In Conversation

Suketu Mehta with Hirsh Sawhney

Bombay is famed for having one of the world’s largest film industries: Bollywood. But in 1993, the city was ravaged by deadly Hindu-Muslim communal riots. The brutal conflict was instigated by a Hindu fundamentalist group called the Shiv Sena, which has close ties to the country’s former ruling party—the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. In retaliation, the Muslim underworld exploded several bombs throughout the city. Brooklyn-based Suketu Mehta, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, spent the late 1990s becoming intimate with the gangsters and zealots responsible for the violence, as well as the slum dwellers, cops, bar girls, and movie stars who make India’s thriving commercial capital function. He chronicles his experiences in Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (Knopf, 2004), in which his nonfictional characters are as morally complex as the characters in a novel. I caught up with Mehta for a happy hour at Beso in Park Slope in late November.

—Hirsh Sawhney

Hirsh Sawhney (Rail): Within a few months of each other, three prominent South Asian writers—Pankaj Mishra, Amitava Kumar, and yourself—all come out with works of nonfiction. What’s behind this trend?

Suketu Mehta: The country’s just awash in stories, and so far we’ve been taking these stories and mythologizing them. [But] I think there is a need for the country to look at itself through nonfiction. I very interestingly found that in [literary, narrative] nonfiction, I can do many of the things that I do in fiction, and I can certainly say that there are bound to be more such books about India.

Rail: India became a part of the “global village” in 1991 when the current prime minister and then chief finance minister Manmohan Singh engineered economic reforms to liberalize the country’s quasi-socialist economy. How has globalization affected Bombay?

Mehta: What I came to realize in Bombay was how globalization can both help and hurt Bombay. It hurts Bombay when it’s impossible for an Indian farmer to make a living because of the current system of agricultural trade that we have in the world. But one thing globalization did was create what we’re often told will be the world’s biggest middle class. So at the same time, I don’t want to knock globalization. If you’re in the slums and you have a son, what did he do before globalization? Work in a textile factory or something. Now he can go into an air-conditioned office and he can sit in front of a computer, programming. It helps when you have these call centers and software industries. The problem is, it’s a hypocritical globalization.

Rail: So cities like Bombay are in many ways uplifted by globalization, while rural India is marginalized by it. Are the villages and the cities two separate entities in India with different sets of problems, or is there a connection between overpopulated urban areas and the impoverished rural countryside? 

Mehta: As I say in my book, if you fix the problems of the villages, you fix the problems of the cities. It all has to do with the international regime of agricultural tariffs and subsidies. The best thing that the West could do to help cities like Bombay and São Paulo and Jakarta is to lift the agricultural subsidies that it provides its farmers. When American cotton is cheaper than Indian cotton or Egyptian cotton, something’s very wrong. It’s cheaper because the cotton lobby’s very strong here, and because the European Union, the U.S., and Japan give hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies and indirect subsidies through tariffs. This makes agriculture unviable in places like India, so that a young man with dreams in a village in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar will take the first train to Bombay and join these swelling ranks of migrants.

Rail: Are you saying that the solutions to India’s biggest problems depend on external forces?

Mehta: Of course, there are systemic things you can do in Bombay. One of the things that I spend a considerable time on is the crisis in the Indian judiciary. It’s got the biggest backlog of court cases—criminal cases as well as torts. And this is why the underworld flourishes, and this is why riots happen. Rioters are confident that they will not get punished. In the Gujarat riots, there was a bakery that was burned down, and 14 Muslims got burned alive. There were witnesses to this—Muslim witnesses—who initially testified and identified the people who had done the burning. [But then] they were threatened by the BJP, and all of them recanted their testimony. Then the Supreme Court took notice and moved the case from Gujarat to Bombay. But even in Bombay they recanted, because there is such great fear. There’s a loss of confidence that the state can protect minority interests.

Rail: There also seems to be a strong connection between a kind of middle-class hopelessness among educated people in India and the fomentation of religious fundamentalism. A person named Girish whom you interviewed, for example, graduated from college in 1991 and would later be a perpetuator of religious violence during the ensuing Bombay riots.

Mehta: His parents put everything they had into sending this kid to college. [But] there are a million others who’ve also got a college degree and are out looking for jobs. So when there are these crushed expectations among the middle classes, that’s when a lot of other issues come in. One is identity. When you’re made to feel like one of a vast herd of strivers, you ask yourself, “Who am I really? I’m obviously not worth anything in the job market. I am just one of these many thousands of people who’ve lined up in front of this office to get a job that is not even very exciting. Where do I come from?” And since these are people in an urban setting, they’ve fled the comfort of extended family, of caste groups, of the local temple, of the people who’ve known their grandparents and grandfathers. This question of “Who am I?” becomes very difficult to answer. Then in steps a political leader who says, I can’t tell you who you are, but I can tell you who you’re not, and you’ll define yourself by your enemies. So this is where religious violence comes in. When I spoke to all these Shiv Sena people, there was this continuous assertion of their identity by means of negation. Ye sab bahar ke log hain—all of these people are outsiders.

Rail: Regarding nuclear proliferation in South Asia, you write, “It was the old story: the powerful wish of minorities all over the world to be the oppressor rather than the oppressed.”

Mehta: I think I took that from Fred Astaire [laughs].

Rail: The prospects of nuclear proliferation are certainly frightening for the world. But how can we expect the oppressed to relinquish their desire to be the oppressor?

Mehta: If you look at recent events—since Iraq—even Brazil is now ramping up its nuclear arms program. The rest of the world doesn’t trust the intentions of the American government. And in a unipolar world, there’s only one way you can make it really painful for America to have aggressive designs on you, which is becoming a nuclear power. With hindsight, there are many [Indian] progressives who were all against the bombs at the time and are now saying, “Well, maybe it makes sense strategically for India to be a nuclear power.”

Rail: In light of the religious violence plaguing India right now, you and your contemporaries seem to be coming to terms with the failures of secularist thought in India. In 2004, are we going to have to start reassessing our secular beliefs to deal with the challenges the world faces?

Mehta: A lot of this secularism came from Marxism, which denigrated religion and its place in the lives of people. Even now when I look at the debate in the U.S. about faith-based values and Christians in the Midwest, I notice a tremendous lack of understanding among people like us of what drives people out there. We believe in economic advancement, we believe in justice—we’re in a post-God age. But we forget that most of the rest of the world isn’t. And they believe very deeply in God and certain values that they associate with their God. You can’t think of religion as an opiate in India. It’s the very foundation of people’s lives. And everyone in my book—from the gangsters who talk about God more than anybody else I met to the bar girl who, in the middle of her sexy number, would start praying on the stage—religion was intricately woven into their lives. So, when we look at religious and communal conflict, we can’t proceed from the base of, “If only these people were to forget about religion and just look to economic values.” They will only stop rioting if you remind them that the most essential tenets of their faith prohibit what they’re doing.

Rail: Yet the roots of religious violence often have very little to do with religion.

Mehta: If you look it the current conflict in the world right now between Islam and the rest of the world, it doesn’t have much to do with what’s in the religion itself. It has to do with modernity, historical circumstances, and the uses people make of religion to air their grievances.

Rail: How do we realign ourselves with the religiosity that’s so inherent to much of the world?

Mehta: It’s not that we have to believe ourselves. We just have to understand people who believe. We have to go and talk to them without judgment—go into their churches, their homes. A lot of the problem is that we have contempt for them, because we’re all liberal and secular and humanist. We’re people of science, so our religion is science. We treat these other people with condescension because they’re not as educated as us. It’s the wrong approach to take. We can still believe what we do; we don’t have to believe in God. But it’s essential to keep an open mind about why other people believe. To look at what it does to them mentally, how it sustains them—every last deluded one of them.

Contributor

Hirsh Sawhney

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