September 6, 2016
Jorge Luis Borges had once said, roughly, that there was no idea so big that he could not convey through a short story. He was explaining why he never wrote a novel. Suketu Mehta needs no such explanation for his story What Is Remembered, but the conceit contained in this story hammers at the boundaries created by its 14,000-and-odd words, clamouring to be allowed to expand into a larger narrative.
I cannot reveal that conceit. That wouldn’t just be a spoiler, it would kill the need to read this story.
A work of fiction by Mehta, who is still remembered and revered for his Bombay book Maximum City, the title having become a descriptor of the metropolis, is obviously something of an event. Publishing it is, arguably, a minor coup (more so since Juggernaut Books, which is looking to turn conventional publishing upside down with its app, has convinced Mehta to let it debut as a digital edition alone). Expectations are high, and, let it be said, the breathless prose, so American in its energy, doesn’t let you down.
But this is a fiction of ideas, much as Borges’ fiction was a masterful display of playing a game with an idea. Unlike the Argentinian, though, Mehta does not tease his theme, he unravels it with the relentlessness of a man on a mission. Mahesh, the Indian migrant to the US through whose mind the story is told, has forgotten almost everything about his past in his homeland – including, how irresponsible is that, really, his mother’s name.
This in itself would not be such a disaster; he always referred to his mother and thought of her as ‘Mummy’ but what was distressing was that since forgetting his mother’s name, he was gradually forgetting other things about his family too – such as his father’s occupation, where his grandparents lived, the correct term for his maternal uncle, his caste.
This is told early enough in the story for it not to be the sort of revelation that can make the reader lose interest. But what comes afterwards is a breakneck ride over a dream-like landscape – even though the physical setting is Jaikishan Height, NY, NY – on the magic carpet of fragmented memory, woven with the uneasiness of the immigrant.
An Indian (all Indians?) in the US
Mahesh is a shadowy figure, deliberately given no character traits that can be used to pin him down. Perhaps he is meant to be the archetypal Indian in the US – Mehta, who teaches at New York University, must have met enough of them to be able to construct a composite.
The immigrant experience, is of course, routine fodder in the hands of Indian writers in America. The sense of uneasiness at the possibility of reading yet another one is quickly dispelled, though. Mahesh is a solitary figure, the other aspects of his life being extraneous to the telling of this story.
However, the immigrant’s relationship with his birthplace, clichéd as it might be as a literary theme, is indeed at the heart of this story. Still, what Mehta does is to deny the tyranny of one definitive narrative. In fact, he shows that truth is a matter of probability, and that all possibilities exist.
Remembrance of things past, present or perhaps future
Mahesh rides his memory, real or imagined, individual or archetypal, dune-bashing his way through the past, remembering events and characters that seem drawn as much from life – perhaps many people’s – as from the writer’s frenzied imagination. And this is where the lines are blurred between the plausible and the fantastic.
Is there more of the writer’s creativity here than the constraints of actual lived lives allows? Are some of the memories fiction within fiction? Are all? Possibly, and yet, it does not matter. For by refusing to give Mahesh a clear identity besides his Gujarati surname Desai, which evokes recognition somewhere, Mehta opens the door to every tendril of truth, every figment of imagination.
The trouble, though, is that there is no pattern to the amalgamation of these back stories, nothing that adds up to something greater than the sum of the parts at the end. The point with which this story almost ends is almost obvious, and less than worthy of the richness of the themes it explores. There is, however, a tiny twist that is strangely satisfying in the way it symbolises the relationship between what we can imagine and what we can finally accept.
No matter. There are delicious tales in here, evoking the reader’s own memories, past or future, of other writers from the world’s literatures, intoxicating cocktails of personal and political history, of philosophy and logic, of family intrigue and loneliness. Oh, and a cameo by Nylex Nalini, in an unexpected role.