These are hard times and they call for hard work, not least from writers and artists. I’m thrilled to report that have I just been awarded a literature fellowship from USArtists. This year’s other literature honoree is the truly magnificent Claudia Rankine. Look at the list of past winners in the photo above–the complete list here. Thank you for this honor, and I’m now going back to work.
The testimony of a disappointed but not resentful Indian fan. My essay for NewYorker.com:
Not long ago, I discovered that I could own a piece of my childhood trauma if I shelled out sixteen dollars on eBay. The August 22-28, 1976, issue of the Illustrated Weekly of India, which came out just after the Montreal Olympics, bore the following headline: “600 Million Indians—Not One Bronze!” The men’s field-hockey team, which had won the World Cup the previous year, finished seventh in Montreal. It was the first time since 1924 that the team had returned from the Olympics without a medal. I was thirteen then and do not remember whether the report in the Illustrated Weekly offered me any consolation. It probably didn’t, since the headline is the only thing that has remained in my memory. Which is all to say that, if for the rest of the world the Olympic Games represent glorious achievement through sports, for many urban, educated, middle-class Indians, they offer only a ritual wallowing in a feeling of failure.
I’m thrilled to report that my essay “Pyre,” published in Granta 130, will appear in Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen.
My mother died in Patna on 7 January 2014. We cremated her two days later on the banks of the Ganga at Konhara Ghat near Patna, more than 150 miles downriver from the burning ghats of Benares where Hindus have cremated their dead since at least the middle of the first millennium bce. I took notes. During the long fourteen-hour flight to India I dealt with my sorrow by writing in my notebook a brief obituary for a Hindi newspaper that Ma read each morning. I was paying tribute. But once I had arrived in Patna, my reasons for note-taking became more complicated. Grief makes you a stranger to yourself and I was struck by this person that I saw pierced with loss. I was taking notes so that I could remember who I was in those days following my mother’s death.
In the latest PEN AMERICA journal, with this issue organized around the theme of “hauntings,” I have the following piece:
My elder sister was working as a doctor in a hospital in the small town of Darbhanga, in Bihar, in the mid-1990s. I met this boy there. He had fallen from a tree and broken his hip, and also his arm and leg. His parents sat beside him. Some days back, they had brought him to the hospital from their village, but it was already too late. The doctors had to amputate the boy’s right arm because the gangrene had begun to spread.
I think of that boy sometimes. What became of him? I was still young when I took this picture. I didn’t have a family. I have two children now. That boy I had met in the hospital’s general ward must now be a grown man. Does he, too, have a family now? I’m certain that despite his disability he is enormously skilled at what he does, perhaps farming or herding animals in a village in Bihar. One day the thought came that he could be driving a three-wheeled scooter, an auto-rickshaw, that are used to ferry passengers on the crowded Indian streets. I had actually seen a disabled man driving an auto-rickshaw in Delhi and I recalled the boy from two decades ago.
For the most part, I’m haunted by his smile.
In my final The Bookist column I write about the testimonies offered by Dalits and others.
A letter came from Los Angeles. It had been written by an upper-caste Marathi chemist. From this letter, an untouchable poet in Maharashtra found out that Indians in America were treated like dogs. This, I imagine, was in the 1950s or early ’60s, before Ravi Shankar had played with the Beatles or Hollywood had used Gandhi to sell popcorn to millions.
The poet reading the letter was Daya Pawar. Beside a dusty rose bush in what was then called Bombay, with the news on the radio close by, our poet read the letter. His joy made him cry. He sat down to write a reply. “I feel so damn good,” he wrote in Marathi. “Now, you’ve had a taste of what we’ve suffered in this country for far too long.”
I received the story I have told above nearly 30 years ago. I was a new graduate student in the States. The friend who told me the story, a white woman from Minnesota, was translating Dalit writing into English. That is how Daya Pawar came into my life. I put his story into a long poem I was writing and didn’t read Pawar again till, just last week, I devoured with great hunger his autobiography, Baluta.
Here’s my latest blog-post for The Chronicle’s Lingua Franca:
When the writer Jim Harrison died last month, I came across the following quote from one of his books:
“I wasn’t very long at Stony Brook,” he writes in Off to the Side, “when it occurred to me that the English department had all the charm of a streetfight where no one actually landed a punch.”
I promptly put this quote up on Facebook. Those words appealed to me. They revealed the tensions that make academic interactions so very fraught, and they also told me that all the warring that goes on is quite pathetic and achieves little. There was a macho swagger to Harrison’s statement, sure, but I was prepared to overlook it in favor of its honesty. Or what I was calling its honesty, because of my belief, as a naturalized citizen of an English department, that we fight, often for small stakes, and without any real result.
But is there a recognizable style to our fighting?
My latest “The Bookist” column for HT Brunch:
“Eight Essential Tips for Writers” or “10 Rules for Writing Fiction” or “Advice from Writers” – such bland compilations often include the following line from Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
But then you come across novels like Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, in which any urgent desire would appear extravagant or immodest. This is partly because the narrator is idle, he doesn’t go to work, he isn’t yearning for love. Shanbagh tells the story of a tiny joint family that owns a spice business. Ghachar Ghochar belongs to the genre that we lazily, sometimes even in admiration, describe as “books in which nothing happens.”
Here’s a piece that I published this morning about asking my students to do bad writing. Teju Cole makes a guest appearance.
An invitation came by email to contribute to a teaching volume. A brief piece, only a few hundred words long, was needed. Describe a favorite teaching exercise from your literature classes. The word “fun” was also used. I responded immediately. The previous semester I had asked my creative-writing students to do a simple exercise in class. They were required to produce bad writing.
In listening to Kanhaiya, I remember Safdar. Rohith, Chandrashekhar, Safdar. They are all martyrs. The martrys aren’t just the soldiers at the border or the farmers committing suicide.
I typed “Kanhaiya speech” on Google and that fetched 1,310,000 results.
There is exuberance in the return on those numbers, but why isn’t there a more ominous sense of doom in the questions being asked about the speech? Of course there have been threats, more stupid than dangerous, about rewarding anyone who cuts Kanhaiya’s tongue, but what is more insidious and demoralizing is the sense that the might of the State will not brook dissent.
In my case, it is precisely an apprehension of the power of the demagogues holding office that makes me applaud Kanhaiya’s courage. What had moved us during those 40-odd minutes that the young man from Bihar delivered his speech? I had been affected as much by the slogans and the chanting as I was by the audacious display of attitude. He knew the power of the State, he had after all just been released from prison, but wanted to convey to everyone who was listening the sheer elation of breathing the pure air of freedom.
In my latest The Bookist column for HT Brunch, I have reviewed the literature that is critical of the nation-state and its violence.
If the police were to burst into your room while you were sleeping and, putting a gun to your head, ask you to name a literary work that was critical of the idea of the nation, which title would you reveal?
Those who read Saadat Hasan Manto in school will go back to that early memory. We all remember Toba Tek Singh: the occupants of the lunatic asylum not being able to comprehend the Partition, and the old Sikh Bishan Singh dying in no man’s land between the borders of the two countries, unable to decide where he belonged.
But the memory of this story is for me mixed with the white of my school uniform, the safety of home, and the taste of cornflakes in the morning. Which means the call of the nation begins to seem merely like nostalgia for lost childhood. Nationalism in this scenario becomes only an appeal to sentiment.
Let us go further afield, then, to a far country, to look for the literature of sedition.