Suketu Mehta traveled the same route five times. As a child, he settled with his family, originally from Gujarat in India, in the United States. As an adult, he returned to India, where he lived in Mumbai (Bombay) for two and a half years and wrote a book about the city. Titled Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found and published in 2004, it was a highly acclaimed work that I can’t recommend enough. Mehta later returned to the United States, only to retrace his footsteps years later – but this time in his reminisces and feelings – in a new book, where he returns to the memories of his family voyage, to the story of how they, like so many others, moved to America, the promised land of generations of migrants.
The second part of the title of Mehta’s new work says it all — This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto. It is a powerful defense of people’s right to migrate, a song of praise for multiculturalism, and a strong critique of Washington’s policies toward immigrants and refugees under President Donald Trump.
The author took pains to travel and collect various stories of migration – he took these pains quite literally, as a large part of the book is a cataloging of sorrows that people shared with him. Focusing mainly on the United States as a destination country, he provides statistics and cases to show where and how migration policies are failing. Mehta wrestles with the exorbitant fears of the “Other,” with the myth that the influx of migrants will sweep the country away.
He also reminds us of the link – historical and moral – between migration and colonialism. Mehta’s grandfather was once asked by a British man what he was he doing in the United Kingdom, to which the Indian man replied: “We are the creditors. You took all our wealth [in the colonial period]… Now we have come to collect.” This is also Mehta’s standpoint. Not only does he believe that the West has a moral obligation to accept people from countries it had once ruled or influenced, but he thinks this responsibility comes also from the West’s (mainly the United States’) current military engagements in countries like Iraq. “Before you ask other people to respect the borders of the West, ask yourself if the West has ever respected anybody else’s border,” he remarks. And then there are the practical arguments: Developed countries need migrants for demographic and economic reasons.
Mehta knows everything about being on the borders of a culture, not here and not there, but with all the bane and boons of being able to travel between the two zones. He experienced racism in the United States and at the same time has felt the benefits of possessing an American passport when travelling elsewhere. His first book, Maximum City, was a vision of India’s prime metropolis by someone who had lived there as a child but spent most of his life in the United States. And yet, the book is so thorough and inquisitive in the way it tells the stories of Mumbai that, I dare say, it could have just as well been written by somebody who lived there his whole life. Mehta never forgot his roots — he did not forget the language, and was able to understand the cultural complexities and utilize the community networks that gave him a leg up at the beginning of his work on the metropolis. In This Land is Our Land, the author stresses how his family and community kept its traditions vibrant despite living in America (his older son, for instance, while raised mostly in the United States, was only taught by his parents to speak Gujarati until school age). And yet, he concludes in his new book: “I would [always] return to America with relief, because here I could be American. I couldn’t be English in England […] even when I went to India, I wasn’t wholly ‘Indian.’ I was an ‘NRI,’ a ‘non-Resident Indian.’”
While Mehta’s account is sweeping, it is perhaps too sweeping. It zig-zags through themes and jumps from hope to misery in a somewhat chaotic manner. Paradoxically, while I found the bits on how Mehta’s family settled in the United States interesting, the part on South Asia – the author’s birthplace – was least compelling to me. That section is an account that rushes the reader through Indian history and packs its various threads in one ball, although some of them seem to have little linkage with the main topic of the book.
More importantly, This Land is Our Land is a bit idealistic in its message, contrary to the brutally down-to-earth Maximum City. Mehta points out that even the doubling or tripling of the United States’ population would not make the country unlivable, compared to the demographic congestion of some other countries. Perhaps so, but regardless of anybody’s opinion on this, can we imagine any government in Washington allowing this? “I am not calling for open borders,” the author declares, “I am calling for open hearts.” A noble idea, but unfortunately it may only be partially translated into good polices.
“America has been good to my family. And we have been good to America. In my extended family, we are engineers, writers, doctors, businessmen, prosecutors, infrantymen, teachers,” Mehta points out. It is a strong point and it largely reflects the general situation of Indians settled in the United States. A stereotypical Indian professional in the United States nowadays is a doctor or an IT specialist; as of 2011, the annual average income of an Indian family based in that country was twice that of a white American family.
But not every other community has seen such tremendous success and the settlement has not been so smooth in every case. For all its advantages, This Land is Our Land focuses mainly on strengthening the main argument rather than telling stories. The narrative is like a flame of the lamp that throws light on many spaces, but also makes shadows longer and is unable to cover everything equally.
To be sure, I am not claiming that Suketu Mehta has looked only from the perspective of his community and that this has clouded his vision. As with Maximum City, his homework is painstaking. Among others, he talked to people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, to poor Africans trying to get from Morocco to Spain, and to many others. The author’s sources, both in people and references to written works, are significant.
But it needs to be pointed out that the United States has for a long time been a land of opportunity that selectively chooses whom it give that opportunity to (even if not always that precisely and sometimes even randomly). The United States has been, as Mehta himself points out, picking out the cream of the crop of other societies, draining the brains of other countries to its own benefit. Nations like India invest in their own education and support their own companies, only to see their best graduates and professionals in fields like IT move out to the United States. While this has nothing to do with morality – and here Mehta and I would agree – the trouble is that whether we like it or not, this cherry-picking attitude is arguably one of the reasons the United States is now so strong and so attractive to its own citizens.
To put it brutally: The United States is not a refugee camp, but a multinational company that decides whom to hire. It is both moral and idealistic to believe that the state could behave otherwise. Its government could certainly behave better, to a certain degree, for example by reforming some of its unfair migration policies, and here This Land is Our Land makes a strong point that needs to be heard.
Suketu Mehta’s new book works on two levels: On a personal one, as an account of an Indian who had settled in the United States with his family, and on a general one, as an immigrant’s – and not only an immigrant’s – manifesto. Despite my reservations about some of its approaches, the book is valuable on both levels, and is written from a perspective we should consider in today’s world.