Author: sshankarwriter

Open Letter to University of Hawai`i President Lassner on the Thirty Meter Telescope and the Email from “UH Leadership”

Dear President Lassner:

I write to protest both the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea and the recent letter from “UH Leadership.”

On the first issue of the construction of the TMT:

I am sure you have seen news regarding the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ call to halt the construction. I consider myself a non-Hawaiian ally of those opposed to the construction. The desecration of a site of such great spiritual and cultural significance to Hawaiians seems to me an unacceptable price to pay for the pursuit of scientific knowledge of uncertain value. I am sure many will dispute that the value is uncertain and also claim that only scientists can make an estimation of scientific value. I differ. Science is nothing if not a social enterprise, judged by its effects on society in general.

Accordingly, for me, the question on the TMT remains: why this site? and why now? Would we allow the building of a telescope on Mt. Kailash (the alleged abode of Shiva)? How about digging under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the pursuit of scientific discoveries? If we would do neither, then why Mauna Kea? Here’s the simple truth: the callous disregard for widespread Hawaiian opinion on Mauna Kea has a basis not in science (no scientist would offer to blow up the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem for scientific gains) but an arrogant and racist attitude that has already caused incalculable harm to the Hawaiian islands.

Just to be clear: I write as an atheist and as someone who has a profound respect for science done the right way. It is far past time for scientists to recalibrate their goals away from resource gobbling billion dollar projects aimed at finding answers that will make little difference to the everyday lives of people, and more particularly in this case Hawaiians. In most cases such projects are covert subsidies to the construction lobby and to “big science.” How refreshing it would be if UH chose to be an example in this regard rather than revealing itself to be a neoliberal colonial institution!

On the second issue regarding a letter signed by “UH Leadership”:

I can only hope that you were ill-advised in this regard. “UH Leadership” is not an entity I am able to find in any of the organizational charts for the university. Does “UH Leadership” mean just you? Or does it include the Board of Regents? How about officers in the upper administration? Which officers?

A letter to the UH community, especially one calling for aloha and respectful engagement, should clearly identify authorship. With a letter such as this, one would wish for the kind of transparency that goes with the aloha and respect the letter itself urges. A letter does not inspire confidence when signed in such a vague manner. This is especially so given the draconian administrative rules targeting the Mauna Kea protectors “UH leadership” has put in place. If the intention of the letter is to suggest that the “UH leadership” is above the fray, I must respectfully submit that that is not the case. By its actions, the “UH leadership”—whatever that might be—is clearly in the process of enabling the side—the corporate interests?—that wants to see the TMT built.

I suppose—one can only hope—it is still not too late to remedy matters. You have often professed a respect for Hawaiian values. This is the time to make that respect clearly manifest. I urge you to stop the construction of the TMT. No doubt, there are multiple players involved, inside and outside the university, but you have a unique position as the President of the university to make things happen. I urge you to take steps.

Thank you for reading. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

S. Shankar

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Isn’t It Time for a Politics of Frugality?

I write this in my hometown Chennai, India, the day after a report in the newspapers declaring the city to be the most water vulnerable in the whole world. I’ve been here in my mother’s house for three weeks, in the midst of a near-unprecedented heat wave and a delay in the onset of relief-bringing monsoons, but have experienced little water scarcity. The water scarcity is real, though. My differing experience is, no doubt, both a matter of luck (there is enough groundwater below my mother’s house for us to access through a bore well) and class privilege.

K—, the maid who works in my mother’s house, does not have any privilege. Her family of four, who live in a one-room not far from my mother’s house, get metro water provided by the city once in two days for about an hour. They must store this water, which serves for everything from drinking to bathing, in buckets for use over the following two days until metro water briefly comes gurgling through their pipes again. If they run out in the meantime, they might be able to get more from a water truck that the city administration sends to their street now and then. That however would require someone to stand in line hot and dusty, possibly for an hour or more. Failing the truck, the next option is to buy water. K—has never bought water because it is an expensive proposition, not something she can afford.

In my mother’s home, we too have not yet had to buy water because of our good fortune, but I know people similar to us around the city who do so routinely. Currently, it costs anywhere from 4000 to 6000 rupees for a tanker of water, a princely sum for someone like K—, and not inconsiderable for my mother, though she can certainly afford it. For me, since I live in the United States, that would be $57 to $87 at today’s rates—a pittance for water that would last for days, probably more than a week depending on usage. Certainly an amount I would spend without a second thought for the comfort of having water flow through a faucet when I need it.

Nevertheless, something in me has made me change my water practices even in the few days I have been here. I have taken to flushing the toilet every three or four times when it is yellow as opposed to brown (“If it’s yellow, let it mellow…”). I have replaced showers with old-school bucket-and-mug bathing, something familiar to me from my Indian childhood. When I cook, I try to prepare dishes that don’t require quite as much as water. I watch how many dishes I make for washing, and how much I launder.

Small changes, amounting to a nominal kind of frugality, for a temporary period of time. Still, it’s enough to make you think more consciously about the meaning of frugality and its politics. When I curtail my use of water, quite possibly I am being frugal. But is K-, who in her home uses water way less than I do? I have a choice, she has none in the amount of water she uses. Is it possible still to call her frugal? Or does frugality necessarily entail choice, a conscious choosing to make do with what is enough rather than what one is able to afford?

Frugality is regularly recommended by those conscious of saving the planet amidst global warming (“switch off the light when you leave the room”); but my experience in Chennai suggests it is also meaningful in addressing global poverty. In this age of not only environmental crisis but widespread poverty on a global scale, to consume or not to consume is a political act. If I in Chennai am frugal in my consumption of water, perhaps K— who consumes so much less than I do without being frugal might actually be able to increase her consumption without worsening the environmental catastrophe besetting Chennai.

Is it necessary to draw the lesson out for this one lonely planet on which we all—in Los Angeles and Honolulu and Tokyo and Baghdad and Cape Town and Chennai—live?

A politics of frugality recognizes that the poor cannot be frugal; they don’t have enough to be. The poor are indigent, and because of their indigence they can and should consume more—their physical health and spiritual well-being depends on increased consumption. Telling them to be frugal is surely obscene. It is we the privileged who need to be frugal. Frugality might very well be the most radical of political acts in this age of the Anthropocene and global poverty.

#WeStandWithMaunaKea, Anti-Colonialism, and the Limits of Academic Liberalism

I stand with Mauna Kea.

Which is to say I stand against the building of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea for (allegedly) scientific research.

Mauna Kea is the mountain on the Big Island managed by the University of Hawai`i and sacred to Hawaiians. Controversy over the proposed telescope is now returning to a boil after the highest court in Hawai`i cleared the way, over the objections of broad sections of Hawaiians, for the resumption of halted construction.

I’m not Hawaiian, and nor am I an astronomer, but as a professor at the University of Hawai`i I too have a stake in this controversy, and as a student of the tenacious hold of colonialism with its associated mythology of a hierarchy of peoples I might even have a particular perspective to offer in debates within the university and outside.

  1. Mauna Kea and Anti-Colonialism

From an anti-colonial point of view the sacredness or otherwise of Mauna Kea, the scientific value or otherwise of the telescope, are beside the point. To be clear, I am not saying science and the sacred are irrelevant, only that it is possible to make an anti-colonial argument against the TMT without either an appeal to the sacred or a dismissal of science. (Of course, it is also possible to make the argument that there is plenty of serious knowledge about the natural world in indigenous epistemologies, whether you want to call it science or not.)

Colonialism hierarchizes groups of people, often by hierarchizing knowledge-systems:  This knowledge-system (the notion that Mauna Kea is sacred) is superstitious and primitive compared to this other knowledge-system (the scientific assertion of the value of Mauna Kea as the site for an astronomical telescope). The arguments of the proponents of the TMT for the universal value of scientific knowledge—that the TMT will help uncover objective truths about the cosmos likely to benefit all human beings—cannot but be understood within the context of such a hierarchization.

Why? Because a little reflection suggests objective truths are not exempt from a moral and political calculus, that things that are objectively true can at the same time be at the heart of morally and politically reprehensible actions. Splitting atoms objectively releases great energy but it may be morally and politically reprehensible to pursue technologies based on it.

In contrast, anti-colonialism asks with regard to Mauna Kea: what is the moral and political calculus of a comparative assertion of science over native epistemologies? And, can whatever objective scientific value that emerges out of the TMT project outweigh the consequences of this moral and political calculus?

Consider: the scientific community would undoubtedly—if it came to it—exempt many religious sites around the world (the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, the Kaaba in Mecca, the Shiva temple in Benares) from desecration in the name of science. Why does Mauna Kea not deserve such exemption? Could it have something to do with the colonialist hierarchization of peoples through the hierarchization of their knowledge systems?

  1. The Limits of Academic Liberalism

Since the University of Hawai`i is the custodian of the land on which the TMT is to be established, the university administration is at the heart of the controversy. Unfortunately, the administration seems to be blissfully untutored —irony for an institution dedicated to knowledge?—of the true complexities of the controversy. Consider the recent emails from the university president. The emails do not mention the TMT project or Mauna Kea but suggest an approach to controversy and issues like the TMT that, frankly, cannot stand up to scrutiny. Here’s an excerpt from one email, which begins with a quotation from an internal document:

“‘All human beings are entitled to the respect of their culture and who they are. We know absolutely that people of different cultures, backgrounds and beliefs can not only peacefully coexist but synergistically thrive together. As the UH motto tells us: Ma luna ae o na lahui a pau ke ola ke kanaka. Above all nations is humanity.’… We do not all need to agree on every issue before us. But we can and must live together peacefully and extend human dignity to all.”

I will leave it to scholars of Hawaiian to weigh in on whether respect for all cultures is a persuasive interpretation of “Above all nations is humanity;” but, surely, the gist of the email is, at best, liberalism at its most naïve? A German Nazi, a British imperialist, a South African ideologue of apartheid, an Indian proponent of Brahminical caste-ism—each claimed at one time (and in some cases does still) a cultural justification for their odious views. Surely, it cannot be the case that they all are entitled to the respect of their culture, then, now or ever?

Simply put, the liberal exhortation to respect all cultures has always been intellectually incoherent, and yet liberalism has routinely made this exhortation. The right question again is: why? And the answer can only be that liberalism does so usually in the interest of buttressing the de facto reality on the ground, that is, the status quo of power arrangements. For example, to liberally assert equal respect for all cultures in Jim Crow America is to leave the ground reality of Jim Crow in place. Such a liberalism cannot be a guide to difficult and thorny issues, including that of the TMT.

To assert equal respect for all cultures in the context of the TMT is to leave the de facto pro-TMT ground reality, and the colonial hierarchization of peoples and knowledges that accompanies it, in place. This is reason enough, from an anti-colonial point of view, to oppose the TMT regardless of arguments about science and the sacred.

#WeStandWithMaunaKea

Episode of It’s Lit with Readings from GHOST IN THE TAMARIND

It was such a blast– the full recording of the It’s Lit episode with PhDJ Anjoli Roy and Jocelyn Kapumealani Ng featuring readings from GHOST IN THE TAMARIND and NO END TO THE JOURNEY, terrific conversations about literature and writing, and music from MIA, A R Rahman, Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Sudha Raghunathan, and more is now out.

Go here to live stream.

Why Naipaul Is Not Great: A True (non-Kantian) Appraisal of a Literary Career Now Ended

I first read Naipaul in Malaysia as a teenager. I would check out his books from the library of the club to which my family belonged. I recognized the world that Naipaul described in early books like A House for Mr. Biswas and Miguel Street, though I had never been to Trinidad, from where Naipaul hailed. I had grown up in Nigeria and India, before coming on a prolonged visit to Malaysia, where my family was then living. Naipaul’s fictional world was sort of Hindu, yes, but what made it recognizable was the perceptive treatment of ambition in the midst of postcolonial scarcity. This theme of desire confounded by material circumstances is universal and early in his career—very early in his career—Naipaul explored it with some insight.

Young as I was, I recognized the postcolonial aspects of Naipaul’s theme from having lived in so many places. Even then, though, something about his fiction was disquieting. I wrote my first (unpublished) short stories more on the model of Chinua Achebe, whom I had read in school in Nigeria, and R. K. Narayan, whom I had read in India. What I was drawn to in these other writers, I recognize now, was their more compassionate plumbing of that same theme of ambition amid constraint. I say this even though there is room for misunderstanding—after all, Achebe is nothing like Narayan and compassion is often regarded as being opposed to truth (it is not).

In comparison to Achebe and Narayan, Naipaul is routinely applauded by his admirers for being uncompromisingly honest about the varied “Third World” locations (Trinidad, Uganda, India, Iran) on which he poured scorn. This “honesty” is a tiresome defense of Naipaul’s reprehensible causticness, and since I have written about all three writers extensively in my criticism and literary journalism over the last twenty years I will forego saying more here. But here’s the truth I know: Naipaul was in his writing an Islamophobe, a racist, and a misogynist.

In his early writing, whether because Naipaul was dissimulating or because he was genuinely less doctrinaire, his prejudices were somewhat in abeyance. Later, he was feted by the literary establishment in Europe and the US because he did the ideological work of reinforcing the legacies of empire and European self-regard. I know it is common to call Naipaul a great writer with a mean streak, as if his greatness were somehow separate from his meanness and made his meanness bearable; but to my mind it was this very mean-ness, which showed dishonesty as well as a singular lack of imagination, that kept him from being a great writer.

In a way, Naipaul was a literary version of Trump. Like Trump, he hid behind the mask of a made-up truth to advance narrow ambitions (we should ask: what price an illustrious literary career if it leaves the world smaller, poorer?). All the beauty of his sentences—and there are genuinely beautiful sentences in some of his writing—cannot mask his failure of imagination. At most, with the exception of one or two early books, Naipaul was a talented and industrious writer of sentences rather than a great writer. Consider: Trump is a talented and industrious manipulator of the media but that doesn’t make him a statesman and a leader. What stops us from making a similar literary judgment with regard to Naipaul?

Kant does. Ever since Kant, our cultural gatekeepers have learned to separate ethics and politics from art. I don’t subscribe to this separation—which is why I can disagree with the many reviews that have greeted the passing of Naipaul by calling him great. Can a writer lacking moral imagination (otherwise known as compassion) ever deserve the mantle of greatness? I have to say no, even at the cost of being dismissed as naïve.

Writing beyond English: The Challenges of Inventing Non-English Worlds in English-Language Novels

World Literature Today has published my observations on what it meant for me to invent a Tamil world in English in my most recent novel Ghost in the Tamarind. Language, politics, translation–the essay touches on these and other challenges. “Writing beyond English” started as a presentation at this year’s AWP, so a shout-out to my most exemplary co-panelits Nandi Odhiambo, Stephanie Han, Samrat Upadhyay, and Peter Kimani.

You can find the essay here.

What the Ancient Sanskrit Story of Ekalavya Can Teach Us about the Enterprise of Higher Education Today

Sometimes old texts gain new relevance. Take the classical Sanskrit story of Ekalavya, which goes back a couple of millennia (give or take a few centuries). I doubt many readers of this blog will be aware of this short evocative story embedded within the great epic narrative of the Mahabharata, though the story is widely known among the approximately one fifth of humanity that lives in India. Increasingly, it seems to me this irresistible story from my childhood has vital insights to offer about the experiences of students who find themselves at odds with the powerful institutions into which they have entered. These students are the so-called “snowflakes” in the news, who when they voice their opinions regarding curricula, campus culture or guest speakers are finding themselves in the midst of “the new culture wars.” I find myself turning to Ekalavya while thinking about these students.

I first heard the story of Ekalavya as a child from my mother, then read about it in a comic book. My first published poem was about Ekalavya. I was a college student in India then. Later, I wrote about Ekalavya as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin in what became my first published scholarly essay. So Ekalavya has been with me every step of the way in my career as a student, a writer, and an academic.

This should not be surprising. Ekalavya is the Caliban of Sanskrit literature (or rather, less anachronistically, Caliban is the Ekalavya of Western literature). Like Caliban, Ekalavya is at the center of a devastating allegory regarding the uses and abuses of pedagogy. Remember that Prospero presents himself as a teacher to Caliban early in the Tempest, only to have Calban agree and then declare “my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.” Much has been made in recent Shakespeare scholarship of this colonial scene of instruction involving the white settler Prospero and the enslaved native Caliban. The Ekalavya story is similarly rich.

Ekalavya is a Nishada or a “tribal” from outside the pale of so-called civilization. A precocious young man living on the far margins of society, Ekalavya determines to get an education that will advance him and his people—which in his world means instruction in the art of warfare. He goes to Dronacharya, regarded as the premier teacher of martial skills in the world, and asks to be taken as a student. Drona, however, is from the other end of the social spectrum, a Brahmin and a teacher to royalty. He rejects Ekalavya as unworthy by birth. Undaunted, Ekalavaya watches from hiding as Drona conducts his lessons for his elite pupils. And then, finding refuge in the jungle, he fashions a clay statue of Drona, his guru in absentia, and practices archery on his own in front of it.

One day, Drona comes to hear of Ekalavya through news of a great archer deep in the jungle. When he arrives to see for himself, he is shocked by Ekalavya’s matchless prowess. Indeed, he is deeply disturbed—he cannot permit this young man of low status to outdo Arjun, his favorite highborn student, whom he has promised to make the greatest archer in the world. He confronts Ekalavya, who confesses that he regards himself as Drona’s student even though the teacher has previously rejected him.

Now, Drona schemes. Does Ekalavya truly regard himself as the teacher’s disciple? Well, then, he owes the teacher gurudakshina, which may be translated as a fee. What will the fee be? It will be anything that Drona the guru wishes it to be. Cunningly Drona demands of the peerless young man the thumb of the hand that releases the arrow from the bow. The stratagem is clear—without the crucial digit Ekalavya will lose all his skill as an archer. Ekalavya does not hesitate for he truly regards Drona as his guru and so is obliged by the ethical code at the heart of pedagogy to give him the gurudakshina—in a moment, he slices off his thumb with a knife.

So goes this powerful twisted allegory of the (mis)education of the marginalized, this allegory of the tenacity with which power protects its own pedagogically. On the one hand, Ekalavya benefits from knowledge that only the elite teacher Drona can impart to him (albeit his acquisition of this knowledge is a bold theft). On the other, Ekalavya is duped into cutting off his thumb, an act in which there is a perverse kind of heroism. It is a deed through which Ekalavya simultaneously undoes everything he has achieved and proves himself the moral superior to the scheming Drona.

This story, rich in psychological complexities and insights into the contradictions of educational systems, speaks to me both as a novelist and a scholar. Initially, Ekalavya comes innocently—shall we say naïvely?—to where knowledge is stored and disseminated (a gurukulam in ancient India, now a school or a university). When he is refused admittance, he steals his way in. He then proceeds essentially to teach himself. This is to me one of the most moving parts of the story. In a society that parcels out knowledge according to birth, the story of Ekalavya shows that birth does not matter—Ekalavya the lowborn can become a great warrior though he is not born into the warrior caste. But then Ekalavya makes a vital mistake—he misreads himself and his achievement. Rather than giving himself and his hard work the credit that is due, he consents to the ideology of Drona, to the moral pedagogical code that Drona advances out of self-interest.

Like all great stories, the Ekalavya episode from the Mahabharata has a universal power, which is why I feel it resonates in the present context. It is not difficult to read into it a commentary on the cleavages on contemporary college campuses across the world. The Ekalavyas of the present are making their way onto college campuses, albeit not without resistance. Whether it is because of fortunes made from slavery or lands forcibly taken from indigenous peoples, many institutions of higher learning carry within them written and unwritten codes of privilege. Can students from marginalized communities enter this circle of privilege without chopping off their thumbs? The Ekalavya story shows that education has always been a crossroads enterprise—take one fork in the road and you arrive at social control; take the other and you find the promise of liberation.

Ultimately, the lesson of Ekalavya is two-fold—to students historically shut out of educational institutions (whether because of gender, caste, sexuality, race, or class), it suggests that they should emulate Ekalavya in his self-confidence and belief in himself, but not in his naïve faith in educational institutions. To the guardians of these institutions—the faculty and university administrators—it acts as a reminder of the true moral code of pedagogy. To us, it poses a vital question—what use is an education if it results in the loss of the metaphorical thumb of the very student who is to be educated?

11 Books to Read If You Want to Understand Caste in India

Go here to see what I wrote for Literary Hub about the topic. Obviously I was constrained by space specifications and also by my own limitations of language and experience. What would you add? Or subtract? How might you modify?