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.


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 I wrote my first (unpublished) short stories more on the model of Chinua Achebe, whom I had read in school in Nigeria, and R. K. Narayan, whom I had read in India.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.


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.