poets in telugu have written travel related stories : jnanpith award winner c.narayana reddy, sri sri, malathi chandur etc.. the one by utpala..some 70-80 years ago on his travels in russia and england is one of the best in the language that i've read.

4:14 AM  

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