S. Shankar / India Is Over (Please Tell Me I’m Wrong)

India is over. And Kashmir is just the latest sign of it.


Call me a late born child of 1947, of India’s independence from the British.

When I was a teenager in the 70s in Bombay (as Mumbai was then called), I came dangerously face to face with ethnic intolerance. I am a Tamil from the southern part of India, and Bombay in the west was then gripped by hatred aimed at people like me because of an influx of Tamil migrant labor (sound familiar?).

I remember one day when the commuter train I was traveling on was convulsed by dire whispers that young men were on board, questioning passengers on whether they were Tamil. They would ask you to speak in Marathi, the whispers said, and if you couldn’t they would throw you off the running train. Having come to Bombay only recently, I couldn’t speak Marathi, so I hurried off the train at the next station and waited for a succeeding one.

A few years later I was going to college in Tamil-majority Madras (as Chennai was then known) when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by a Sikh and the country, especially the north, plunged into an anti-Sikh maelstrom of killing. Even Chennai, relatively calm, had its transportation disrupted by roving mobs. It took me half a day of walking and hitching rides to get home from my college—the journey should have taken no more than an hour.

Surely, I am not the only Indian of my age (or any age for that matter) with memories like these.

Add the Emergency, the Bombay riots, the Gujarat killings, the demolition of Babri Masjid, the lynching of Christian missionaries, the targeting of “Chinese-looking” students and workers from the northeastern states in “cosmopolitan” Bengaluru, innumerable caste killings.

Conclusion? India has always—yes, always—been a country prone to violence.

Why, then, do I still feel immense loss because of the news coming out of India these days?


Here’s another story, a well-known one.

The Dalit leader Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was no friend of Indian nationalism, rightly viewing the elite leadership of the nationalist movement as for the most part disinterested in the liberation of (“low-caste”) Dalits. Yet, today he is described as the Father of the Indian Constitution for the role he played in drafting a legal document that many have described as one of the most enlightened in the world (it bears saying that what is happening in Kashmir is in the opinion of most legal observers unconstitutional—and, yes, I am aware that Ambedkar’s views on Kashmir, Pakistan and Islam are not straightforward).

Critical as he was of Indian nationalism, Ambedkar made a judicious decision to participate in laying the foundations of the post-Independence nation. For him, “India” could still be the name of a possibility. It could be the banner under which to experiment with anti-caste and generally democratic policies.


Can India still be the experiment it once was? The slow erasure of India, not as it was, but as a promise of what it could be under the momentum of anti-colonial resistance and its aftermath—isn’t that what I mourn when I read the newspaper headlines today?

For all its violence, growing up in India I could still find in the idea of it something to claim. It could still be the name of a challenge, a vigorous call to experiment in the creation of a transformative and tolerant society.


India was never perfect, far from it. It was not created by a blemishless nationalist movement, despite all the myths about Gandhi. Like all nation-states, it deserved to eventually become obsolete (read your Marx, please). Still, because of the unpredictability and popular scale of the anti-colonial resistance launched under its name, “India” could be claimed for decades after Independence for a multitude of experiments in humanistic liberation, including Gandhian ones that tried to transcend the flaws of the man. A powerful idea, “India” could be hijacked for progressive ends as Ambedkar did.

No more.

Narendra Modi and the BJP are making sure of that with their brutal actions in Kashmir and elsewhere—though, frankly, in the long view blame can certainly be shared by all too many political parties, including the Indian National Congress.

Things feel unprecedented now. It feels as if India stands on a final threshold of forced forgetting, of the death of post-independence optimism.

Can India survive what’s going on?

Is India over?


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.


Interview for Indian Cultural Forum

I was interviewed recently for the series #WritersTalkPolitics for the Indian cultural forum. Go here to view the interview.


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.


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:


The Word under Threat in the World: The Murder of Gauri Lankesh

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:


Poetry and the Curse: On Censorship 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.


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.

Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 9.49.37 AM

[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.