October 21, 2011
School of Communication, Coimbatore
From the bars of downtown Mumbai to its deadly underworld, Suketu Mehta saw it all. After seven years of extensive research, the award winning author published Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found in 2004. In 2005, the book was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.
Although it didn’t win the coveted prize, it received much critical acclaim. The Economist named Maximum City as one of its books of the year.
On October 17, this celebrated writer spoke to undergraduate and graduate students of the Amrita School of Communication. Mehta logged in from New York to interact with the Amrita students who gathered in the e-learning studio on their campus.
“What is a writer’s dharma?” he asked.
In response, he shared his own experiences.
“I was trained as a novelist, before I became a journalist,” he said. “In writing Maximum City, which is a nonfiction book, I found that it was important to treat all of the people who told me their stories as if they were characters in a novel; as if I was responsible for creating them, making them whole and complex – and using E. M. Forster’s term, rounded. That means not just allowing bad people, such as murderers, the freedom to be good in other parts of their lives, but also allowing innocent people, such as disaster victims, the freedom to be unsympathetic.”
He offered some practical advice to the budding journalists.
“I think every journalist should take a short-story-writing course, at least one semester of it. To understand how to structure narrative, how to structure sentences. Because ultimately people are reading not just for information; they are entitled to derive pleasure from the text.”
In conclusion, he re-emphasized the dharma of a journalist.
“In the end, my dharma as a journalist and my dharma as a novelist are one and the same,” he said. “It is to tell the truth. As the Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert noted: for anybody else, not to tell the truth can be a tactical maneuver. But a writer who is not telling the truth — even if he is staying silent — is lying. And telling the truth means bearing witness to our terrible times.”
“Should we not maneuver with the truth even if it is for the greater good?” asked Praveen, second-year BA (Mass Communication) student at the School.
“As a journalist, one has to tell the truth fearlessly,” came Mehta’s emphatic reply.
Arjun Menon, another second-year BA (Mass Communication) student, asked why the book used the name Bombay, rather than Mumbai.
“It is a question I get asked a lot,” Mehta replied. “The official name now maybe Mumbai, but if you ask a local Marathi, he would say Bambay. When I speak English, I say Bombay. It was a matter of familiarity more than anything else.”
Students received some more interesting pointers when Mehta told them to read a lot, including short stories and poetry. And that they should write daily; a good writer practiced his art every single day.
Mehta should know. He has published in the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Granta, Harpers Magazine and Time. He has also been featured on NPR’s Fresh Air.
Currently busy with a nonfiction book about immigrants in contemporary New York, he teaches at the Arthur L. Carter Institute of Journalism in New York. Amrita was honored to have him speak to students.