In Pulitzer Prize finalist, Suketu Mehta’s second non-fiction offering, the author attempts to foster empathy towards migrants by focussing on the migration debate.
Almost two-and-a-half decades before writer Suketu Mehta would capture Mumbai’s soul in the narrative non-fiction Maximum City: Bombay Lost & Found, he was just another Indian teenager who had migrated to the United States of America along with his family. In 1977, the family of five ended up in New York City’s Jackson Heights — one of the most multicultural neighbourhoods of the city. Miles away from their homeland, in the melting pot of this migrant neighbourhood, the communities preferred finding common ground, rather than focussing on their differences. “Every Sunday morning, TV programs had Bollywood songs, and everyone in the building, from the Russians to the Dominicans sang along. It was wonderful, there was this kind of unity,” reminisces Mehta of one of his earliest immigrant experiences.
However, four decades later, when Donald Trump and his camp of white Republicans registered a win at the Presidential elections in 2016, the immigrant experience was about to change for the worse. America elected a President who stoked fear of migrants among the white Americans and the hysteria of anti-immigrant rhetoric gripped the world. The immigrants, who came from the poor and conflict-ridden countries to the rich Western shores for a chance at a better life, were now viewed as potential ‘murderers, rapists, criminals, and terrorists.’ And hence, angry at this popular world view, Mehta’s latest non-fiction work This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto is a meticulously researched and emotionally rousing work that gives the critics of migration a reality check about who these migrants are, their reasons for migrating, and the ultimate outcome of their movement.
“I feel writers have a dharma, and at this moment, the whole global debate about immigration is so toxic that I had to write this book now because immigrants are being demonised like never before. Most of the immigration debate today is told from the perspective of the rich countries. So, I wanted to find out why the immigrants are moving in the first place,” he says about the novel that derives its name from Woody Guthrie’s song of the same name. Since ‘migration is a constant of human history’, Mehta excavated the past, and came up with a very convincing argument— that present-day migration from poor countries is a result of imperialism and colonialism by rich countries. “Immigrants are not moving because they hate their home countries, families, or language, but because the rich countries have left them no choice. They have stolen their future through colonialism, war, inequality and climate change,” affirms Mehta.
When the writer’s maternal grandfather was once asked by an Englishman about his reasons for staying in England and not in India, he’d replied, “Because we are the creditors. You took all our wealth and diamonds, so now we have come to collect it”. From England’s rule over India and Africa, the French occupation of Algeria, Belgium’s annihilation of Congo to the brutal slave trade in America and Europe, Western colonialism caused permanent economic and cultural damage to its colonies. In modern history, colonialism has new agents: corporations, and repeated American interventions in the countries of Central America, causing civil strife in the latter. “I wanted to connect the dots, saying that you cannot forget history and the historical role that has been played in the depredation of these countries and their resulting impoverishment,” says Mehta, and with this, the Professor of Journalism at New York University builds a case against the rich countries who fermented instability by colonial and exploitative interventions, forcing the migrants to move out for survival. Hence, he argues that by migrating to the Western countries and seeking work, migrants are in fact acting as ‘debt collectors’ of the wealth that was taken away from them by these countries.
Mehta’s fascinating subaltern argument may seem to be treading into the dangerous zone of radicalism, primarily because of his provocative tone, but as an astute storyteller, he appeals to the emotions of the readers when he introduces them to the migrants. Whether it is a young mother from El Salvador who prefers her child getting detained by the Border Control forces in America, or the family from Conakry that is ready to cross the Mediterranean Sea against all odds, Mehta’s migrants give us, first-hand, the bitter taste of migration. “I went out to these little families in Africa and Mexico to show the reader what the human effect is. Because in the end, it’s going to change hearts and minds. I am a storyteller, so I collect stories, research numbers and put it out together to make arguments that haven’t been made strongly enough. And the basic point of the argument is that ‘We are here, because you were there.’ And this is what Latin America can say about America, Indians can say about England, and Algerians can say about France,” he says.
But while he attempts to narrate true stories of migration, Mehta believes that the false narratives of fear spun by populist leaders such as Trump prevent the world from seeing the true picture. Calling the debate of migration a contest of storytelling between true narratives and false narratives, Mehta suddenly feels the urge to remember his meeting with Bal Thackeray for a very important segment in the Maximum City. “A populist is basically a gifted storyteller, someone who can tell a false story well. And I became aware of this when I met Bal Thackeray in Bombay. I hung out with him, and he was incredibly entertaining. He spent his life as a cartoonist, he loved humour and Bollywood movies. He would put on a shawl on his head and mimic Sonia Gandhi, and then prance and dance around. And then, I saw Trump doing the same thing,” he says before adding, “So, a populist is entertaining, but he is entertaining with his false story that demonises others and the only way it could be fought is by telling a true story. The battle is over the hearts and minds of the people. So, they can listen to the false narratives, or the true stories by the journalists, the fact-checkers. It’s a battle of narrative that’s being fought today.”
Even though This Land is Our Land, as the author confesses, is a result of his rage – personal and political – Mehta offers reparation as the way of justice. “The rich countries have become rich because of imperialism, colonialism and corporate colonialism. The people they have robbed need to get paid; there are two ways you can pay them – send back their money, and the other way is to let their people in. Let them work, and send money back to their countries, because the best way you can help the global poor is through remittance. In that sense, my book is an angry book with a happy ending,” he quips.