Suketu Mehta on the Positively Profound Impact of Immigration on the Planet
Suketu Mehta tells a story about pinkie fingers, dancing and kissing. It is as confounding as it sounds. And utterly heartbreaking, too. In his assertive and essential new book, This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto—as well as on this episode of Time Sensitive—he describes the scene: Friendship Park, a half-acre fence on the U.S.-Mexican border. A Mexican man living in the U.S., who hasn’t seen his mother in 17 years, and has been working hard to send money back to her all that time, at last reunites with her at that fateful fence. But because of its thick and rigid design, he can’t see her clearly. Through the holes in the fence, mother and son can only fit stick their pinkies, wagging them back and forth, gently touching, caressing, connecting—but only for a few moments. This small act serves as a greater metaphor about immigration, one with vast implications and consequences, and not just in America but around our world today.
Mehta, a Calcutta-born, New York–based journalist and N.Y.U. professor who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 2005 novel Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, is full of stories like this one. (The dancing, kissing pinkies, however, may be among his most gut-wrenching and tear-inducing tales.) As a reporter and writer, Mehta is slow and methodical in his approach, and it shows in his rich and varied body of work, which spans decades and is written with the elegance and grace of a poet. A sort of modern-day Walt Whitman, he has the rare ability to home in on deeply personal human stories and craft narratives around them that reveal larger truths about culture, politics, and society.
On this episode, Mehta speaks with Spencer Bailey about his challenging high school years as an Indian immigrant growing up in Queens, his belief in how the future of democracy “rests on storytelling,” and the importance of considering historical time frames when thinking about today’s contentious immigration debates.
Mehta and Bailey discuss the legendary Taj hotel in Mumbai as it connects to immigration and explore its influence both locally and globally.
Mehta looks back as his own immigrant experience, moving to Jackson Heights, Queens, at age 14.
Mehta opines on why heterogeneity is a positive for culture and society, explaining why a group of immigrants entering a new place can help lead to creativity, economic growth, and innovation.
Mehta shares his Gujarati parents’ immigration story, describing the impact that moving to the U.S. had on his family.
Mehta describes how he became a writer and journalist, including his studies at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and circuitous path thereafter.
Mehta and Bailey go deep into various parts of Mehta’s new book, This Land Is Our Land.
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SPENCER BAILEY: Today on the podcast, we have Suketu Mehta, author of the new book This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, as well as the 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. He’s a professor of journalism at N.Y.U. whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and elsewhere.
SUKETU MEHTA: Thank you so much for having me on.
SB: I’d like to open up this conversation about the Taj Hotel in Mumbai. It’ll be sort of circuitous way as to why I wanted to do that.
Having just read both of your books, I was immediately taken with a personal connection I have. One of my good friends has one of the more incredible immigrant stories I know of, and it connects to both of your books, as well as a Bombay institution, the Taj.
His name is Sam Bhadha. He was raised poor in Bombay, and his family had little means. His parents, though, put education first. He went to Saint Xavier’s, graduating in 1964. Early on in his career, he landed a prized apprenticeship at the Taj and went on to have a twenty-seven-year career there. By 1981, at age 32, he’d risen to become a resident manager at the Taj, also marrying a Taj receptionist, who is Parsi, like him. That year, on their honeymoon, in New York City, they went to check out a new property on Lexington Avenue that the Taj Group had taken over. So, in the lobby, he runs into his boss there. And his boss, who was a managing director at the Taj Group, was surprised to see him. Basically, partly, or maybe [as] a result of, this run-in, Sam gets invited to become the New York hotel’s general manager.
He would turn the loss-making property into one that was highly profitable. In 1989, he moved the family to London, where he did the same sort of turnaround with a hotel there, also owned by the Taj Group. In 1995, with the New York property lagging again, he came back.
He’s now retired and living in Houston, but had his career peak running several hotels. Had an apartment in 15 Central Park West. So, basically [he] went from [being] a poor kid in Bombay to an apartment in 15 Central Park West. It’s an extraordinary life and career and a testament to the power of the immigrant experience. I was just taken: “I have to tell this story to Suketu and see how he interprets that based on having written this book.“
SM: Right. Well, that story has many, many elements of the immigrant story in general and particularly the Bombay story. You mentioned he was Parsi, and the Parsis are—for those listeners who might not know, they are Zoroastrians. They are some of the last Zorastrians in the world, and around a thousand years ago, they came to the Gujarat coast of Western India, from Iran. And they sought shelter in Gujarat, so they lived in the state of Gujarat for many centuries—and I’m Gujarati—and then they moved to Bombay. They were really enterprising, so some of the most famous industrial conglomerates in India, like the Tatas, are run by Parsis. The singer Freddie Mercury, from Queen, was Parsi. Zubin Mehta, the conductor, is Parsi. They’re known as the Jews of India, because they’re very enterprising, very well-educated.
SB: The creator of the Taj.
SM: And the Taj, exactly. They started the Taj. They actually started Air India.
In Bombay, I grew up with Parsis, so it’s not surprising to anyone who knows Parsis, either in Bombay, Toronto, or New York. It does show a couple of things. The Taj has its own officer code for the whole Taj Hotel. It’s part of the Tata Companies. And they have this really interesting system of promoting their people from within, so you can go from running a Taj Hotel to working in a car factory to working in one of their retail stores. And so basically, what they do is they train their people really well to handle a variety of businesses.
But the fact that your friend Sam came from Bombay to New York and did really well also isn’t surprising, because New York is the Bombay-est city in North America. I spent seven years writing a book about Bombay, and I’m now on year ten of a book about New York City.
SM: I was born in Calcutta, but at the age of 6 I moved to Bombay, spent eight years there, and then ever since then have been living in New York. I went back to Bombay to write this book. I’ve lived in Paris. I’ve lived in São Paulo. I’ve lived in London. These are all great cities.
SB: Iowa City… [Laughs]
SM: The only two cities… Iowa City, too. Not a city at all, yup. But the only cities that I really wanted to feel that I can spend a decade of my life following and writing about are the two cities New York and Bombay.
SB: In your book Maximum City, about Bombay, you write about the Taj, and you point out that it was actually born out of a slight, because the man who created it [Jamsetji Tata]—and the man was a Parsi industrialist—was turned away from the door from another hotel, called Watson’s. You describe it as less a hotel than a proving ground for the ego.
SM: That story is a bit apocryphal and historical facts are a little unclear, but it’s a great story because the original story was that there was this Parsi man in the nineteenth century, and he was turned away from this hotel called Watson’s, which was the grandest hotel, because he wasn’t white. He said, “Damn it, I’m going to build the grandest hotel the empire has ever seen.” And he built the Taj. The old Taj, particularly, is this spectacular marvel of Victorian gothic architecture and, indeed, it’s become the symbol of Bombay. It’s right on the sea, by the gateway of India.
The Taj is where—they’ve got these toilets on the ground floor and theoretically anyone can walk in use the toilets. And they are really beautiful toilets. Anyone who’s been to Bombay knows, when you’ve got to go, there’s really no place to go. So you can clearly just walk in and use the toilets and uniformed attendants will give you the scented handkerchief to wipe your hands with. There are these marble sinks. It’s really a great place to go, but you need that inner confidence to go past the doorman, and then you realize that the most forbidden gatekeeper isn’t outside, it’s within yourself. That’s why I call the Taj less a building than a proving ground for the ego.
SB: It’s so interesting now in retrospect, looking at your new book, which is on immigration, and thinking about the Taj as a metaphor for immigration in some ways. I’m curious if you’ve thought about that connection [with] what’s been happening around the world with immigration right now and people being turned away from America and other borders. The Taj technically kind of has its own border.
SM: Well, the Taj, of course, it’s got this long and storied history, and maybe the reason it’s best known now to the world is that it was the site of these horrific terrorist attacks in November of 2008, where these Pakistani-trained terrorists came in from the sea and went into the Taj and the Oberoi Hotel—it was called the Trident by then—and massacred hundreds of people. People who were in their rooms, they were sitting and having dinner, men, women, children, indiscriminately they massacred people, because again they knew the symbolic value of the Taj. There were these spectacular television scenes. The hotel on fire, commandos trying to scale the hotel as these terrorists were going room by room and slaughtering people.
So, the Taj also… It was India’s 9/11, when it happened, and the country vowed that this would not happen again, and ever since then, India, too, has kind of closed off its borders. I was in India last week, and what I saw there was deeply troubling. India is behaving to its Bangladeshis and the Rohingya as the United States is behaving towards Mexicans and Salvadorians.
In my new book, I trace the origins of this—well, first of all, of the global migration. Today there is a quarter of a billion people, like myself, who were born in a country other than the one they are living in. And this is only slated to increase as climate change really takes effect. By the middle of the century, which is in a short thirty years, according to U.N. projections, over a billion people are going to have to leave their homes because of climate change. So, what’s happening is that, as more people are on the move, there’s also a global backlash against these migrants, in country after country, particularly the West.
SB: Yeah, and you mentioned the Mumbai attacks, which I definitely wanted to bring up. I was actually with Sam at his family’s house in Connecticut on Thanksgiving day, the day that that happened. So watching this man whose whole career had come up through that institution, it was pretty unfathomable and surreal to witness.
SM: Did you hear that famous story—which actually happens to be true—of what was going on in the Taj? So, a bunch of people were hiding in a private club, called The Chambers. And the terrorists were outside. They didn’t know that these people were inside. And they were in there for some days and some nights, and there was really nothing to drink except all this fancy booze that was in the refrigerators, in The Chambers.
So, one of the guests who had been in there was looking around for something to drink, and he reaches into the fridge and grabs a bottle of champagne—of Dom Pérignon. And one of the Taj stewards looks at this, sees this guest is stealing this bottle of champagne, comes up to him and says, “Sir, I’m sorry. You’re using the wrong glasses. Here, use these champagne flutes.” And he brings this exquisite crystal champagne flutes and pops it for him and serves it to him. That’s the reputation of the Taj.
SB: [Laughs] Oh, wow. You’ve written the city understands money and has no guilt about getting and spending of it, so clearly that’s happened.
SM: Oh, it’s an incredibly commercial city… Bombay came up as trading city. It’s a port city, like all these great port cities—New York, Amsterdam. Bombay, Mumbai is a city that’s devoted to the getting and spending of money, and it does this in this cheerful, open way. Anyone is welcome to come, as long as they have talent, ambition, drive, and either money or the willingness to make money.
SB: And this attack that you described… Like 9/11, it happened in such a condensed period of time. I’m curious what your thoughts are in terms of these condensed periods of time and how they impact culture. You also wrote, early in your career, about the Union Carbide explosion in India.
SM: So, I was in New York on 9/11, and I saw how the country changed. And there were people that were trying to make the city change. It did in some ways and didn’t in others. I’ve written about 26/11, of the fate in Bombay. I wrote about the Union Carbide gas disaster. I’ve written about, actually, a much earlier period of time that I wasn’t alive, which is the bloody Hindu Muslim riots of Partitian. I went fifty years later. 1947 was when India and Pakistan became independent of the British. And I went back in ’97 to the Punjab border, between the two countries, and I spoke to people on both sides who had massacred other people for belonging to the wrong religion. So they went back in time, and I went back in time with them as they evoked what those days were. And it was interesting, they… I’ve also spoken to Hindu Muslim rioters in Bombay in ’92–’93, when there was also a period of Hindu Muslim rioting.
And what they all say is they refer to those days as the days of madness, of junoon. So there’s a sense that when time is so compressed, and when everything happens so fast and there’s so much happening with such intensity, that it’s a crazy period. A mad period. It can not be comprehended by the rational mind. They themselves say, “We lost our minds in those two or three days.” That compression of time is equated with insanity, with madness.
SB: Hmm. Sort of like this podcast, I guess.
Well, it’s funny, because I was thinking about it and I’m like, “I have eight pages of notes here that I want to get through.” There’s so much to talk about. It’s not totally unlike a day in Bombay.
SM: That’s right. Yes. If you live time in a New York minute, in India you live it in a Bombay second.
SB: [Laughs] So, another thing that came up as I’m reading your books was this experience I had in a Paris taxi ride. It was in the fall of 2017. I was talking to this taxi driver who’s a Muslim man from India. He asked me where I was from. I told him the United States. He said, “I love America.” I said, “Really? Don’t you know who our President is?” He smiled, paused for around twenty, thirty seconds, and then he said, “Trump’s American, but he’s not America.” And I found it to be so prophetic and moving. I’ll never forget that experience.
SM: That is actually a very fine way to describe this man, the Orange Menace. He grew up in Queens, just like I did.
SB: Like this character in your book who tortured you.
SM: Exactly. There was a German-American bully.
SB: What was his name?
SM: Yes, the book went through a legal vetting and the lawyer was like, “Do you want to name him?” I said, “Oh, hell yeah, I want to name him! Why do you think I became a writer?” It’s the best form of revenge.
So, when I came to Jackson Heights, in the borough of Queens, in 1977, I was 14, fresh off the boat from Bombay. There was this incredibly racist all-boys Catholic high school—and it wasn’t that my school in Bombay was a picnic, but this was another order of violence. I was basically among the first minorities in this school. And on my second day in the school, this Irish kid with red hair and freckles comes up to me and says, “Lincoln should have never let them off the plantations!” And I said, “What does that have to do with me?”
SM: I was just the other. I went to school with boys whose fathers could have been Donald Trump. These were often working-class whites who were seeing the beginnings of this great immigration wave that now is all over New York—and Queens particularly. I mean, two out of three New Yorkers are immigrants, or their children. But these are people who were Irish, German, Italian, Polish, and their parents or grandparents were immigrants themselves. It’s often the story of American immigration: Last one in, shut the door, or pull up the ladder behind you.
SM: And I also wasn’t Christian. Subject to some incredible racists and violent bullying. Toward the end of my school year, though, by my senior year, we had a lunch table of the excluded. So, there was me, another Indian—as the cry went around the school, “Hey, Mehta, another hind-oo in school.” Turned out he wasn’t “hind-oo,” he was Jain, one of my best friends, Ashish. There was a Cuban who claimed his father was one of the Watergate burglars. There was a midget Irish angel-dust addict. There was the school’s only out boy, who was having an affair with the math teacher. There was an Indonesian obsessed with cars. And there was a “mysterious Oriental,” Kang. His mother would give him noodles every day for lunch, and he would eat his noodles in silence looking this way and that. So, we spread all kinds of rumors about Kang, “Hey, man don’t mess with Kang, he’s got this martial arts shit, like—”
SB: He’ll mess you up.
SM: “—he owns a black belt. He’s got this belt. It’s so secret you can’t even know its color.” So, people left the lunch table of “the excluded” alone, because they were afraid of the mysterious Oriental. He was the sweetest guy, couldn’t hurt a fly. He went to engineering school at Columbia. But, because of the stories we spread about him, we were safe. And that’s when I became aware of the power of storytelling.
SB: Right. Having grown up in Bombay, you were already used to this really diverse mix of backgrounds and religions…
SM: Yeah, Bombay prepared me to live in New York. The heterogeneity of India, of of a city like Bombay, really prepared me to live in the further of heterogeneity, and that’s why I think what we’re seeing around the world and the connections I make in both of my books, in Maximum City and in This Land is Our Land, and pretty much everything I write is: I really believe in difference, in heterogeneity. I think that’s how the species evolves. Natural selection is all about heterogeneity, in living with many different cultures and religions, not drawing fences and walls around your exclusive tribe or group. But around the world, this heterogeneity is under attack and the challenge is people withdraw into narrow naturalisms. Because it’s also true that, for many people, globalism hasn’t worked—for people in India, as in America.
In This Land [Is Our Land], I take a drive through industrial Pennsylvania, where I go into this industrial town, called Warren, Pennsylvania. This is a town, mostly white. There was a factory in the town, the Blair Company, which started making raincoats for American G.I.s during the war. And through the decades, it’s really declined and now it’s a ghost town. In the middle of the day, there’s young white men and women wandering around town hooked on opioids. There are very few jobs. For them, all of this wave of globalization, this mass movement across the world, it hasn’t worked.
SM: So, they’re angry. They’re outraged. And elites in places like New York know that these mobs are going to come for them with pitchforks. So they need to divert that anger away from themselves, and who better to find as scapegoats than the newest, the weakest—the immigrants?
SB: There’s an amazing story in your book of a town that is having an opposite experience, Schenectady, New York, where the mayor, in 2002, [realized] that there was this incredibly intelligent and industrious group of Guyanese living in Queens that could be convinced, potentially to build a community in Schenectady. He effectively recruited them and now there’s ten thousand Guyanese, twelve percent of Schenectady’s population, living there and thriving.
SM: Absolutely. Yeah, the mayor, of Polish immigrants. Schenectady was a down-on-its-luck town. GE was founded there, but then left and so there were no jobs. And here he realized he had to revitalize the city, and he started going to Richmond Hill in Queens and going to community meetings of people from Guyana, the South American nation, and saying, “Oh, ye Guyanese, come to Schenectady, the promised land.” He would drive them around himself in a bus and take them to his mother-in-law’s house for homemade Polish wine. In spite of that, they came. And now there’s ten thousand Guyanese. There’s a Guyanese cricket league. There is a Guyana Day. There are Guyanese shops and restaurants. All these cities, particularly in upstate New York, that are being revitalized by immigrants, often refugees. There are thousands of Bosnians in places like Utica. There are Bangladeshis and Bosnians in Hamtramck, in the middle of Detroit.
It’s not that this country is full. Trump once said, “Our country is full. We don’t want any more people.” That is not true. These are huge empty countries, and there are cities where we paying $50,000 per house to knock it down. Instead, what would happen if we gave it to an immigrant family for a dollar on the condition that they fix it up? It’s the same story in Europe. Anyone who has been to East Germany knows how empty those cities are. Basically, we need warm bodies for cold countries.
SM: And there are ways in which this migration flow can be intelligently managed, so that you put these people where they are needed and where they can work.
SB: Mmm. I want to circle back to your immigration story. Toward the end of This Land Is Our Land, there is an incredible story you tell about your mother that I was hoping you could relay on this podcast. It was a story that she only told you later in her life, about your birth.
SM: Yeah, so I was in my forties and my parents were living in Ridgewood, New Jersey. We had moved on up, as immigrants do. We went from Jackson Heights [in Queens] to the mostly white suburb of Ridgewood. We were driving towards the George Washington Bridge, and then my mother was telling me this story. I think the discussion was something about car accidents. She told me she had been in a car accident when she was in college. She was an undergraduate in the very prestigious Sophia College in Bombay, which was like the Vassar of its time in Bombay.
She had moved there from Kenya—from Nairobi, where she had grown up—to go to college and was engaged to my father, and had been married by the time of her final year and was about to give the final exams. She was a star student in philosophy and French, and she was a few months pregnant with me. She was in a taxi with two of her best friends, and she was seated by the window. The taxi pulls into a gas station and one of her friends, Batara, says to my mom, “You sit in the middle.” My mom says, “So you get the window seat?” She says, “No, you’re pregnant. I want you to be in the middle.”
My mom, grumbling, sits in the middle. The taxi pulls out of the gas station, and a drunk driver slams into the taxi—almost totals it. Her friends are hurt. My mother, miraculously, is shaken up, but not really hurt beyond some surface bruises. She goes to the doctor. Turns out the fetus within her, which grew up to be me, is fine. And then she asks the doctor, she says, “Well, I’ve got to give my final exam in a few weeks—and the exam is in Bombay; you sit there for three days, and it’s very grueling.” And the doctor says, “If it were my own sister, I would advise her not to take the exam, especially after what you’ve been through.”
So my mom never gave the exam. She never became Usha Mehta B.A. She went to Calcutta. She had me and by [that] time, she got very involved in raising the baby, and so all these years later, I said to my mother, “You never finished your college degree? You don’t have a bachelor of arts?” And she says, “Yeah, but it was worth it, because I got you.” And I was so moved. This is the ordinary sacrifice that every immigrant makes.
SM: These are ordinary heroes. My mother is an ordinary hero. She made the sacrifice, so that I could have a college degree and get a master’s degree. I’ve got two sons. One of them just got a college degree. The other is about to get his college degree. And it just shows the ordinary sacrifices that parents all over the world make. Any one of us would willingly throw ourselves in front of a train for the sake of our kids. This is ordinary heroism.
SB: And your father, of course, coming from a Gujarati family of diamond merchants, he decided to move here, really, for money. You describe that voyage, that flight, in such a beautiful way in Maximum City. You write, “I traveled, in twenty-four hours, between childhood and adulthood, between innocence and knowledge, between predestination and chaos,” describing it as “that central event, that fulcrum of time.” Tell me about that transfer for you, especially in retrospect—you’ve been a citizen for thirty years in the U.S. now and you’ve been here in the U.S. for forty years.
SM: It changed everything in my life. I think each person might be able to identify one really central event in one’s life, and there might be more than one, but I think if really you were to think about your own life, there’s one event that changes everything. For some, it could be meeting a mate; for another, it could be childhood abuse; for someone else, it could be an accident or a job. For me, it was, at the age of 14, when I hadn’t finished growing up in one country, and I was never well in my skin in the country I had moved to. That fulcrum of time—at 14, that plane journey I took with my parents, and my sisters—changed everything.
In Maximum City, I did write that my father came here not because he was being persecuted. He came here to make more money, to expand the family diamond business. And when my father read that passage in Maximum City, he was furious. He said, “You must take this line out. I did not come to America to make more money. I came here because of Chuck Berry and Bill Haley & the Comets.”
I said, “What?” He said, “Yes, well, when I was in St. Xavier’s College in Calcutta, in the 1950s, we started hearing this music, this great rockabilly sound. We were all gyrating like Elvis, and the Jesuit fathers of St. Xavier’s banned this music.” And I said, “I must go to the country which produces such great music, which I can dance to.” He had this resolve that someday he would grow up and go to America.
Then he started coming here on business trips, and he went to Disneyland once and said, “I must bring my children here.” He came to America for its pop culture and for Disneyland. He said, “Put that in the book.” I said, “I’m not sure that’s going to make you look much better, but what the hell.” Point taken.
SB: [Laughs] Well, it shows the depth of what the immigrant experience truly is. Yeah, on the surface, maybe it’s really about money, but underlying it, it’s Chuck Berry.
SM: Absolutely. Look, many people come to America for this “barbaric yawp” of the country, as Walt Whitman said. For its rebel culture. People all around the world who are really just told by their college professors, “No, you can’t do that,” they think, This is the one country where, yeah, you can do that. You can do anything. America symbolizes freedom for so much of the world.
And this is also the call of the city. I saw this in Maximum City. People coming from the villages, young people, particularly, who would come to Bombay, because that’s where they might see a Bollywood actor. They might see Shahrukh Khan on the streets. They already familiarized themselves with streets of Bombay with the sea at Nariman Point, because they watched they’ve watched it all in the Bombay movies [such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai]. So, when they step off the train, when the runaway from distant Bihar [state of India] comes to VT Station and steps off the train, he’s already living in a city which he knows, because every night, he’s gone to the movies and dreamt about it.
When they come there, the city—worldwide for people, for young people, particularly—symbolizes a place where you can marry the person of your choice, where you can actually have a rags-to-riches story. You’ve stepped off the train as a runaway, and someday you might be a billionaire. At least there’s economic possibility, even though it’s not realized for most people. Above all, it’s the call of freedom. Moving to the city isn’t just about money. It’s also metropolitan excitement, and the sense that your destiny is in your own hands, and in a country like India, where most young people in the villages are told, “Your destiny has been shaped by everything you’ve done in all your previous births,” the city is an incredibly liberating experience.
SB: Here, you had the freedom to really pursue your career as a writer. You went to N.Y.U., where you now teach, and also attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for your M.F.A., which you have jokingly referred to as the Iowa’s Waiters’ Workshop—I liked that.
SM: If you change one letter in the Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, it becomes the Iowa’s Waiters’ Workshop. An appellation far more indicative of eventual fate of most of its graduates.
SM: But, I did love Iowa, and I loved Iowa City. I loved going from Jackson Heights to Iowa City, from the most diverse neighborhood in the country to the home of the world’s biggest pig. I remember when I saw that hog at the Iowa State Fair, I’d never seen such a large living thing in my life. It practically had its own zip code.
SM: Then there were these little 4-H kids, these farm kids raising this giant pig from piglet-hood to its present mass. It was very touching and really exotic to me.
SB: I noted that you later moved back to Iowa City after having lived in Paris.
SM: That’s right. I was on the Ile St. Louis in Paris, and I had this fabulous computer job with McGraw-Hill. Right after I got out of the writers’ workshop, I didn’t know what to do, so I took the first job that came along. My dream—
SB: Computer Reseller News, I think, right?
SM: Before that there was a magazine called LAN Magazine, L-A-N. When I saw the ad, I thought it was a misprint, that it was actually Land Magazine, and I went into the interview prepared to talk about real estate and land. In the interview, I spoke in length about my interest in real estate, and the guy finally says, “That’s great. We appreciate you like real estate, but you realize we have nothing to do with real estate. What do you know about computers?” I said, “Oh, I’ve always been fascinated with computers.”
I began my writing life as a humor columnist. I was “Dear Aunt Lannie” for LAN Magazine. I made up the questions and the answers. I had all these stupid computer puns. I knew nothing about computers, but because I’m Indian they assumed it was in my blood. And I found myself working for a magazine called Computer Reseller News, which was the National Enquirer of the computer world. I had to speak to computer dealers. And then I found myself in Paris at this amazing job, at McGraw-Hill, working for a magazine called Data Communications International, which bored me senseless, and Paris was too beautiful to write about large corporate data networks, so I gave it up, started writing love stories, and then moved back to Iowa City for a year, just so that I could get back to fiction.
Time is circular.
SB: Yeah. [Laughs]
SM: And actually, in Hindu mythology, time isn’t an arrow, it’s a circle. So, right now I’m teaching at NYU, where I was an undergraduate. When I went to Bombay, I went back to live in the same building that I’d grown up in. And now, for my New York book, I’m actually planning to move back to Jackson Heights for a couple of years, ideally to the same building I grew up in, to see what it’s like now.
Cities are layered, like memory, with all these civilizations, so New York City for me… Part of it is the city I came to in the 1970s—this broke, bankrupt, criminal city. Then the city of my undergraduate days, when I went to N.Y.U. and majored in Greenwich Village. And then it’s New York of the ’90, when I had two children in the East Village. And now, the city where I am living in some style in N.Y.U. faculty housing in Greenwich Village, and I made it as a writer.
When I explore the city, I go back through these different layers of the city—the renaissance, baroque, gothic, futurist layers of my personal New York—and it’s just fascinating walking on a street, and then suddenly a memory mine, an explosion of memory… I walked on this street when I was 18, and I was in love with this girl here, and I’ll always avoid that other block of Greenwich Village, because that’s where I broke up with her and it’s associated with pain for me. When we walk around cities, each city is mapped with these memories.
SM: I always thought it would be an interesting app. For example, let’s say you’re going on a first date with someone, and you want her to know about your city, so if you could have these pins that you drop on a personal map—these personal emotional pins of where you had your first fight, where you said goodbye to your mother. [This way] she knows the city through this very personal map. She knows your city.
SB: It’s like a living memorial or something.
SM: Exactly, right. So each of us has our own personally mapped city.
SB: I’m curious about how and when you decided to become a writer. Was that something that took place while you were here in New York?
SM: I had no idea that anyone could just be a writer. I grew up in a family of diamond merchants, and so right after college my parents forced me to work in the wholesale diamond business on 47th Street, where there were Indian Jains and the Jews that loved them. There were very few Christians in the wholesale diamond business. I was a terrible diamond merchant. Once, my father brought home a parcel of these very small diamonds for me to sort out, and I spilled the parcel of diamonds on a shag carpet. I spent the next three days picking the shiny little stones out of the carpet.
But nothing goes to waste in a writer’s life, because years later, the filmmaker Mira Nair said she was writing a vignette for a movie called New York, I Love You. She said she wanted a cross-cultural love story, and I said, “I’ve got one for you.” I wrote the first—and so far, only—Hasidic-Jain love story set in the diamond business, starring Natalie Portman and Irfan Khan. It’s one of the little stories in the movie New York, I Love You. And it was all based on my experiences in the diamond market. As I would speculate idly.
You know, the only thing that the Jews and the Jains have in common is the orthodoxy, so what if they got it on? And such is the magic of the movies that I could write the script and basically their love talk—Natalie Portman plays this Hasidic woman who’s about to get married; Irfan Khan is this giant diamond merchant. Their love talk is, what can’t you eat? There’s this wonderful wedding sequence.
So, for a long time, I worked in computer magazines. I was in the diamond business. I backpacked around India. And this is the education writers need.
SM: I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when I was very young, and maybe I was a little too young, but it was the first place where I’d seen people who took writing seriously. Then I came back out into the world and had all these experiences. I always thought I’d write fiction and, in fact, I have written fiction. I started a novel, which I’d like to get back to. Along the way, the possibilities of nonfiction really excited me.
SB: Yeah, and I think it’s worth noting, you won the O. Henry Prize for your short story “Gare du Nord,” which was published in Harper’s in ’97.
SM: Right. That’s right. I won a Whiting Award. I’ve sold a novel called Alphabet. It’s a tale told by a fetus. It’s still gestating. I want to finish it after I do my New York book. But I don’t think… It’s all about storytelling, right? There’s not that many stories, there’s not that many writers who can do both well. Orwell comes to mind. [V.S.] Naipaul comes to mind. But basically people tend to stick to their lane—either fiction or nonfiction. I like to do both.
SB: You’ve written—this was in the Guardian just a few months ago—that to be a journalist, read more poetry.
SM: Oh, absolutely. It’s what I tell my students. On the first day of my NYU classes, I take my students to the Staten Island Ferry, and as we’re approaching Manhattan, I have them all read out the great Walt Whitman poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is the greatest poem ever written about cities. So here are all my journalism students, and they’re reading poetry, and some of them ask, “What are we doing reading poetry in a journalism class?” Well, Whitman was a journalist, of course, as well as a poet. He edited the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is a masterpiece of accumulating detail, all the things that he sees on the river. On just basically a daily commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan, in the service of a larger narrative, which is really about the individual soul’s union with all of creation. It’s part of Leaves of Grass, which, when Emerson first read it, he called Leaves of Grass “a curious combination of the Bhagavad Gita and the New York Herald.” Much of it was occasioned by Whitman’s reading of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, these other Hindu texts.
No one uses the language like poets. And I tell my journalism students—and these are long-form journalists, not TV journalists—I tell them, “If you really want to know how to use the language well, then read more poetry.” Ultimately, the reader of a magazine article or a book is entitled not just to information, but also to pleasure. The pleasure of a well-researched story, well told. And actually, the future of democracy rests on storytelling. What we’re seeing around the world right now, by these populists, whether it’s Trump in the U.S., or Modi in India, or Duterte in the Philippines, Putin in Russia, Erdoğan in Turkey, Bolsonaro in Brazil, these are all gifted storytellers. They’re telling false stories well. The only way to defeat a populist is by telling a true story better.
This is why journalists [and] writers are under attack all over the world by these populists. I was just in India, and I faced the most hostile audience I’ve ever faced when I gave a talk about immigration to an audience just filled with the people in the Modi government. Because we [journalists and writers] can tell a true story better. We can martial all the elements of storytelling—the research, the information—and tell it in sentences which give pleasure. This is why we’re under attack, and this is why our role is central in fighting the populists.
SB: And told simply.
SM: And told simply. Absolutely. Economy—this is what Hemingway taught me. Say it simpler.
SB: I was reading the piece you wrote for Condé Nast Traveller India a couple of years ago, on Japan, and it was striking me, in so many ways, that Japan is one of the most poetic places on earth. I have a little bit of text here that I wanted to read, because I thought it was really an astute observation about the current moment we’re in and why thinking about Japan is so relevant. You wrote, “I believed that very few other cultures have as deep an appreciation of—indeed, an obsession with—beauty. I go to Japan with a simple question: why do its people care so much about the little things, at a time when huge questions have consumed the world: climate change, terrorism, xenophobia? Why and how do they lavish so much attention on the details?”
SM: Absolutely. I have Japan in a box on my coffee table. There’s a little wooden box, and if you open it, it contains these exquisitely carved toothpicks. There’s a store in Tokyo where [there’s] this guy who sits there all day long, chopping up this wood into these beautiful toothpicks. Their decorated, so you can see a little bit of the calligraphy on each toothpick, and I show this box to my guests and say, “Look, this is a culture where even the toothpick is sacred.” And they pick up the toothpick, and I say, “Don’t you dare pick your teeth with that work of art.”
That, to me, was the marvel of that country, that often I think we should… The world has become too huge for us. It can give you nightmares with these massive things that are happening. We should be thinking about them. But there’s also a time when we should switch off and open a box of toothpicks and just look at it. Or take a walk. I remember when I was living in Paris on the Ile St. Louis, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world, I’d notice that they’d have these windows, which would open on the outside and they’d tie the windows, the shutters, to the outside of the walls with these little knobs. They were these little, I guess, iron knobs, and each knob—it was this round knob—had a face carved into it. So someone had bothered to go around these knobs, which most people would never even notice, and put a little face on each of these knobs.
I’d often go around and look at each different face, because each… There were too few of these knobs to be mass-produced, but each knob was individually carved with this face. And I’d go around looking at all these different faces. It’s that attention to detail that cultures like the French and Japanese really have, and it’s incredibly calming and de-stressing when we focus on the little things.
SB: Yeah, of course. I think, in This Land Is Our Land, there’s obviously a lot of correlation to this idea. The importance of paying attention to the small things and understanding how they reflect something much, much larger. I think, even just talking about Japan, we can think about it being a powerful—but geographically small—nation, literally islands that because of the limitations of the amount of land, because of cultural traditions, respect for nature, all these different elements to that culture there, it serves as a microcosm for understanding what the possibilities are in a place like, say, America, which is massive and where we don’t respect the land so much.
SM: Japan definitely respects the land. It does not respect immigrants. Under four percent of the Japanese population is foreign-born. Its economy is really suffering because they haven’t let in enough migrants. They need people. It’s a rapidly aging country, and they’re not making enough babies to replace the people who are dying or aging. As people all around the world live longer, they need immigrants to do the work. The one thing in my book that really—the little thing that symbolizes the big picture, and this is something that I always look for as a writer: I like to look at the little story that tells the big story. And the littlest story in my book is the pinky finger.
There’s a part about the pinky that, I think, tells the story about the whole idiocy and stupidity and callousness of the restrictions against immigration. There’s a place called Friendship Park on the U.S.-Mexican border. It’s right below San Diego, and on the other side is the Mexican city of Tijuana. There is a little stretch of land right where this giant wall ends in the Pacific, right by the sea, where, under the Nixon Administration, people who are on the American side of the border, but either are undocumented or only have a work authorization—they can’t leave the country—they can go to this park, and on weekends, for ten minutes at a time, meet their families who are on the other side of this fence. There’s a fence there now. It’s a thick, ugly, industrial, mesh, metal fence. And it used to be, in years past, that there were just these bollards so that you could go and you could hug your families. Or there was even a part where you could sit down and have a picnic with your family on the other side.
Now, that’s all gone. You can’t touch your family. You can just put up your face to the fence. And I stayed there for two weeks, and I watched some of the most moving family reunions I’ve ever seen. There was a Mexican man who hadn’t met his mother for seventeen years, and he had been working hard here to send money back to his mother. So he goes up there, Mom comes up on the other side of the fence, she puts her face up to the fence. He can’t really see her face clearly, just because of the holes in the fence are so small. He puts up his face, but he can smell her. He can feel her breath, and he says to his mom, “I miss you.” And she says, “I love you. Have you been eating right? How are you?”
He puts up his pinky finger to the fence, to the hole in the fence, she puts up her pinky finger, and they do what is called “the dance of the pinkies.” So their pinky fingers touch. That’s the only part of their bodies that the holes in the fence will allow to touch. And all along the fence, there are all these families, mothers and sons, husbands and wives, siblings, best friends, putting up their pinky fingers and the dance of the pinkies—the kiss of the pinkies.
This was some of the most harrowing reporting I’ve done in my career. Seeing the arbitrary and stupid rules that bureaucrats make. The incredible longing for human beings to establish connection with family. If you’ve ever felt a rupture, a break with someone in your own family, and you haven’t spoken to a brother or a parent for a long time, go to Friendship Park and see what happens when there is a state which puts itself between you and your brother, your mother, your child, and see what happens when there is a larger force which deprives your family. The human yearning to connect with something so small as the kiss of a pinky.
SB: Right. I think the pinky is a great metaphor for understanding your book. I came away from it so emotional. So many different moments in the book really struck me. I’m a native of Colorado, born and raised in Denver. The section where you were writing about the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits, and Settlement between the United States of America, and the Mexican Republic, as it’s called, was really shocking. This connects back to other elements in the book, where you’re talking about our lack of historical awareness, and maybe we’ll get to touch on that for a second, but In 1848, Mexico was forced to cede half of its territory to the northern neighbor, and that included most of what is California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma. You write, “‘Take back your country’ is a slogan that could therefore equally be adopted by Latinos, as well as whites.”
SM: Exactly. They often say, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”
SM: A lot of my book is just going back in time. It is really about time. My book opens with an anecdote my grandfather once told me. My grandfather had been born in India when the British still ruled it, and then he moved to Kenya to work under British-ruled Kenya. Then he retired in Britain, where his son was living. He was sitting in a park in North London—this was in the 1990s, just minding his own business—and this elderly British gent comes up to him and wags a finger at him and says, “Why are you here? Why don’t you go back to your country?” And my grandfather says, “Because we are the creditors.”
SM: “You came to my country. You took all my gold and my diamonds. You prevented my industries from developing. So we’ve come to collect. We are here, because you were there.” The historical facts bear him out. When the British came to India, India’s GDP at the time was fully one quarter of the world’s GDP. By the time the British left, two-hundred years later, India’s GDP was four percent of the world’s GDP. The empire had been run to serve the British, and it was the same thing with the French, the Portuguese, the Spanish. During the colonial period, Europe’s share of world GDP went from twenty percent to sixty percent. Europe didn’t develop the colonies; the colonies developed Europe.
When we’re looking at migration, I think it’s very important to have the sense of historical time. All these people who are moving here—all these Salvadorians, Hondurans, Guatemalans, who are coming to our border—why are they coming here? It’s not because they hate their homes, or their families, or their language, or their food, or their trees. They’re coming because the West has left them no choice. Because, through colonialism, corporate colonialism, war, and climate change, the rich countries have stolen their future of the poor countries. These people are coming here because we were there.
At one point one American company, the United Fruit Company, owned forty-two percent of all the land in Guatemala. Every time there was some kind of liberal democratic opposition to the dictators and the land owners in these countries, the United States sent in its forces and Marines to topple these democratically elected leaders and install people that American corporations could control. We flooded these countries with guns. Seventy-five percent of all guns in Mexico come from the United States. Ninety-eight percent of all the guns in the Bahamas come from the United States.
We made life in these countries so unbearable that they have no choice but to move. It’s the same thing with climate. We Americans are four percent of the global population, but we put one third of the excess carbon in the atmosphere, and Europe has put another one quarter of the carbon in the atmosphere. As a result, temperatures in India this year were 123 degrees Fahrenheit. By the end of the century, huge parts of Northern India and Bangladesh will be literally unlivable. You won’t be able to go outside for more than a few hours without roasting to death. These people are going to move, and where are they going to move? Well, by rights, they should move to the countries that have the largest share in creating the problems.
SM: My book is, in many ways, an angry book—it’s also told in sadness and anger—but it’s got a happy ending, because when people move, everyone benefits. You have Guyanese people revitalizing Schenectady. You’ve got my rockabilly-loving father coming to New York and working the diamond business and raising a family.
SB: It’s interesting. I think this line, this “They are here because you were there” is so profound. I was curious what your thoughts are on this notion of hypocrisy as it relates to wealth and income. Anand Giridharadas, his book, Winners Take All, is very much about that subject and has stirred an entirely new conversation, I think, around it. In the last three decades, you point out in your book, zero income growth in the bottom fifty percent of American households, but at the top one percent, their incomes grew three-hundred percent and now represent forty percent of the country’s wealth.
SM: Absolutely. I’ve been attacked by lots of people for my book, and the columns I’ve been writing since, and many of them make this ridiculous assumption that I’m anti-white. Nothing to be further from the truth. The immigration debate shouldn’t be a contest between working-class whites and immigrants. They are not their natural antagonists. They, in fact, have much more in common than their differences. But working-class whites in places like Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, they’ve been sold a certain kind of narrative, that the reason that they don’t have jobs, the reason that their kids are hooked on opioids, is the poor Mexican or Honduran mother who’s trying to come across the border with her children. The reason they don’t have jobs is not them. It’s not those immigrants. It’s the elites in this country. It’s the .01 percent who had, because of American taxation policies, an enormous and growing share of wealth that the country generates.
But the elites, being no fools, know how to divert the rage of these working-class whites. When Trump started running, there were all these “Never Trumpers”—these were the country club Republicans who looked down upon him as déclassé—but, as soon as he got into power, what does he do? He passes the greatest corporate tax cut in history. And all the elites suddenly are his friends. They’re now all now lined up, because he’s doing their bidding.
In my book, I call it—Hannah Arendt came up with this term—the “alliance between the mob and capital.” So, we’ve seen this in country after country. As the working classes of this country—whether it’s in Poland, or Hungary, or England—as they get angry that they’ve been left out of wealth creation, their anger is channeled towards migrants. It’s the same thing in Europe. Look at Brexit. The biggest “own goal” in British history caused principally by fear of migrants. There were all these depictions of these hordes of brown people coming into Britain, and the Brexiteers got people in England by a slim majority to basically commit hara-kiri. The whole of the United Kingdom is about to break up. Scotland wants to go its own way, Ireland wants to go its own way, based on an imagined fear of migrants. And the people who voted for Brexit, just like the people who are most susceptible to this kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the United States, are the people who have the least lived experience of immigrants. These are the people who are not likely to see an immigrant in their day-to-day life. They hear about them on Fox News. They hear Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham depict this “horde of Latinos” coming here.
SB: Have they invited you on their show yet?
SM: I would love to be on Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham. I really am just waiting for the opportunity. It hasn’t come about yet.
SB: [Laughs] In your book, you also point out companies are part of this, too. You write that “corporate colonialism is the new colonialism.” I’m curious who you think some of those worst offenders are. We mentioned Union Carbide earlier, but I’m also thinking about a recent story I read about Apple mining gold from Colombia.
SM: Some of the mining companies are the worst in the world. I met a little family from the African nation of Guinea who were trying to cross the Mediterranean in basically a little beach dinghy, smaller than even a lifeboat. They had a newborn baby, and I was really concerned about the baby. Guinea has an enormous share of the world’s bauxite. It’s the largest producer of bauxite, which is, believe it or not, essential in our day-to-day lives. There’s one hedge fund, called the Och-Ziff Company [now Sculptor Capital Management], which owns an enormous stake in Guinea, and has actually had to pay massive fines for corrupt practices in Africa. Well, the head of this company [Daniel Och] has not one but two giant apartments in Manhattan, and another top executive bought a nine-hundred-acre estate in the English countryside.
The bulk of the profits made by multinationals in Africa don’t stay in Africa. They go out of the continent and into these tax havens. These companies have created a system of tax havens where they can go into these countries, corrupt the local elites. If you go into any of these African countries and you go to the Sheraton, or the Hilton, you notice a group of men huddling around a table with scotch. There will be one or two white guys who’ve flown in from London or New York and then the local generals or oligarchs, and they are plotting how to divvy up the country’s natural resources among themselves.
I saw this happen in India with Union Carbide, which is an American company, which went into the Indian city of Bhopal, built a pesticide plant, and cut costs by shutting off its refrigeration mechanisms for the plant. There was a giant explosion. Over ten thousand people were killed. Hundreds of thousands of people were maimed for life, and because Union Carbide was a multinational, it chopped off its Indian arm. It just pulled out of India altogether and continued making money around the rest of the world, and then ultimately sold itself to the Dow Chemical Company, which now has the responsibility for that fight in Bhopal, which is still a mess. It’s still hasn’t been cleaned up, and there are people who are still suffering from genetic defects in the Indian city of Bhopal. Do you know how much they got? If you were blinded for life, you got $500. This is the structure of a multinational now. It’s replaced the old colonial powers, because a multinational can go into any country that it wants to, do what it does, and then get out of there when the heat is on.
SB: So let’s finish with hope. [Laughs]
Do you see any countries that are handling immigration in a way that you might find forward-thinking or emblematic of what the potential could be?
SM: I think Canada is doing a pretty decent job. I was just in Toronto. If anything, it’s even more multicultural than New York. Of course, Canada has a points system, so it will only take in skilled migrants, and I think countries need skilled as well as unskilled migrants. But there seems to be a consensus across the political spectrum in Canada, except for one nativist party, that the country needs immigrants, that it needs warm bodies for a cold country. They have this system of provincial visas, where an employer can hire a bunch of people to live in, let’s say, frozen Saskatchewan, and they can live there for a few years, work for that company, and then get a permit to live in the rest of the country. There are ways to do these migration flows intelligently.
Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the immigrants themselves. My book ends on this note of hope about America: In that dreaded year, 2016, when Trump got elected, my brother-in-law, Jay Chaudhuri, who worked for the state treasurer and had never run for political office, he calls me up and says, “I want to run for state senate.” I said, “What, in the deep South, you brown man. You’re going to run for Senate? Are you out of your mind? How are you going to support my sister?” He said, “No, no. I think I’ve got a shot.” And because he’s family, I went down to campaign for him. He was running in a district that is over ninety percent white.
His opponent was a gent with the fine old Southern name of Ellis Hankins. He was the president of the League of North Carolina Municipalities. And there was my Bengali-American brother-in-law, who had to train his own campaign staff in how to pronounce his last name. I went down there to campaign for him. My two sons went down to campaign for him. And he started knocking on doors. Jay knocked on ten thousand doors. This was the South, so there were people who were welcoming and asked us in for pie and coffee. But also my younger son had a gun pulled on him. I had a dog set on me, although it was a small dog, a poodle named Chewie, but a vicious poodle. Together he’d knocked on ten thousand doors, and he spoke to these people about what mattered to them, which was about schools and how the Republicans had defunded the North Carolina public schools. There was this man coming to their door through rainstorms and blizzards and talking to them about what mattered. And you know what? He got elected in a landslide, and Jay Chaudhuri today is the first Indian-American state senator in North Carolina history. He’s also now the Democratic whip. The leader of the Democrats in the senate.
SB: Wow. Amazing.
SM: All politics is local. All politics is personal. That really gave me hope about this country and the role of immigrants.
SB: Yeah, I wanted to end on a few figures about America that are in your book, because I think that his story is very telling about where things are going. 2013 was the first time half the babies in America under age 1 were non-white. By 2044, this is the year when America projects to stop being a majority white nation. By 2060, twenty-eight percent of the U.S. will be Hispanic. By 2065, there will be 107 million Latinos, one in every five Americans. At the same time, the Asian population is growing at 3.4 percent a year. These are incredible figures that I think showcase that we are going to be better the more diverse, the more rich, the more we’re open to immigration.
SM: And we always have been. E pluribus unum. During the age of mass migration, fully one quarter of Europe up and moved to the U.S.. And we were hearing the same fears then: “How is America going to do with all these Italians?” “Irish, they don’t belong here.” There was a whole political party called the Know Nothing Party, which was set up to fight Catholics coming into the country.
In the 1700s, a gent named Benjamin Franklin started railing against a group of “aliens” who were coming into the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and said, “They will never assimilate. They will never speak our language. They should be kept out.” He was talking about Germans, the ancestors of the current President. So, mass migration has always been a fact of life for all of our history as a species. This whole system of borders and passports and visas is only about a hundred years old. We have to keep the time frame in mind. This is new, this backlash against migrants. When people move, it’s a good thing for the planet earth. Our home, we all live in a palace. It’s called Earth.
SB: Let’s end there. That’s great. Thanks, Suketu. It was great to have you here today.
SM: So wonderful to be on. Thank you so much.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Oct. 8, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. This episode was produced by our director of strategy and operations, Emily Queen, and sound engineer Pat McCusker.