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09.09.2016

Halfway through Suketu Mehta’s new novella, this sentence appears: “Jaggery, turmeric, asafoetida, cardamom, and neem leaves: these are the flavorings with which you must make the dal that will make me young again.” If you love the sound of this, please read What Is Remembered, which was published this Tuesday with just an elephant short of a fanfare. If you react with anything other than delight, we recommend you don’t go anywhere near the story.

What Is Remembered is the tale of an Indian "exile" in New York who has a series of metaphysical encounters as he attempts to remember the name of the mother he left behind in his country of birth. It features Indian newbies trying to bribe US Customs with mangoes; an accent in which Queens’ famous immigrant neighbourhood becomes “Jaikisan Heights”; and tall tales from an ancestral repository. All of it is written in the wobbly, loud voice of a person shouting because he’s wearing headphones.

“Jaggery, turmeric, asafoetida, cardamom, and neem leaves: these are the flavorings with which you must make the dal that will make me young again.” If you love the sound of this, please read What Is Remembered, which was published this Tuesday with just an elephant short of a fanfare.

The engine of the story, exposed by Mehta in phrases capitalised For Maximum Effect, is actually a powerful idea. It’s not new, but grave and poignant no matter how closely you examine it. Immigrants, he proposes, can be burdened with too much history - something that can warp a person far worse than bad history (“easily curable with a little Good History,” he writes, in one of the story’s rare effective beats).

We live in a world where the drifting of migrants and exiles is knocking all of that too-much-history around the world every day; the tides are hauling wars, stories, belonging and human lives from coast to coast faster than ever. The evidence is in our newspapers, Facebook feeds, airport layovers, mineral prices and of course, literature. 

So it’s astonishing that one of our most acclaimed writers chose to interpret such a serious idea in a story that would have seemed silly and self-involved even back in the 1990s - which is presumably when Mehta stashed the first draft of this story away in his drawer. Dear Mr M, please don’t make us relive the embarrassing years of post-Rushdie immigrant fiction about the sorrows of exile: we definitely have too much of that history.

Getting there: What Is Remembered by Suketu Mehta, published by Juggernaut, Rs 30. 

The Spine podcast will be back next week. Get a daily book recommendation from the bpb team at @bpbspine on Instagram.

 

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