Suketu Mehta’s New Novella ‘What is Remembered’ Is A Forgettable Piece Of Immigrant Fiction

Suketu Mehta's 'What is Remembered' unfolds in Jackson Heights, New York.

Jackson Heights. Photo: Aleksandr Zykov via Flickr.

Suketu Mehta seems to be feeling his way around fantasy fiction in his new novella for Juggernaut. What is Remembered will seem familiar to anyone who has read any immigrant literature. It’s a tired story of an Indian American who wilfully forgets his roots as soon as he lands in America and, years later, feels the need to reclaim them. The difference is Mehta’s clumsy stab at threading the narrative with elements of fantasy. Mercifully, the book is brief at 100 pages.

What is Remembered hinges on Mahesh, a Gujarati immigrant. As soon as he lands at JFK Airport in New York, he’s stunned with static shock from the carpet. The vibration causes him to forget his mother’s name and much of his Indian past. Over the years, the thrill of living in the US eclipses any concern for his loss of memory. Until the day he needs his mother’s name for an official document. In the quest for it, he goes back to JFK. Upon being mistaken for a cabbie, he’s forced to drive a Gujarati family to Jackson Heights, the Indian-dominated borough in New York. Their payment is a piece of chikki, which unleashes a maelstrom of memory and feeling. Mahesh then wanders around the neighbourhood meeting strange, omniscient characters who give him cues relating to his past.

The story has the quality of a fable because of its magic-real moments and thinly-sketched characters that represent types. There are immigrants who hold on dearly to their country of birth by feverishly following tradition. And there are those like Mahesh, who moult their Indian skins and eagerly embrace American life. But Mehta, who is most famous for his terrific non-fiction work Maximum City, seems uncomfortable with this kind of storytelling. For one, the characters aren’t particularly compelling or novel. In Jackson Heights, Mahesh meets the Expert Liar at a bar called Crossroads, a name that’s all too obviously a cliché in the context of the story. The Expert Liar is in the vein of the wise folkloric character who speaks in riddles. In What is Remembered, instead of pithy parables he tells Mahesh long and tedious stories to jolt his memory.

There are other kooks. Mahesh meets a crazy fellow on the street who wants him to listen his (the stranger’s) heart. The man embodies an interesting idea – how nostalgia and longing for home and the past can drive one insane. Alas the man’s heart issues a jejune, long-winded, stream-of-consciousness monologue that undoes any empathy you might have for him. Then there are unnecessary imaginary departures, like Mahesh munching chikki in Jackson Heights and seeing in his mind’s eye the sorry scion of an old empire alternately posturing and lamenting his circumstances on the rampart of a fort.

The moments in the story that are pleasurable to read are not fanciful at all but Mahesh’s memories evoked by various events that are described by Mehta with humour and fine detail. The time in school he outwitted a cruel teacher, his mattress and pillow-loving grandfather back in Gujarat, giving his grandmother a pedicure on the verandah, and walking in Paris with a delusional Frenchman.

What is Remembered is available on the Juggernaut app, Rs30. 

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