Interviews / June 2014 (Issue 24)


An Interview with Indian Author Tabish Khair

by Smita Sahay

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Tabish Khair, through his multifarious literature, explores the shaping of civilization, its effect on the indvidual, on societies and on the interrelations between societies. Often through stories of love (and loss), friendship, relationships, faith and fears, wrapped in humour, irreverence and pathos, his writing questions beliefs, prejudices and identities. Addressing the theme of racial intermingling and socio-cultural hierarchies, Khair's novels do much more than challenge history and its impact; they deal with the iniquitousness, innocuousness and paradoxes of the presence of, and the fight against, prejudices.

Poet, novelist and academic, Khair is the author of eleven books and was the recipient of the first prize of the Sixth All India Poetry Competition, 1995. His works have been shortlisted for the Encore Award, DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, The Hindu Best Fiction Award, the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Vodafone Crossword Book Award. His novel The Thing About Thugs was an Oprah Winfrey's book of the week. His works have been translated into more than seven languages.

An expert ventriloquist, Khair brings into his works a great range of narrative voices. His latest novel, How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position, slices through layers of history, memory, imagination and fiction and asks the following questions—how comfortable are we in our own identities? Do we scare easily because of our names and nationalities? How intertwined are stereotypes and prejudices in our own heads, and collectively in our societies? These are few of the questions with which the novel grapples.

The three main characters in How to Fight Islamist Terrorism From the Missionary Position are very different. But could they be representing three different stages in life of a single person? Ravi's innocent curiosity and youthful candor could be seen to metamorphose into the narrator's cynical adult cautiousness, and could further be seen to be shifting into the quiet, yet unrelenting faith and beliefs of Karim Bhai. Do these changes come to a person who leaves his homeland and embarks upon a journey, which brings him to the crossroads of trying to find and anchor himself? Could it simply be self-preservation kicking in, in the case of Karim Bhai, who has seen the unrelenting side of life, coupled with surviving in an alien land? As with all exceptional works of literature, the book grows in the reader and will take her on a unique journey inside herself.

An iconoclast and non-conformist in his own right, Khair does not recognise genre divides such as "post colonial" and refuses to be called a "diasporic" writer, though he lives in Denmark and teaches at Aarhus University. Among many remarkable things he does (and says), Khair, who grew up in Gaya, Bihar, ensures that his books are released in India before being released anywhere else, including the West.

Extremely approachable, affable and witty, in this interview, Khair talks about the intermingling of cultures, gender inequality, the importance of humour and the hard act of juggling between being an academic and a writer.

 

Shaily Sahay: Your works range over varied timelines, issues and subjects, but they often address the intermingling of cultures. You also deal with xenophobia or racism. Is this a conscious choice of theme?

Tabish Khair: How can one write without addressing the mixture of cultures and delving into human relations and feelings, including prejudices? There would be almost nothing left to write about. If there is one thing one can say about cultures, it is that they are always mixed. Think of even what we eat and drink in India today: pineapples, potatoes, guavas, maize, coffee, tea … all of them come from elsewhere! And it is the same with any other culture in the world; even the "purest" language is full of loan words. But this also means that we have always been and will always be confronted with others, for better and for worse. Finally, you cannot write about yourself without writing about others, and, of course, you cannot really write about others without writing about yourself!

SS: In your talk at Hong Kong, you said, "We are living in an age that seems to be losing its memory." And in your novel, The Thing about Thugs, you write a sentence that comes to me almost every time I engage with a story: "Stories, true or false, are difficult to escape from. Especially the story we tell about ourselves. In some ways, all of us become what we pretend to be." How do you see these two ideas shaping your work?

TK: They are interconnected. One way to understand this would be to distinguish between nostalgia and memory. Nostalgia is a reduction of memory, and hence you can see that it is nostalgia that is packaged and sold to you as experience, in bestsellers, much of fantasy fiction, as well as in much of interior designing, popular-political reconstructions of history ([Niall] Ferguson's revalorisation of the British Empire has elements of this, as do the Hindutva discourse of Ram Rajya and the Islamist discourse of the Golden Age of Islam, etc) and tourist attractions. But if memory is broader than nostalgia allows, and more nuanced, then the past is even more broad and nuanced than memory can fully record. Hence, we are always telling stories, but the stories we tell are neither equivalent nor a matter of indifference. For instance, if the British and many more Indians had told themselves the story of the composite culture of Hinduism-Islam that had also come into being in India in the precolonial past instead of the dominant British story of the two "warring nations" of Islam and Hinduism in India, the tragedy of the Partition could have been avoided.

SS: You work across poetry, fiction and non fiction. Among the three genres, which one do you relate to the most?

TK: It depends on what I want to say. But I find poetry the most demanding, and hence, difficult. I think if I have had more time for my (creative) writing, I would write more poetry than I have in the last few years. But my university in Denmark has not really done anything to make it easier for me to write creatively, though it has not been above basking in the occasional publicity that it brings. Poetry has suffered as a consequence because poetry requires more space and regular nurture, and it is diametrically opposed in its very essence to academic discourse.

SS: One reads your short stories in anthologies, or embedded in your novels, though not in a standalone collection. Are you planning one sometime soon?

TK: I am waiting for time. But as I said before, it is hard to work as an academic and find time to write creatively. My university does not provide me with any opportunity or funding or support to write as a novelist or poet. Sometimes, people assume that I am in Denmark as a writer; no, I am not, I am in Denmark as an academic, and my university does not even list my creative texts on its homepage. There is a far stronger opposition between creative writing and academia in universities like the one I work in than in universities in, say, the USA or the UK, where creative writing has become a popular course offering. There is even a kind of resentment, unconscious perhaps but palpable, that professional academics, with their narrow specialisations, bear against creative writers or even intellectuals.

SS: In your poetry collection, Man of Glass, you bring together Kalidas, Ghalib and HC Andersen. Why did you chose the three of them, and what does each of them represent to you?

TK: In some ways it just happened; I wanted to write those poems based on those authors' works, because I relate to all three as writers. But then I realised that it was apt; in some ways they belong to complex literary-cultural traditions that have, now, become part of who I am too.

SS: An article you wrote for The Hindu newspaper, after a homicidal rape on 16 December 2013 in Delhi, went viral on the internet. Why, do you think, in this age of women's empowerment, literacy and education, are such crimes happening—is it history, mythology, a hierarchy one never questions or something else?

TK: This will require an essay. But I will try to answer it concisely. Three main reasons come to mind. One—the culture of male privilege that dominates most sections of life in India, where the son is pampered and the daughter tolerated, where the bridegroom is the boss and the bride an appendage, where the wife has to work and cook and change diapers while the husband can just work and come back to expect dinner to be prepared for him. Two—the changing socio-economic conditions, with people (often young men) being uprooted from villages and towns and forced to work in bigger places, often without any family structure, cultural mooring or legitimate female company. Add to this the confusing and fragmented exposure to "Western" or "modern" mores, so that a lot of these men sadly fail to see the necessary relationship between female choice (of lifestyle, clothes and so on) and human notions of freedom and opportunity. Three—the (recent) tradition we have in India of avoiding sexuality as a natural aspect, so that our women can only be wives or mothers/sisters. This is a major problem that even many people protesting against the rapes are unwilling to address. Hence, sometimes in the name of "protecting" women from rape, they end up suggesting the curtailment of their rights as human beings.

SS: Which literary cultures and schools of thought have influenced you the most?

TK: Nothing so complete; I grew up in a small town in Bihar and was educated there, and no literary "school" or "culture" really covered my problems or experiences or even my endeavour as a struggling writer when I started off. So I relate more to individual writers and even individual works, rather that movements and schools.

SS: The Thing about Thugs is a tongue-in-cheek novel and How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position flaunts irreverence, starting right from its title. You have handled, perhaps, the gravest issues the world is currently grappling with humourosly. How important and potent do you think humour is, as a part of literature?

TK: Humour enables us to survive. But I believe that there are different kinds of humour, and humour, like anything, can be used to heal or to hurt. Sometimes though, it might be necessary to hurt in order to heal, as every surgeon knows. And, of course, as the poet said, our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. Sometimes, our funniest songs tell of saddest thought, too.

SS: Your previous novels have been placed in historical times, but How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position is set in current times, as in the latter, the story is born out of happenings in the real world. How different are historical and contemporary settings, in terms of writing?

TK: It is much easier to write a novel set in contemporary times. The settings and the ethos are more readily available. You can move out of your lived realities and into the realities of the novel. With a historical novel, this takes a greater effort and more research. Actually, The Bus Stopped was not really historical; I used childhood and my adolescent memories in writing it. It just looks historical now because I grew up in what would be called a "backward" place and perhaps because I will turn 50 soon! But you are right, Filming was set in the Bombay film world of the 1930s and 40s mostly, and The Thing about Thugs took us back to early Victorian London.

SS: Which of your works is the closest to your heart?

TK: I do not feel close to works published before the year 2000. I was too young then, still struggling as a writer and had hardly seen anything outside of North India; my reading had been limited by my location despite efforts to transcend the limitation. But I relate to all my works after that. I think in each work I managed to do exactly what I set out to achieve.

SS: To the aspiring writers who are reading this interview, what advice would you give?

TK: Advice is dangerous. This is a marshy field, especially if you do not come from those circles where you inherit the time (and money) to write and the social contacts to have it appreciated easily and loudly. In my case, what I say to myself, and to writers who come from "elsewhere," is this: write only if you have to, not because you want to.

SS: Too many books have been challenged, banned or withdrawn in India. The latest addition to the list is Wendy Doniger's The Hindus, which is to be recalled and pulped by the publisher. What are your thoughts on this?

TK: My position on this has been simple: I think everyone has the right to criticise a book or even hold public protests condemning it, but no one has the right to ban a book. A book can only be banned by a state, in extreme circumstances, if it offers a clear and obvious incitement to physical and material violence against a particular community. Books should not be banned because they "hurt" someone's or some community's "sentiments." Once you start doing this, you are heading towards fascism.

 
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