It has been over 12 years since Suketu Mehta’s phenomenal Maximum City was published.
Part-ode, part-indictment of the city he considers his place of origin (although he lived in Bombay but eight years), the book did the unthinkable — it captured the essence of Mumbai, its underbelly and its pinnacle, its geography, and traced how the metropolis that is was created by the metropolis that was.
Before and after that, Mehta’s writing has continued to appear in esteemed publications, including a somewhat contentious interview with Raj Rajaratnam. But there hasn’t been another book.
This week, Juggernaut has released a new literary offering by Mehta.
This is a work of fiction, a novella — rather than the fuller-length work fans of the writer may have longed for — at just 52 pages in length.
It is titled What Is Remembered, and traces the attempts of its protagonist Mahesh, an Indian immigrant in the US, to remember his past.
At the start of the story, we encounter Mahesh’s unique quandary — after years of being the very model of a successful immigrant, he finally has a chance to apply for citizenship. There’s just one problem: His form requires that his mother’s name be filled in — and Mahesh has forgotten it.
Over the many years in the US, Mahesh has forgotten nearly all the details of his individual history, except for his father’s name (that too, because it is his middle name), that he is Hindu, and that he is from India. The rest is a blank.
To jog his memory, Mahesh decides to go back to the place where he lost it — at the JFK International Airport. Does retracing his steps help Mahesh remember?
Memory and its vagaries — remembering too little, remembering too much, distorted remembrances, amnesia, the reversal of it — have formed the crux of many a work of fiction. Across genres and generations, from serious literature to ‘grip-lit’, from the likes of Proux to Robert Ludlum, memory and how it affects our actions, makes for a compelling narrative.
In Mehta’s What Is Remembered, memory is tied up with another essential aspect that informs who were are as people — our personal histories. If Mahesh no longer remembers his personal history, the story of his family, then who is he?
What Is Remembered is starkly different from Maximum City. Of course, it has to be — by the very fact of its subject matter, format, nature. It is also different in the form of storytelling that Mehta employs — non-linear flashbacks that are triggered by various experiences that Mahesh has: the chewing of peanut brittle (chikki), staring at the ice cubes in a glass, pressing the buttons of a remote control, an encounter with a strange man and an apparently all-knowing guru.
Even as the story progresses, you are told that not all of it may be true. Magical realism meets the shape shifting nature of human memory to create a surreal tale, that at times, has the feel of a play. You can see it unfolding on stage; the characters loudly articulating their theatrical dialogues, the props shifting to indicate the changing of scenes even as the basic frame remains the same. At other times, reading What is Remembered feels like looking through a kaleidoscope: you adjust the eyepiece and myriad patterns emerge within the tube.
Are the memories of immigrants of greater import than those of people who have stayed rooted to the place of their origin? Does the experience of being unmoored, cast adrift and calling a new place home require letting go of the past, or holding on to it tighter? While What Is Remembered is about Mahesh, it is also about the immigrant experience; it may sketch the tale of an individual, but it has a vast canvas.
The moments when What Is Remembered is most memorable, is when it delves into Mahesh’s memories: The shame of soiling his pants in Class Four, the languor of a child’s afternoon hours, the smell of a classmate’s hair oil, the love of one’s grandparents. And the remembrance of a mother’s touch.
What Is Remembered by Suketu Mehta is available exclusively on the Juggernaut app