Suketu Mehta has written the Indian immigrant novel to end all Indian immigrant novels. It is an object lesson on all that is wrong about this genre – the classism, the casteism, the unquestioning reverence for religion, terrible tellings of history and Orientalist clichés. For good measure it includes Naipaulian sneering at the poor, without Naipaul’s searing, honest self-loathing, as well as Rushdie-like magical realism, with neither magic nor realism.
In brief – the only thing one can be thankful for is that this piece of writing is brief – What is Remembered is about an Indian immigrant in the US who, in his rush to get ahead in his career, forgets his mother’s name at John F. Kennedy airport once he lands in New York. All he has is a plain black hairpin in his pocket. Later, confronted with the need to remember his mother’s name, he returns to the scene of the crime (JFK). There his car is immediately taken over by an Indian family who think he is a cabbie and Mahesh is forced to drive to Jackson Heights. For those who know New York, this is Little India, or Little South Asia, whatever – the place with the brown skinned people in saris, smelling of curry, with potholes and broken pavements to remind you of home. There, through a series of flashbacks, he rediscovers his roots. Throughout, the tired narrative is matched by lazy prose, as when Mahesh recalls sharing tea with a man, who ‘slurped it thirstily’ – as tea-drinkers only do in a first draft.
If it is bad in summary, it is worse in full form. Indian immigrant fiction is largely a production by upper middle class Indians – the bhadralok united – who find that being upper middle class in the US is not the same thing. This terrible disappointment forces them to reflect on their own people and country, generally with contempt for the lower orders. This is precisely what Mahesh, the protagonist, did as he watched the poor, pathetic Indians try to smuggle in forbidden mangoes.
Such astonishment, such pain, on the faces of the old people! These were the best Alphonso mangoes they could find, Rs 2,000 a kilo, never before in their lives had they bought mangoes at Rs 2,000 a kilo! Some tried the time-honoured way. ‘Sir, you can take half. For your children,’ they offered the customs officer. No, Mahesh shook his head, didn’t they realise, they were in America now.
Of course, the implication is that Mahesh knows better, that he never went through the humiliation that these lower class people did. He is also innocently unaware of the name Jackson Heights, despite studying and living in New York – because, of course, only the desperate, ghetto desis (South Asians) go there. Even pronouncing the name is reason enough for Mahesh to sneer at poorer desis – “‘Jackson Heights,’ said the man, his accent making it sound like ‘Jaikisan Heights’.”
But Mahesh redeems himself by accepting chiki, or ‘nut brittle’, from the matriarch of the family that he drops off – “‘Eat this, son, it is prasad from the Srinathji temple’.” How better to reconnect with the old country if not through the vehicle of religion? And, of course, with religion, caste is not far behind. As Mahesh first bites into “the peanut, base, low”, it brings up the memory of when he shat his pants in class. Slowly he climbs up the caste/nut/memory ladder, until he tastes the almond, “the kingly food, the nut of pedigree”. This reveals a vision of a fort in Maharashtra, which has seen a history of invaders starting from Aryans, Sakas, Huns and Alexander’s Greeks (none of whom marched against a fort in Maharashtra) to Turks and Afghans.
After the bad history lessons, comes the bad magic realism, with the Expert Liar, a storyteller in a tavern called ‘Crossroads’ who tells outrageous stories, which include the Emergency (while excluding the role of lower caste leaders of the Janata Dal or the street fighters of the Jan Sangh) and a “human hair, skeleton and live frog export business”.
On the street Mahesh encounters a man who wants him to hear what his heart has to say. Mahesh talks to a tree. There is even a memory, in which the story of Tansen’s ability to light lamps by singing the raga Deepak is stolen to make a supposed family legacy.
Luckily the story ends soon thereafter.
What Is Remembered, by Suketu Mehta is available on the Juggernaut app.