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.
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.
Just in the last few days two people have written to me about Komal Swaminathan’s great Tamil play Thaneer, Thaneer, proving that thirty-five years after it was first staged the play continues to resonate across the world. The play, which I translated into English as Water!, deals with themes of poverty, drought and crises of democratic governance. The news from everywhere suggests, unfortunately, that these are not issues of the past—the setting is a humble village in South India, the real drama far more general.
From Chennai Pennathur Ramakrishna of Madras Players, the oldest still active English language theater group in India, writes that they are planning to revive my English translation on the stage in November. Madras Players staged my English translation for the first time in Chennai’s historic Museum Theatre in 2012. Mr. Ramakrishna had stumbled across my translation in a bookstore in Chennai. He was familiar with the celebrated performances in 1981 of the original Tamil version, directed by Komal Swaminathan himself, and was moved to attempt the play in English. So successful was that attempt that now they are reviving it “by popular demand” (as Mr. Ramakrishna puts it).
A few days after Mr. Ramakrishna wrote to me a message arrived asking whether I had access to the original Tamil text of Swaminathan’s play—a South Asian theater company in California is exploring the possibility of staging the play in the original Tamil. Bonded laborer Vellaisamy, Swaminathan’s heroic protagonist, had to murder his cruel master just to escape the village of his birth. But now it appears he might be traveling all the way to California!
It is terrific to see Thaneer, Thaneer receive this kind of attention. The play is legendary in Tamil theater circles and deserves to be known widely. There is also a personal reason why this attention is gratifying. When I translated the play I first contacted a reputed editor in New Delhi about publishing it—this was before Naveen Kishore and Seagull Books in Kolkata, really the best home for the play because of their distinguished drama list, understood the true value of the play and put my translation in print. I got a reply from the New Delhi editor, who will remain nameless, deeming the play dated and out-of-step with the times.
It was 1999 and no doubt the play was then, as it is now, out of sync with the shocking and facile anti-poor sentiments that surround us. In his play, Swaminathan shows that the poor must not be regarded as objects of our or the state’s largesse but rather as (potential) agents of their own destiny. The play, about which I have written in a scholarly vein in several places, is not without its blindnesses but it stakes out with great passion and art uncomfortable truths about the plight of the poor. That is what makes the play so relevant—more relevant than ever with every passing year. The play is great literature because it resists the hegemony of its times—such resistance is not a sufficient condition of literary greatness but it is, I would think, a necessary one.
In “Borders,” her recent music video, artistic provocateur MIA broaches a subject of great urgency—the contemporary refugee crisis. Performed and directed by MIA, this remarkable and widely reviewed music video presents humanity on the move—clambering over fences, marching in long files across dusty landscapes, setting forth on boats across the ocean. Here’s the video if you haven’t seen it yet:
And here are three thoughts on the video:
- Poverty: Released in November 2015, a few months after the migrant crisis in Europe (often identified in the media as the Syrian refugee crisis) peaked during the summer, the music video has been most commonly seen as referring to that crisis. It’s worth noting however that MIA does not in fact specify the reasons the migrants featured in her video are on the move. As MIA herself has noted, her background includes being a Tamil refugee in Britain fleeing the political violence in Sri Lanka. Are the young brown men featured in the video meant to be political refugees? Perhaps, but the true power of the video lies in not focusing on a reason for the flight of these young men. By not identifying any immediate cause the video directs attention to a world structured in racial and economic as well as political exclusion—rather than episodic (Sri Lanka yesterday, Syria today, some other place tomorrow), the problem is structural. “Broke people (what’s up with that?)” goes one of the lines of the song. War and genocide are not the only reasons people are on the move across continents. Poverty is a reason too.
- Surveillance: We live in a world filled with surveillance. Commentators have noted the fence that plays such an important role in the video. The surveillance camera that is perched on top of the fence has not received the same commentary. The camera features in many of the frames of the video, including one in which MIA is shown balanced over it. The camera indicates that the men clambering over the fence are being watched. There’s political intentionality behind borders of exclusion and the camera draws attention to that intentionality. The people who set up the fences haven’t abandoned the fences. They are watching and waiting for the men, and who can say what welcome they will give the men on the other side of the fence? Think Donald Trump. And we who browse the Internet and watch the camera watching the men—what welcome are we prepared to give?
- Cooptation: Controversy has been raised about this video on exclusionary borders appearing on the platform of one of the mightiest corporations in the world (Apple). Let’s be frank—this is a problem worth thinking about. Corporations are not innocent when it comes to exclusionary borders. It might take sustained critical work to uncover their guilt, but implicated they most certainly are. It’s the old problem of cooptation (check out the Che tee shirt). Have MIA and her video been coopted? “Your privilege (what’s up with that?)” MIA asks her viewer in another line from the song, rightly suggesting the implication of we who browse the Internet on our laptops. Of course that question is even more resonant when aimed at a celebrity like MIA. Is MIA already aware of this issue? Is that why she’s the only woman in a video filled with men? The only one wearing fashionable sunglasses? And the only one picked out by a spotlight in the concluding frames of the video? Or is it rather that she is a self-obsessed celebrity? Round and round cooptation makes us go with its questions. Here’s the real question: what are we going to do with this knowledge of the problem of cooptation?