Over at Instagram, I’m engaged in a personal curatorial project: I’m looking at my old notebooks, some as much as twenty years old, and the clippings I have made about writers or about writing. I take a picture of the page and then erase what I think is less important. This is editorial work but it is also a visual experiment: a presentation of photographic evidence of the thinking that went into the writing of Immigrant, Montana.

Confessions of a Beef-Eater

I have a piece in this week’s The Nation a special issue on food.

I’ll confess to the sin of beef eating in a moment. let me first confess to the sin of not having a true knowledge of science.

In May of this year, Justice Mahesh Chandra Sharma of the Rajasthan High Court suggested that the cow be adopted as the national animal of India. His rationale was that millions of gods and goddesses reside in the cow. And here’s the crucial science bit: According to the judge, the “cow is the only living being which intakes oxygen and emits oxygen.”



A Man Is Being Killed

On the anniversary of the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, I wrote a brief prose-poem which was published by The Wire:

A lot of life is left in a man being killed.

He does not at first foresee the end. He knows, of course, that anything can happen. When it begins his only worry is that he will be unable to work. At the very least, he thinks, he will be unable to lift heavy loads. He had himself made the door of his room from which they dragged him out.

Then it settles in as disappointment. There was so much more work to be done in the unfinished house. The iron rods striking him are raising dust from a ground sown with regret.

He knows he can list the names of the men whose voices he recognises in the dark. A few from the dinner in his house only two nights ago. He will repeat the names to the police, he tells himself, before losing consciousness for a minute.


Heat of Life

My brief piece for the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Lingua Franca on Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2017.

In an author’s note, Desmond has written that often the very people he was studying taught him how to see. Nevertheless, he missed much, at least at first, “not because I was an outsider but also because I was overanalyzing things.” When I read those words, my senses went on alert. I felt that here was a warning for academics. Desmond went on: “A buzzing inner monologue would draw me inward, hindering my ability to remain alert to the heat of life at play right in front of me.” There it was! For me, the definition of the trade book was present in that admission. I’m generalizing wildly, but academic books find safety in explanations that reduce the chaos of social life. To write what is not dead on the page, one has to be open to all kinds of disturbances and challenges and confusion. And skilled writers show us a way (Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, Denis Johnson, Ralph Ellison, Jesmyn Ward—these are some of Desmond’s models) to draw a more difficult story out of all that pain and frustration.



The Ministry of Utmost Happiness


My review of Arundhati Roy’s novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness in Bookforum:

On the morning of June 9, 2012, Avtar Singh called 911 in Selma, California, to say that he had killed his family and was about to turn the gun on himself. When the police reached his house, they sent in a robot equipped with a camera. The feed from the robot showed Singh lying dead in the living room. His wife and two sons were also dead; a third son, the eldest, was still breathing, but he died from his wounds five days later. Each person had been shot in the head.

Singh owned a small transport business; he himself drove a truck. But a decade and a half earlier, he had been an officer in the Rashtriya Rifles unit of the Indian army. Major Avtar Singh was in charge of an army camp in war-torn Kashmir, the mountainous region where the Indian army has attempted to quell, often with disturbing brutality, an armed insurrection and calls for democracy. In April 1997, a police investigation had determined that Singh was guilty of abducting and killing a Kashmiri human-rights lawyer, Jalil Andrabi, whose body had been fished out of the Jhelum River. The corpse had torture marks on it—both eyes had been gouged out—and a bullet wound in the head.

Avtar Singh was never arrested for his alleged crimes in Kashmir, and, despite court orders instructing that his passport be impounded, he was able to leave India for Canada and from there reach the United States. In California, during the year prior to the murder-suicide, Singh’s wife called 911 to report her husband’s domestic violence. The incident drew attention to Singh, and journalists in India were soon back on the case. At the time he killed himself, he was facing extradition proceedings.

This is one of several news stories that find elaborate fictional form in Arundhati Roy’s new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.