In Conversation with Suketu Mehta: The City Speaks

May 19th, 2011

The city has become an obsession for Suketu Mehta, who won international acclaim for his book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, published in 2004. Now he is turning his focus to the stories of what he calls the ‘new New York’, a city to which he immigrated at the age 14 with his family from India.

Cities of Migration’s Piali Roy sat down with the writer to talk about cities, migration and how today’s migrants have a new relationship with their adopted homes.

Watch an excerpt from the interview – How do you take all these people who are very culturally grounded and turn them into New Yorkers?

Listen to the complete audio interview:

The City Speaks (Abridged)

Piali Roy: It looks like you are becoming a chronicler of cities, from Bombay in India to New York City in the US. They have both been your homes. Why have cities caught your attention?

Suketu Mehta: It is very simple. I like people and cities contain a lot of people. There are many writers who don’t like people so they go off to houses in the country –I am not one of them.

I was born in Calcutta and raised in Bombay and New York. I’ve lived in Paris and London. The only time of my life that I lived in a smaller town was in Iowa City which is not really a city at all but it still calls itself a city.

I like large concentrations of people, crowds, and the anonymity that cities afford. I like thinking about the ways in which these masses of people come from all over and attempt to make connections. For me, a city is like a very large extended family that sometimes quarrels, sometimes gets along, and most often ignores each other.

PR: You have written about Bombay/Mumbai, a great megacity of relentless internal migration. What can cities in the west dealing with international migration learn from Bombay?

Suketu Mehta: I think there are two great groups of cities on the planet today. One is the great megacity of the developing countries such as Bombay, Sao Paolo or Jakarta or Lagos and these cities are marked by huge influxes of migrants from the countryside or neighbouring countries. Greater Bombay adds about one million new people every year. These migrants essentially come together to form villages in the city. They are drawn by the hope of economic opportunity and also by something called freedom – which, in a city like Bombay, means it is possible to marry someone who is not of your caste or for a woman to dine alone in a restaurant or possibly bump into a Bollywood star on the sidewalk. So the call of the city is about money, freedom and glamour. All of these things are very attractive to young people from the countryside.

The second group of cities is the great cities of the rich countries, which are New York, Toronto, London, Sydney. These cities are experiencing historically unprecedented immigration from other countries. So 2 out of 3 New Yorkers are foreign-born, and New York City is will grow from 8 million to a city of 9 million in the next 20 years. This is a huge thing for cities like New York to prepare for. But as I pointed out, this influx of 1 million people happens just about every year in Bombay.

What follows are very different types of development. The cities in the developing countries have to figure out how to provide essential civic services to these new migrants – water, sewage, sanitation, security, transport – much of which are essentially privatized. Whereas in the rich countries, they have to figure out how to take in all these people from countries like Azerbijain to Zimbabwe and make them part of a civic unit, make them Torontonians or New Yorkers.

PR: Yet even in the megacities, the cities of Asia, the newly arrived populations are quite diverse and have to manage the same integration and inclusion issues of cities like Toronto or Lisbon.

Suketu Mehta: That’s right. In cities like Bombay the population is internally diverse. Today, 30% of the population of Greater Bombay is North Indian from the impoverished northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In both cases, there are populations that are more or less welcome, and there are people who are demonized and scapegoated for everything from people’s inability to get a taxicab to rising crime.

Whether or not the city is prepared for these arrivals, people will come. And it’s not a bad thing that people do come. This fear that is manufactured about these hordes “overwhelming” the city is a little exaggerated. In the ‘90s there was much talk of Bombay as a dying city because it was just going to get “overwhelmed” by all these people. And it is true that 60% of the city is composed of slums and one mustn’t romanticize the slums, they are really awful places to live. You and I would not want to live in a jhopadpatti, a bustee, principally because not many of them have indoor toilets. But these slums or communities or bustees are attractive enough to people who will put up with enormous hardship to come and live in these cities, in these “villages” in the cities. And they don’t find them as inhospitable as one might think.

PR: When Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City was invited to speak to the US Senate he basically said that without illegal immigration his city could not survive. Given how virulent the immigration debate is in the United States, were you surprised that someone like him would come out and say this?

Suketu Mehta: I am actually quoting that exact comment in my next book. Mayor Bloomberg spoke to the Senate, when he was a Republican right after the mayor of Hazelton, Pennsylvania said, “People should be locked up for renting to illegal immigrants,” and then went on to equate immigrating and sending food to your family with crime. So that is one trope in the United States. Mayor Bloomberg went on after the mayor of Hazelton and said if it had not been for illegal immigration, New York’s city’s economy would have collapsed after 9/11. And there is statistical evidence to prove that. But the immigrants who came to New York, both legal and illegal, weren’t really phased by the catastrophe because many of them had seen worse in their own countries, so they took it in their stride, stayed in the city, kept their kids in the schools and New York today is thriving. It weathered the recession better than most other American cities. New York City is a textbook example to show that immigration works.

Detroit is another example. Detroit is one of those shrinking cities where it has lost 25% of its population in the last decade. Now look at a smaller neighbouring city called Hamtramck that is flourishing because Hamtrank aggressively goes out and woos immigrants. The population of Hamtramck comes from everywhere – from Bangladesh to Yemen to Mexico – and it’s a welcoming city for immigrants. So I think these cities like Detroit or Cleveland, which are losing their industrial base and losing their population, would do well to be more welcoming to immigrants.

Here is a radical proposal: there are 12 million undocumented or illegal immigrants, what if there were some kind of amnesty? Stay in Detroit for 5 years and we’ll put you to the path of legalization. The city of Detroit is embarking on a plan to demolish 10,000 homes over the next few years. Now these are homes which if they were given to these immigrants, they would put sweat equity into their homes, refurbish them and shore up the fabric of the city. We really need radical, bold approaches to the problems of our cities and to the question of what to do about 12 million people living in the shadows in the United States.

PR: You are an immigrant. You came with your family at the age of 14 from Mumbai to New York City. Has being an immigrant affected how you see cities and the world?

Suketu Mehta: Well, 14 is a strange age to change countries because you haven’t finished growing up in one country and you are never well ‘in your skin’ in the country you’ve moved to. When I was 14 my parents came to Jackson Heights in Queens and they put me in a school where I was one of the first minorities in this all-boys Catholic school. I was meat thrown to the lions. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.

Because I came to New York in my teens, I’ve always longed for Bombay. I missed Bombay like an organ of my body. So I kept going back. I’m like a pendulum, always going back and forth. It is what one might call Generation 1.5. Not the first generation or the second generation but somewhere in-between.

And that is what has made me a writer. I am always betwixt and between, happiest in transit. I’ve come to think of this as an advantage now because I can go into Bombay and I can go into New York and not entirely belong, but somehow be a part of both. I went back to Bombay for two and half years when I was writing my book [Maximum City].

Home isn’t a geographically intact entity. I have an apartment with many rooms. I have a living room in New York, and a bedroom in Bombay, a study in London, and another room in Paris. Not literally, I’m not that wealthy. I’ve come to think of my home as an apartment with many rooms and in the end, my home is a palace, it is the Earth.

There are an increasing number of people like me who move between different cities in the planet. We are a kind of inter-local group, that is,you could put any of us in Dublin or Toronto or New York or Bombay and we would find our feet within a matter of weeks. Traffic between these global cities is increasingly possible now and inevitable.

PR: Now you are writing a book this time about New York City, specifically on immigrants. What are the stories that you are planning to write about?

Suketu Mehta: The frame is much like Maximum City, that is, the story of a great city and my life in it. I’ve been living in New York since I was 14 and every time I leave, it’s like there is this giant rubber band attached to me and it snaps me back to this amazing city of over 8 million where 2 out of 3 residents or their children are immigrants. I’ve been speaking to Congolese and Bangladeshis and Guyanese, and even the native born! anyone who has an interesting story.

I wasn’t trained as an urbanist, a demographer or an economist. I began as a novelist. For me it is very important to understand the city as a story or a collection of stories. Collecting New York stories, new stories of arrival which are somewhat like the older stories, but also different because these newer immigrants have experienced a much more continuous transit between where they came from and where they live than the earlier generation.

In the late 19th century, an Italian or an Irish person coming over in steerage to Ellis Island might dream of one day returning to their homeland. An Indian or a Mexican today can go back and forth two or three times a year. These new immigrants, I’m realizing, live not in American or Mexico, not necessarily in New York City or Mexico City, but in Sunset Park neighbourhood of New York and a village of the Puebla district in Mexico. That is their allegiances are to very specific localities (that’s why I call them the inter-locals). They move from one neighbourhood in one city to another neighbourhood in another city – it could be halfway across the globe. Their cultural roots are very strong. That also poses a challenge to the city of New York. How do you take all these people who are very culturally grounded and turn them into New Yorkers?

See the video above for his answer or listen to the complete audio interview.

The interview was recorded on March 31, 2011 in Toronto.

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