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.
The recording of the event on Sep 16 2017 is now up. I am happy to share it here:
MULOSIGE (Multilingual Locals and Significant Geographies) is a fabulous project at the School of Oriental and African Studies aimed at rethinking the literatures of the world. Led by Francesca Orsini, the project sets out to present alternative views of literary traditions. Recently the MULOSIGE group—which includes Karima Laachir and Sara Marzagora–asked me to write a blog on something I’ve been thinking about (and occasionally writing about) for a while: “postcolonial philology.” This is what resulted:
Journalist Gauri Lankesh has been shot dead in India.
The simple fact of the matter is that no democracy thrives by stamping out speech that challenges power. I am not a free speech fundamentalist (I leave it to right-wing ideologues in America to self-servingly use a narrow and formalistic understanding of free-speech rights in order to advance their agenda). At the same time, I certainly value free speech–not only as a writer and teacher, but as a citizen of the world.
The murder of Gauri Lankesh underscores the continued relevance of what I wrote in Words without Borders nearly two years ago in the aftermath of similar murders in India:
What is routinely under threat these days is not only the word but imagination and alternative understandings of traditions, including Hindu traditions.
I guess, in today’s world, it’s never too early or too late to register your opinion regarding the murder of writers.
The Mumbai film industry is finally making a film about Thugs. Starring Aamir Khan the film, Thugs of Hindostan, is slated to be released around Diwali (November), 2018.
As I and others have written, the British invented—yes, that’s the right word— a group of people called “Thugs” as they were completing their conquest of India (the Hindostan, complete with archaic spelling, of the film title). In that time of war and tremendous social chaos (the 1830s), robber gangs roamed parts of Central, Northern and Western India. Out of the actual depredations of these gangs and the folklore surrounding them, the British, starting with an ambitious young officer named William Henry Sleeman, fashioned a vast and complex discourse asserting that these “Thugs” were conspiratorial members of a secret and ancient cult of Kali worshippers called “Thuggee.” Never mind that the evidence for these assertions was weak and circumstantial—the claim was crucial in allowing the British to justify an authoritarian colonial state in India focused on violent “pacification” of brutal and evil “natives.”
A key text in this process of invention and justification—later the word thug itself moved into the English language in the form we now know it—was the bestselling 1839 novel Confessions of a Thug by Philip Meadows Taylor. Taylor claims in a preface that the novel is based on true people and events. This is the novel that the Mumbai masala film industry is planning to adapt as Thugs of Hindostan.
Of course, Thugs of Hindostan will not be the first appearance of Thugs on the screen. Famously, they are depicted in Stephen Spielberg’s deplorable Indiana Jones and the Temple Doom, where they present a formidable but demonic challenge to the ever-virtuous whip-wielding Jones (who of course triumphs at the end). Before Spielberg came Nicholas Meyer’s The Deceivers (1988), itself based on John Masters’ Christianly motivated 1952 novel of the same name. The cinematic adaptation departs from Masters’ ultimate expression of confidence in a Christian god without abandoning his colonialist perspective. At the end of the movie, we are shown William Savage flinging away his wooden cross. Christianity may be questioned in such a film, however, but not the civilizing mission of the West. The movie ends with the following text on the screen—“It took 20 years to eradicate thuggee. 400 thugs strangled themselves rather than betray the cult. Thuggee over time had caused almost 2 million murders.”
Two million murders? Really? Sounds like fake news to me. Or rather, colonialist discourse. Not surprisingly, the movie was protested even as it was being filmed in India.
I suspect Thugs of Hindostan, though adapted from the Taylor novel, will not reproduce the sensationalist fakery of Spielberg and Meyer. I would not be surprised however if it engages in its own form of mythologizing and fabrication. Early press indicates the Thugs of the film are now nationalist heroes fighting the British. Never mind that the evidence for this assertion is also as weak and circumstantial as the evidence for the British narrative of a bloodthirsty, human sacrificing cult.
Why is it so hard to narrate filmically what is likely the simple truth about the so-called Thugs—that they were in all likelihood robber gangs drawn from social groups facing economic decline and destitution that targeted whoever had money, whether British soldiers or Indian seths? The turn to crime to feed oneself and one’s family—haven’t countless films told that story in the past? Would that be such a hard story for the Mumbai film industry, which has made classics in this vein like Mother India and Deewaar, to tell?
I look forward to reviewing Thugs of Hindostan here in my blog a little over a year from now. Who knows, I might be proven wrong about the film despite the early press. In the meantime, we are left to consider the overwhelming power of binaries (colonialism vs nationalism)—and to contemplate how much easier it is to flip the narrative than tell the real, nuanced story.
[For more extended analyses see my essay Thugs and Bandits: Life and Law in Colonial and Epicolonial India and chapter 1 of my book Textual Traffic: Colonialism, Modernity and the Economy of the Text.]
Sometimes friends and colleagues outside India who know of my recent and forthcoming work relating to caste ask me to recommend contemporary novels or movies that might serve as an introduction to the subject. Unfortunately, there are still too few novels in English that do full justice to such a difficult topic. (I know, I am begging the question—will my forthcoming novel GHOST IN THE TAMARIND? We’ll have to see.)
However, Fandry (2013, in Marathi, dir. by Nagraj Manjule) and Masaan (2016, in Hindi, dir. by Neeraj Ghaywan) are two films currently available on Netflix (at least, in the US) that I usually mention without hesitation in response to such queries. Both films are of course subtitled (they are also available unsubtitled on YouTube). I share the criticisms of subtitling that many film studies scholars as well as cinephiles make. Nevertheless, Fandry and Masaan are worth watching.
I recommend Fandry and Masaan not only for the ease with which they can be accessed on Netflix but because of the quality of their filmic storytelling, the sensitivity as well as boldness of their treatment of caste, and their ability to tell stories that let in viewers from across India and across the world without pandering to them. This last feature of the films—a broad appeal that is combined with a strong sense of location—is not easy to achieve. The films manage this balance I think by placing at their core narratives that have a certain universality to them.
Fandry’s core narrative is about a boy (Jabya) at the cusp of adulthood who chafes against his “low” (caste-defined) station in life. The film is in a sense a coming-of-age narrative, though it is open to question whether at the end of the film Jabya has been given the space to mature in any positive sense. Jabya goes through various experiences in the film. He is attracted to a “high-caste” girl and repeatedly quarrels with his father. With a friend, he fruitlessly pursues a fabled black sparrow. This pursuit becomes a metaphor for his life. Fandry is set in a small village in Western India, and this setting allows the social relationships that hold Jabya in their grip to be portrayed with a clarity that would have been more difficult if the film had been set, say, in a city.
[Click Image for Official Trailer]
Masaan is less easy to summarize. It has more characters—and more fully developed characters—than Fandry. Like Fandry it focuses attention on young people just beginning to make their way in a world constrained by caste—though the four characters I have in mind here are young adults rather than teenagers like Jabya. Masaan’s approach to issues of caste is more layered and complex or, alternatively, more baggy. I suspect there are many aspects of the film that will remain opaque to uninformed viewers. Nevertheless, the core narrative of the film manages a rare psychological complexity about questions of caste without becoming inaccessible.
[Click Image for Official Trailer]
Both Fandry (Nagraj Manjule’s similarly themed 2016 film Sairat is also available on Netflix) and Masaan bring out the horrors of caste (or the varna-jati complex) with some subtlety and a considerable sense of outrage. In other ways, they are quite different. Fandry is darkly comic in parts though its overall anger is unmistakable. In contrast, Masaan is suffused by an atmosphere of tragedy and despair. The films are not an ethnographic introduction to caste—for a basic overview the uninitiated viewer will have to go elsewhere—but together they do capture effectively even for viewers who have not studied caste or grown up with its reality in their lives the moral and emotional quandaries at the heart of the varna-jati complex.
Oh, for the heydays of literary theory!
Earlier this month, Bob Dylan, winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, delivered the required lecture just in time for him to collect the nearly $1 million cash award associated with the prize. Speaking in his trademark gravelly voice, Bob Dylan gave the Nobel Prize Committee what they no doubt wanted. Dylan thanked the committee for considering the question whether his songs are literature and answering in the affirmative. Dylan’s lecture was declared “extraordinary and, as one might expect, eloquent” by Secretary Sara Danius of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize. By co-opting the sung into the idea of literature, it seems, Dylan had given the Committee the relevance it craved.
Then again, you should be careful what you ask for. No sooner was the audio recording of the lecture released than charges of plagiarism descended upon Dylan. An essay by Andrea Pitzer in Slate argued that parts of the lecture are eerily similar to what is found on website SparkNotes crib sheets (consulted by countless students taking short cuts in their college education).
I recently had to deal with a student who did pretty much what Dylan seems to have as demonstrated in the Pitzer essay. When I called her in for questioning, it became amply clear that she had in fact plagiarized and had no first-hand knowledge of the works she was commenting on. I suspect nobody’s going to call Dylan in for questioning.
With regard to Dylan’s Nobel lecture, though, plagiarism is only the half of it—the other half is cliché.
Dylan constructs a venerable—and perfectly unimaginative—list of literary works and authors in his lecture. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of Two Cities. Kipling, Shaw, Camus, Hemingway, Shakespeare.
And especially Moby Dick and the Odyssey and All Quiet on the Western Front, about all three of which Dylan speaks extensively (and unoriginally and plagiaristically, it seems) in his lecture.
Bob Dylan is a transcendent musical genius—a voracious student and reinventor of musical form. It might even be argued that his songs can and should be considered literature—after all, as Dylan himself suggests, the exclusion of songs from literature when plays are readily admitted makes no reasonable sense.
Nevertheless, if the committee for the Nobel Prize for Literature was trying for relevance by awarding Bob Dylan, its gambit has badly backfired. The Nobel Prize for Literature, and indeed literature as such, has been diminished by the award to Dylan. The problem is not just the plagiarism. Rather, it is the very idea of literature that Dylan constructs in his lecture.
Taken individually, I can’t argue with Dylan’s list of literary works and luminaries—it has titles and names I have read and loved. Certainly, each of the works on Dylan’s list can be and has been considered “great” (whatever that means); taken together, however, the list induces nothing so much as a yawn. It is the reading list of a frighteningly conventional high school curriculum—one constructed in perfect ignorance of developments in the study of literature, indeed of “literature” itself understood in any meaningful sense today.
The list is perfectly conventional—and perfectly Eurocentric and patriarchal. There is not a single non-white or non-European or non-North American figure or text—no Frederick Douglass or the Ramayana or the Arabian Nights. There is not a single woman—no Sappho or Jane Austen or Mirabai (talk about song as literature). There is not even Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the greatest of Nobel laureates.
But here’s the thing: just because Dylan hasn’t read the West African Epic of Sonjara doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And just because he doesn’t know anything about the critiques of phallocentrism and Eurocentrism made decades ago in the best iterations of literary theory doesn’t mean a richer and more adequate idea of literature isn’t available should you want to find it.
Surely, the predicament of literature—assaulted from different sides by celebrity culture, commodification, more popular arts (music!), superficiality and a myriad other challenges—is dire. Irrelevance doubtless threatens. However, the path to relevance does not lie through plagiarism and cliché.
Bob Dylan is bigger than the Nobel Prize for Literature. The award has enhanced him but literature itself has been diminished.
[See also an earlier companion blog–KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCKIN’ ON HEAVEN’S DOOR (WHY BOB DYLAN SHOULD HAVE BEEN REFUSED ADMITTANCE TO THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE)]