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Suketu Mehta

In their audio story of Joel Woodruff & Carol Brobeck, Shea Shackelford and Virginia Millington pare down an entire biography, or two, to a single voice, or voices. Now, here, literary critic and novelist Amitava Kumar chips away at the genre even further by telling the story of a writer, Suketu Mehta, in order to create a biography of Maximum City, Mehta's book.

The eighth in our sequence of sixteen biographies, Kumar's "life story" of Maximum City, a book set in India, not only effectively broadens the geographic boundaries of our slowly thickening American landscape, it playfully turns the very premise of our project -- to document this moment through the lives of actual, "real life" people -- completely inside out.

Movie Still From Firaaq, 
A Bollywood film made up of many small stories

While doing research for his book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Suketu Mehta would interview several people each day. On one occasion, while talking to men from a right-wing Hindu group about the riots in Bombay, Suketu asked: "What does a man look like when he’s on fire?" And got the following answer: "A man on fire gets up, falls, runs for his life, falls, gets up, runs. It is horror. Oil drips from his body, his eyes become huge, huge, the white shows, white, white, you touch his arm like this … the white shows, it shows especially on the nose … Oil drips from him, water drips from him, white, white all over."

Suketu is now writing a book on New York City, where he lives and works. It has long been clear to me that people reveal truths to Suketu, truths that you suspect they are discovering at the same time as the writer. It is a unique relationship he develops with his interviewees. It wouldn't be wrong to say that more than the cities that Suketu writes about, it is his subjects' inner selves that stand exposed in his writing -- the place of darkness, the complicated paths to the past, the outskirts of feeling.

In the nineties, the Village Voice had carried Suketu’s first major story, a report on the aftermath of the tragedy in Bhopal. But things had gone wrong. The editors had made too many cuts and the story’s point had changed. Suketu said, "They ran it as if they were ashamed of it."

There had also been a long wait. Once, he had even been shown the proofs, but when the issue hit the stands, his piece was not there. Another time, the editors said that it was appearing as the cover story. Suketu arranged for a party, the champagne cooling in the fridge. But then, at the last moment, the story was replaced by a report about Tupac Shakur’s death.

There was need for money. Suketu had paid for the trip to Bhopal himself. He was not employed, and his wife was pregnant. Before it was accepted by the Voice, his essay had been rejected by all the major publications in New York. Suketu said, “I felt like a failure.” Once, on the road back from Connecticut, he thought he’d welcome death.

The tale he was telling me began to sound like a Bollywood story. Then, Suketu took a friend’s advice and contacted Ian Jack who was the editor at Granta.

Suketu had another conversation with Ian Jack. Jack had liked his Bhopal piece and wanted him to write something for Granta. Maybe Suketu could write about Gandhi in Africa, Jack suggested.

"And then he said the words that changed my life: 'Have you heard of a man called Bal Thackeray?' I said, ‘He is the man who has ruined the city in which I grew up.'"

The essay that Suketu wrote for Granta earned him a book contract and a substantial advance -- he moved to India for several years -- but the point that Suketu keeps insisting on is that it all came out of the "colossal failure" of the work he had done in Bhopal. I could understand this but what I have often wondered about are those thousands of conversations that Suketu had for his book. After all, when it comes to people, there’s no happy teleology describing a path from failure to success. Thousands of conversations, thousands of streets or alleys, false signs, roads ending in places he thought he had been before, dead ends.

Amitava Kumar is the author of several works of non-fiction, including Husband of a Fanatic.