S. Shankar / Writing About Caste and Poverty: An Interview

An Intellectual History of Global Inequality is a terrific project based at Aarhus University in Denmark. Earlier this summer I was interviewed by them about my work as a novelist and a critic as it pertains to global inequality. I think because of my recent fiction and scholarship on caste and postcolonialism, and because of my work-in-progress, a critical study of representations of the poor in Africa, India and the US. I was in conversation with them about presenting material from that work-in-progress at Aarhus this summer before COVID-19 put an end to all such blissful nonsense. So, I am grateful to them for the opportunity to think through some key questions about global inequality in interview format. What they are doing, how they are trying to impact our understanding of inequality, is tremendous–you should check them out! And if you want to read the interview which covers a variety of topics pertaining to current ways of thinking about inequality and poverty, follow the link below.


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.


Does America have a caste system?

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.


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?


Video of My Reading/Discussion at Revolution Books NYC

The recording of the event on Sep 16 2017 is now up. I am happy to share it here:


Two Films about Caste on Netflix: Fandry and Masaan

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.

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[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.

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[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.


Pariah and Pundit: Postcolonial Philology and the Caste History of English Words

Can there be such a thing as postcolonial philology? I am prompted to pose this question by the impending workshop on Caste and Life Narratives at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa. The workshop is related to a forthcoming special issue of Biography edited by Charu Gupta of Delhi University and me (side bar: much gratitude to the journal for responding enthusiastically to our proposal).

The workshop, which will be held next week, has me thinking of the subterranean travels of caste into the English language. Given the centuries-long British colonial presence in India, and the even longer presence there of English, it is hardly surprising that words of Indian origin have found their way into the language. Interesting in this context are the translations the words have undergone—especially those words that remain marked in unacknowledged ways by the social history of India, including the history of caste (or, to use the term I prefer, of the varna-jati complex). I believe a postcolonial philology can provide novel insights into this social history.

Pariah is one word that illustrates the rich philological possibilities I am alluding to here. I and others have written at length about the history of exclusion that remains overt in the word—indeed, isn’t the English word quite simply definitive of such exclusion?—even as the true and atrocious etymology remains buried (see my Flesh and Fish Blood). Pariah is an Anglicization of Paraiyar, a caste name (more precisely a jati name). Paraiyar refers to one of the erstwhile so-called “untouchable” jatis to be found in South India (Tamil Nadu and Kerala). (I say erstwhile in recognition of the abolition of untouchability in law in independent India. It is true there is a gap between the legal framework and reality but I would be a poor student of history if I did not recognize the heroic efforts that led to the creation of laws targeting jati discrimination.)

Native speakers of English know they don’t want to be pariahs, but how many of them are aware that the word has its origins as an appellation for a group of people who suffered horrific shunning within a highly structured social system with a deep history? Considering it inescapably tainted by the whiff of degradation, many intellectuals and leaders of this social group have long since discarded the use of the word Paraiyar in referring to themselves. Meanwhile, native speakers of English continue to be blithely unaware of the anglicized version pariah’s association with the terrible history of an actual community of people.

Another English word that a postcolonial philology might explore from a “caste” perspective is pundit. The word, meaning a learned or wise person (though now, increasingly, used sarcastically), comes from the opposite end of the varna-jati spectrum from pariah. Pundit is borrowed from Sanskrit, probably via Hindi. It is not at first view a jati name—it does not refer to or name a particular jati community in the way in which Paraiyar does. Pundit is simply a title and as such can be donned by anyone (indeed the Adi Dravidar, or so-called “untouchable,” Tamil scholar and activist Iyothee Thass is often honorifically identified with the title Pundit). Nevertheless, the word has a definite patrician, even Brahminical, air about it since it is most commonly used to refer to Brahmin priests. How many native speakers of English in other parts of the world, or for that matter in India, reflect on the possibility that they are reinforcing casteist ideas of knowledge and wisdom—ideas of the innate wisdom of certain groups of people—by using the word pundit?

Obviously, by posing these questions I don’t intend to suggest that native speakers who are unaware of the etymology of words such as pariah or pundit become casteist simply by using them. At the same time, as philology teaches us, languages and language use are consequential. Languages commit us to certain perspectives on the world, though not in a deterministic way—I am enough of a writer to believe in the possibilities of imaginative transcendence inherent in all languages, in language as such.

The point of a postcolonial philology would be to explore languages as repositories of the social history of colonial encounters and of postcolonial societies—and then after exploring, where necessary, adjust language use. It is in this context a postcolonial philology can be useful in providing us with a method to trace and assess the transmission of ideas and values across cultural and linguistic divides.


Being Hindu in America: An Atheist’s Perspective on the California Textbook Controversy

Once again California public school textbooks are at the center of furious public debate. Groups that have declared themselves guardians of Hinduism are engaged in a campaign to rid California textbooks of what they consider grave, even discriminatory, errors.

Some of the controversy has concerned the use of the term South Asia instead of India—the aforementioned guardians of Hinduism abhor the use of South Asia to refer to what they regard as the historic area of India as a whole (that is India before partition in 1947). As a co-founder of SAMAR (South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection), I am familiar with this terminological debate. When we dreamed up SAMAR in 1992 in Austin, Texas, we deliberately chose the term South Asia to signal an inclusive and anti-nationalist perspective—we wanted to address not just Indians but also people who traced their origins to other parts of South Asia like Pakistan and Bangladesh. In a small way, SAMAR contributed to the spread of South Asia as a widely employed term in the US.

It was clear to me then that South Asia and India had different and differently valid uses based on what one was trying to say. Nothing has happened to change my opinion. The use of the term India by Hindu nationalist groups to refer to a geographical area that today includes several countries other than India is patently absurd. What might be less clear to those not steeped in these recondite debates is that this is also an attempt to advance a militantly expansionist idea of India. Hindu nationalists dream of an Akhand Bharat or Unified India—an India unified that is under Hindu ideals—and to substitute India for South Asia wherever possible represents their desire to smuggle in this idea of Akhand Bharat through a series of displacements that it would take me too long to explain here.

Another part of the California textbook controversy concerns caste or rather, to use the term I usually prefer, the varna-jati complex. The same Hindu nationalists launching covert campaigns for Akhand Bharat work ceaselessly to minimize the role of caste discrimination in India. Caste is not just Hindu, they say; caste is not the rigid system that Orientalists make it out to be, they declare; caste is not the sole reality of India, they argue—all of which is true, as I have noted in my own writings on this subject, especially in my book Flesh and Fish Blood. What the Hindu nationalists fail to add is that caste is nevertheless more Hindu than not, that caste and the discriminations associated with it have proven stubbornly resistant to eradication, and that caste is certainly one of the most significant aspects of the reality of India.

Hidden in the California controversy lie other important questions: Who speaks for Hindus in America today? Who should speak for them? Are practicing Hindus alone permitted to weigh in on questions regarding Hinduism? What about an atheist like me, who was raised in Hindu traditions? And what about someone who is neither a practicing Hindu nor was raised in a Hindu family but who has studied Hinduism deeply in a scholarly way?

I have an anti-identitarian perspective on these questions—which is to say, I believe anyone can speak on these matters but no one, Hindu or non-Hindu, can be exempted from being knowledgeable and balanced.

I am an atheist from a reasonably devout Hindu family who has raised an Indian American son in the US. I know from personal experience and from the experience of my son that there is much ignorant stereotyping of India and Hinduism in the US. Putting my atheism aside for a moment, I think it is worth insisting that textbooks appraise Hinduism with the same evenhandedness that they might other religions (for example, by noting that Hinduism is not devoid of democratic impulses), and that they be aware of the ways in which misconceptions about Hinduism might be used to bully Indian American children from Hindu families.

On the other hand, Hinduism has certainly been the basis for the abjection and rank oppression of large groups of people including Dalits—which is one of the reasons I am an atheist. Surely Dalit American children in California deserve the same right to a truthful assessment of their historical reality that Hindu American students do? Given the enormity of historical crimes done to Dalits and others regarded as “low caste” there can be no compromise here, no sentimentalism about tradition.

In the final analysis, Hinduism is as much a social phenomenon and cultural tradition as it is a religion; and in this context I have as much right to speak of it—as well as, if necessary, against it—as a devout Hindu.


Rohith Vemula, Researching My Forthcoming Novel, and the Startling Persistences of Caste

Several years ago I went to India on a research trip for my now forthcoming novel Ghost in the Tamarind. The novel is set against the background of anti-caste politics in South India, and I was interested in visiting some of the places in which I meant to locate the story. Amongst these places was my mother’s ancestral village in Thirunelveli. I know this village well because I have been visiting it since I was a child. Just across the border from Kerala, the village nestles under the peaks of the Western Ghats and is surrounded by verdant rice fields. This is prosperous country, with the kind of settled beauty filled with history that represents the best kind of riposte to the crude truths of Orientalism—the kind of truths that are all about the “timelessness” and “stagnation” of the Indian village. (You can see the pictures from that research trip here on my website.)

It would be easy to get sentimental about my mother’s ancestral village, especially for someone like me, who has never lived there but has been raised to think of it as “home.” The seductions of roots are more real than one imagines; at the same time, as an incident during my research trip conveyed to me unmistakably, when it comes to history there is nothing more dangerous than sentimentality.

The incident occurred on the second day of my visit, as I wandered my way through the village to the sandy bend of the river that flows past. Arriving at the bend, I encountered the village’s washerman—a small lean man who with his wife was laundering clothes in the flowing river. Drying garments were spread out on the sand. A little distance away his donkey—the beast of burden on which he carried clothes back and forth—was tethered to a bush.

I stopped to talk to this man, and soon learned that he had inherited his job from his father, and that it was becoming less and less feasible for him to continue in his trade. My sons, he said, no longer do what I do. They have moved away from here, this village. I will be the last man to serve as washerman in this village.

I nodded, thinking to myself, yes, a modernizing society shatters traditional caste roles. I asked, wondering about his sons, What do they do?

And then he said the thing that to me encapsulates beautifully—horrifically—the conundrums of caste. The answer was startling, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been startled. One of the sons, it turned out, worked in the laundry room of a naval base in Kerala; and the other in a similar facility in a hospital in Chennai! They worked, my friend the washerman told me with pride, in a modern workplace with washing machines and driers.

You can leave your caste profession, I observed to myself, amending my previous thought. But your caste profession it seems won’t leave you.

What should one make of this? Of course, in one sense both my first and subsequent responses to what the washerman said to me are equally flawed. It would be a mistake to draw grand conclusions from one brief encounter. Still, this episode from years ago has always stuck in my mind. I was reminded of it again when I read the recent sad news from Hyderabad regarding Rohith Vemula, the Dalit PhD student who committed suicide because of the discrimination he experienced. In both Vemula’s tragic death and in the story of the washerman’s sons there is something worth thinking about, unsentimentally, regarding the tenacity of caste identities—the washerman’s two sons avail themselves of the opportunities of a modernizing society to travel far away, only to end up in the same profession as their father; Rohith Vemula embraces higher education as a pathway to a better life, only to find, as he writes devastatingly in his suicide note, that “the value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.”

Rohith Vemula’s suicide note is enough to break your heart. I am tempted to say that in it, just as in the story of the washerman and his sons, we see the unstoppable force of a modernizing society encountering the immovable rock of caste—but of course that is only a smart sounding half-truth. There are no unstoppable forces or immovable rocks in history. India may have its deeply rooted structures, but it cannot be reduced to the timeless fantasy of Orientalism.

When it comes to caste, there are only heartbreakingly difficult realities; and the unavoidable, unsentimental truth that India’s future depends on a sincere, democratic, inclusive—indeed, revolutionary—solution to the conundrum of caste. That solution is possible but it will be hard fought.


Namaste: a contrary reading in which, with advance apologies to lovers of yoga, thoughts are offered about Walter Benjamin, caste, untouchability, civilization, barbarism, and radical politics (all in the space of a brief blog)

The German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin famously observed, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Namaste, linked inextricably to the hands-pressed-together gesture that accompanies it, might be an excellent illustration of this thesis. Of course, to enter with me into an exploration of what I mean here you first have to consent to an expanded definition of “document,” where the term refers not just to something written, or even to a text in the way a film is a text, but rather to any unit in any system of signification or meaning-making. Thus, to arrange your body in a particular manner (as in placing your hands together in the gesture of namaste) is to produce a “text” full of meaning that must then be “read” by your interlocutor (the addressee of your greeting). It is in this way that I term namaste a “document.”

So much for a breezy review of cultural theory. The verbal text of namaste is generally translated as “I bow to you,” and in this sense, accompanied by the aforementioned pressed hands placed before the heart, is indeed a wonderful Indian greeting of humility, vulnerability, and open-ness to the other. But is that all it is? Let me play the provocateur here. Consider this. Europeans shake hands in greeting, Arabs embrace each other, Maori touch foreheads and let their breath mingle. And then we have Hindus, who namaste each other from a safe distance.

What’s going on here? How do we “read” this discrepancy? Is it possible there is an aversion to physical contact in namaste? To cut to the chase: can we separate this long-distance civility that Hindus engage in from the culture of untouchability that pervades India?

As is well known, untouchability, or rather strict rules about who may touch whom under what circumstances, is a fundamental feature of caste. It is associated with notions of impurity and is one of the most obnoxious features of caste prejudice. Is it not perfectly reasonable, then, to speculate that namaste is exactly the kind of greeting that a culture of untouchability would produce? Is it not probable that the civilized document of namaste hides within itself the barbaric code of caste prejudice?

Civilization and barbarism—scratch the surface of one and find the dark depths of the other. How tragically fitting that a man who died fleeing the horrors of Nazism should have (perhaps much too presciently) provided us with such potent insight into the relationship between the two.

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” wrote Benjamin. What barbarism do you find in your cherished documents of civilization? Confronting that question might be the first step in a radical politics.