By Abhishek Rahman, MDiv Candidate, Harvard Divinity School
Suketu Mehta, a journalist and fiction writer, visited Harvard University last week to deliver three lectures to sold-out audiences at the Graduate School of Design, all on the topic of ‘The Secret Life of Cities.’ Mehta’s lectures were part of SAI’s Urbanization Lecture Series that brings renowned academics whose work explores the contours of urban life in South Asia to Harvard. The lectures were cosponsored by the Graduate School of Design.
Mehta is an Associate Professor at the Arthur Carter Journalism Institute at New York University and a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. Rahul Mehrotra, Professor of Urban Design and Planning and Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design, introduced Mehta to the crowd as someone who is known to live in the cities about which he writes, often weaving his personal narratives within the histories of the cities that serve as his subjects.
In his first lecture on Oct. 21 titled ‘Migration: Storytelling the City,’ Mehta discussed the various reasons migrants gravitate to cities and how spatial dislocations in the cities compel a recollection of memories.
“The story of my family’s journey from the village to the city began a little over a hundred years ago, first to Calcutta and then to Kenya,” Mehta said. “Recollection became the antidote to alienation amidst our various migrations. Therefore, I don’t have the luxury of that French existential angst. I have a large extended family and we bicker and fight.”
Mehta’s second lecture on Oct. 22, ‘Alienation: The Sadness of Cities,’ evoked its own set of deep emotions. From the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the bastis of Mumbai, he explained how cit(y)zens negotiate and confront the laws unique to particular cities, both the disjuncture and dislocations that emerge from the questions of competition and justice.
“When you think about why Osama bin Laden chose to hide in Abbottabad, a city, you understand how the city provides more anonymity than the countryside,” Mehta remarked.
In his concluding lecture on Oct. 23 titled “Community: What is a City but the People?” Mehta challenged his audience to think about radical, bold approaches to the problems of cities. He argued that in order to build a great city, one must first locate who are excluded to the margins of society and those who are included within the societal boundaries.
“Don’t exclude anybody from the law, celebration, and conversations of a city,” he cautioned. Drawing from his own experiences of living in New York City he said, “Every time I get mugged, I get a story out of it. I seek out the city’s hubbub,” he said, a comment that elicited laughter from the audience. “Human beings like their city to be spicy – that is the thrill of urban living.”
When asked by an audience member about the future of cities, Mehta said, “A city has never been a more exciting place to live.”
Reactions to the lectures from Twitter:
My nomination for best lecture at GSD this semester so far: Suketu Mehta. No slideshow necessary; his stories were riveting. @Eventsatgsd
— Etien Santiago (@EtienSan) October 25, 2014
Can’t stop thinking about Suketu Mehta’s lecture yesterday at the #gsd. Incredible. He had me near tears multiple times. #Cities — Annie White (@anniew5290) October 23, 2014
Incredible, amazing 3 lectures of Suketu Mehta @HarvardGSD: city and migration, city and sadness, city and people pic.twitter.com/d33nTMwIhW — Luis Valenzuela (@lvalenzu) October 22, 2014
The pleasure of listening to #suketumehta is partly in his digressive drift between personal history, statistics, description @HarvardGSD — Shantel Blakely (@Eventsatgsd) October 22, 2014
“#City is where the action is. The metropolitan excitement.” – @suketumehta at @HarvardGSD #urban
— South Asia Institute (@HarvardSAI) October 21, 2014