I was interviewed recently for the series #WritersTalkPolitics for the Indian cultural forum. Go here to view the interview.
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 I wrote my first (unpublished) short stories more on the model of Chinua Achebe, whom I had read in school in Nigeria, and R. K. Narayan, whom I had read in India.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.
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.
Here’s a piece that I wrote for The Conversation on caste in America, as in: Does America have it? Is caste a useful category to understand social hierarchy and exclusion?
Go here to read it and to participate in the robust discussion if you wish.
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?
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?
Like many an Indian child, I first heard the story of Vikram and the vetal (vampire is a most unsatisfactory translation) from my mother. The story is referenced in the opening pages of my novel Ghost in the Tamarind when Ramu, one of the two main characters, playacts at being Vikram sent to bring back the undead vetal for the Brahmin’s ritual. The consequences of this playacting, as the reader soon discovers, are horrific.
The Vikram story is just one of the many I learned from my mother, who is the purveyor of stories in my family. So many of the stories she has told me over the years have made their way into my novel that when the moment came it seemed quite obvious to me what the dedication should read:
For Amma, K. S. Champakam,
first and best teller of stories
The most important of my mother’s stories to make it into Ghost in the Tamarind concerns my great-grandmother Gomati. It is my mother who has passed on the family lore regarding Gomati to me in the guise of stories. This lore is the inspiration for the character Gomati Paati in the novel, though I have little doubt that the real Gomati would not recognize herself in Gomati Paati. Certainly, Gomati is not exactly Ramu’s grandmother Gomati Paati—she couldn’t be because no son or grandson of hers was anything like Ramu. However, like the Gomati Paati of the novel, my great-grandmother Gomati too became a widow when young, preserved what she had inherited from her husband for her children against great odds, and went on to die of old age. These are things I know because of the stories my mother has told me.
In writing Gomati Paati, it might first appear that I was doing what Creative Writing classes routinely exhort—drawing on what I knew. But Write what you know is a useful dictum for writers only if it’s accompanied by another—write what you wish you knew. Description of what is accompanied by imagination of what could be—that’s the balance to strive for. It’s a balance to be found in any good storytelling. Thinking back, I find it in my mother’s stories too. In my mother’s stories of what is and what was there was always an element of what could have been: If only Gomati had been born in another age or in other circumstances, who knows what she would have done?
Real life inspires but in becoming fiction transcends itself. When I started my novel all those years ago I intended Gomati Paati to be an important but secondary character confined to the early pages of the novel. But Gomati Paati refused to be so confined. She refused to die off early. Every turn in the novel found a new need for her, until she became a character who survives almost till the very end. It is possible to recognize in this willful behavior on the part of Gomati Paati—yes, she seemed to achieve a certain autonomy of her own in the process of her invention—the potential of a story that begins in imitation to leave imitation behind.
In Chinua Achebe’s great novel Things Fall Apart, Nwoye learns the power of storytelling from the women in his family just as I did from my mother. I am tempted to think there’s a lesson here—a lesson about women and the power of stories that walk the line between what is and what could be. Doesn’t it make sense that those who experience the constraints of society most severely are the ones who would be most dissatisfied with pure description of how things are and thus rely on their imagination to invent what could be? Isn’t this what that most exemplary of storytellers Scheherazade does in the Arabian Nights?
I won’t defend this notion about the special relationship between women and storytelling right now. It is not really defensible in the rather glib way I’ve made it. But I will say that one of the people from whom I have learned the power that stories have to test that line between what is and what could be is surely my mother.
What would a movie of GHOST IN THE TAMARIND be like? Who would be in it? Who might direct it? I wrote something for the My Book, the Movie blog. Find it here!
Marshal Zeringue maintains the Campaign for the American Reader blog, which includes the Page 69 Test. In it you turn to page 69 and see what you find. I applied the Page 69 Test to Ghost in the Tamarind, and this is what I came up with:
It was a fun exercise, and also instructive to me as a writer.