Saikat Majumdar is an academic and a novelist. His latest work of fiction, The Middle Finger, has recently been published in India. Majumdar spoke to Scroll.in about the book, his writing, the fraught question of representation, the linkage between academia and art, and more. Excerpts from the email conversation:
I’m always really interested in epigraphs. Your novel begins with quotes from Plato’s The Symposium, and Hemavijayagani’s The Story of the Bhilla. How did you settle on those specific quotes from those specific texts?
The initial idea of the novel came to me as a retelling of the Ekalavya story in a contemporary campus. However, over the course of the writing I realised that I’m much more interested in the reality around us than being loyal to the myth. Plus, it’s Wendy Doniger’s discovery of the medieval Jain version of the myth rather than the original version – here, Drona blesses Ekalavya – that, in my mind, got mediated by the kind of ironic, intimate affection Socrates offers to Agathon in Plato’s Symposium. So there were knotty conflicts between the different myths that found their ways into the novel.
In the end, I tried to stay true to the characters rather than cast them across myth-ordained paths. But still, the paradoxes of the teacher-student relationship are beautifully realised by these quotes, and I wanted them as epigraphs to the novel.
Your characters often ruminate on questions of writing – for example, we hear Megha doubting her poems about race and their authenticity. She says “Could a poet speak in tongues? In other people’s tongues? Tongues not yet born?” and later she says to her friend Palak, ““There is a language of pain that draws you in, but does that pain really belong to you?” I’m interested in this idea of certain pain belonging to certain people, and the writer’s burden to represent those pains fairly. I was wondering how you navigate writing in voices that aren’t necessarily familiar to you.
This was a challenge and risk, and I’m anxious to see how people feel about it. In an ideal world, we should all be able to artistically represent one another’s stories and songs and poems, and our lives and art would be richer for it. But we live in a terrible world right now, where people without voice or agency are being pushed farther and farther to the margins. Megha has visitations of power as a poet, but she also has many anxieties.
What does it mean to write poetry about blackness in America when you are a brown person, suspended between some privilege and some marginality? It is also the anxiety a person rooted primarily in the written word feels when they hear their political poetry performed; it gets a sensory body that was hidden in print. The question of authenticity takes a particularly naked form in such moments, which explains her discomfort in the pubs and bars where she sees her words performed by others. There is also the question of her obvious privilege once she is back in Delhi, and her distance from the working class around her, physically close but so far.
Women characters play key roles in most of my fiction, but this is my first time creating a female protagonist, as well as the other key character, and, more importantly, experiencing the world through the sense of this protagonist. Some people may question my right to do so, or my success at this – a few people raised the question about who gets to write a queer novel, in response to my last book, The Scent of God.
But writing fiction is becoming other people, along with many invented selves of one’s own. Megha is a woman, and she also shares life spaces and experiences of the kind of people I know well, so she is not really foreign to me. Gender, after all, is one of the many identities that make us. Poonam’s character is of course the farthest from all spaces of life I’ve experienced, even though I’ve known some aspects of her in other people. But her voice in the novel only occurs as experimental, poetic utterances, not as the quotidian experience of life.
The form of the novel is especially interesting, flitting from chapters where our protagonist navigates her academic and personal struggles to short scenes that at first seem unrelated to the central storyline, but eventually merge. What lay behind the choice to structure the narrative that way?
The need to give Poonam a voice. Her imagination of the world is crucial to the novel, and yet out of Megha’s grasp. There is a pain and intensity in Poonam’s experience that is absent from the world of Megha, who however, has challenges of her own. This novel is about radically different worlds coming together, jolting against each other. Some voices, some experiences are so hard to capture – they dwell on the limits of representation. The few short chapters that eventually merge with the main novel try to catch that flicker.
Poonam is a very striking character from a background from the protagonist’s, and shares a deep and complex relationship with her that is inevitably mediated by their differences. What was the process of research for writing Poonam’s point of view? What were the things you kept in mind while writing about relationships between people from different backgrounds?
Poonam’s character was a real challenge. I found the different class position more difficult to negotiate than that of gender, and the unique alienness that arises at the intersection of class and gender, the voice of a woman like her, beyond the reach of any of the worlds I’ve created so far.
But Poonam is not just a product of her background, she is also an extraordinary woman, with a very unusual life trajectory. In trying to capture her voice, I focused on the uniqueness of personality and expressions, while keeping my realism for what would be credible given her position and education. Even then, that credibility is pushed in the end, as you know, but that is also where the force of the myth lies.
I’ve long been fascinated by the relation between the middle class and above live with the working class in domestic service in India – heightened more after living many years in the West. The incredible intimacy of that relationship can be both tender and extremely disturbing – and of course open to all kinds of abuse. I wanted to capture some shades of this relationship in fiction. While Poonam’s relationship with Megha is primarily social, some of these shades inevitably enter in it, or at least in the eyes of people who see them from outside.
I think it is important to remember individual uniqueness while writing people from different backgrounds. No one is just a product of their background. Literature, especially, is interested in the ways in which people are idiosyncratic even within their social and historic space.
Poonam’s religion plays a large role in how she perceives things, and in how she writes. What was the process of articulating this relationship she has to her faith?
I’m interested in the relation of religion with art – as perhaps also evident in The Scent of God. I always imagined Poonam’s poetic sensibility to be shaped by her religion, particularly through the genre of the church sermon. Also, while we are desperately missing a secular public sphere today, secularism remains something primarily associated with the liberal bourgeoise, while faith often plays a powerful role in the lives of the poor and the marginal.
The church is very important to Poonam, not just a place of worship, but as a community and an anchor in her wandering life. Even though I’m not religious myself, I love visiting places of worship, and I’ve been to many church services, both in India and North America. I’ve been fascinated by the poetic and rhetorical power of the church sermon. The way I saw Poonam, both she and her passion for words were inseparable from her faith. Her faith is one more thing that separates her from Megha and her friends and colleagues.
Something else that this novel seems to be deeply concerned with is space and cities. We move across cities and continents as Megha tries to find her place We see Megha, our protagonist, ruminate on the idea of home and where hers is. How did you approach setting the scene in these different places and setting the protagonist within them?
Place is deeply important for me as a writer, and as a reader as well – I love texts that deeply evoke a particular sense of place. In many ways, haunted by her past, Megha is looking for a place and a home. Empty apartments and furniture, especially bookshelves, are both reality and metaphor for her. She goes to places where her career pushes her, sometimes unexpectedly.
Moving between places, especially when one goes from being marginal to being privileged, affects the writing. If the experience of a grounded marginality drives your voice, what happens when you suddenly find yourself in a bubble of privilege? Voices can go missing in times like these. And with new place comes people, and the complexity of one’s relation with them.
Megha’s discomfort, while she’s in the US, is palpable. Something that she says that’s particularly telling of this discomfort is “Some people had a name. Some had a feature. And some had a nation. They were all here in America.” Did you have to write the bits set in New York differently? If so, how?
Yes of course, a brown person’s voice is very different when they are in the West as opposed to when they are in the subcontinent. Particularly for one acutely conscious of their minority status in the US, and even in the highly staggered politics of the world of arts, letters, and education. The kind of tags that are pegged to immigrants, particularly blue-collar immigrants, in the US, can be absurd, sad, and comical at the same time.
For a person in the arts, which is a more privileged space yet lurid with racialised experience, the experience of anger and hopelessness, touching various aspects of life and labor, can be visceral and deeply grounded. When you’re back to your place of origin, you suddenly see yourself in a space of privilege with a new set of marginalised people around you, and that can put you through a whole new process of identity politics that may colour your writing.
What takes Megha to all these different places is her work as a teacher. Her roles as a writer and a teacher seem fairly separate, but we see her discomfort at them melding together when her students read her work and talk to her about it. Some of your other projects also are deeply concerned with students and teachers, and how we learn from one another. This seems to be an area of interest for you – tell us a little more about that.
I think education is a running theme through most of what I write. While I have an institutionalised life as an educator, and also write books and articles affirming certain kinds of education – such as the liberal arts – I realise a hidden part of me feels education to be a process of control that harnesses human subjects to the dominant order. I guess my writing life on the whole seeks to treat education in all its paradoxes, its beauty, its possibilities, but also its deeply repressive function.
I imagined The Middle Finger, with a poet and teacher as the protagonist, as caught right in the middle of this – the great power of learning to liberate and motivate people, but also as something commodified, branded and made unevenly available across society. Who gets access to knowledge? Who gets to stake a claim to be the teacher? So much of it depends on who you are, and where you come from. Emphatically so in capitalist societies such as the US, but also very much so within the more socialist higher education landscape of India, where the inequities of caste and class, I would say, are far more violent and deeply entrenched than the racial divisions in the US.
Artistic education is even more complicated – who knows how to draw the line between talent and learning, identity and language, schooling and de-schooling? So yes, one can only think of education as something whose greatest strengths are impossibly entangled with its most terrifying problems.
Something else that haunts this novel and its characters is a sense of unfinishedness. I was struck by this, especially in a time like this – what it was like to be writing this novel so concerned with unfinishedness and closure, in a time that’s, for lack of a better word, unprecedented and seemingly endless in how much grief it produces? How did the pandemic change how you wrote and edited this novel?
Very interesting that you sensed this. Human beings are rather unfinished beings, no? As is perhaps humanity as a whole, and who knows where we are headed now. But it is true that this novel paradoxically ends with something of a sense of a beginning. But all art is unfinished representation, as I tell my students – it’s just up to you where you place the frame. There is always reality outside the frame, but that probably doesn’t concern you.
Learning, too, never ends – unlike the classic bildungsroman where it does once you finish college, get a job, and become a parent. In different ways, all my protagonists end up breaking this pattern, and with this one, a certain kind of unlearning becomes the most crucial face of learning. That is what these last two years have taught us, during which I have lost several friends and family members, some from Covid, some from other illness and accidents. In a way, it makes you give up all your expectations and demands from life.
What were some of the books you read while writing this novel?
A lot of poetry. Initially, poetry by black American poets – Claudia Rankine, Evie Shockley, Morgan Parker. I also read and wrote about the poetry of some contemporary Indian poets – Basant Rath’s Own me Srinagar, Sarabjeet Garcha’s Lullaby of the Ever-Returning. Also revisited some of Arundhathi Subramaniam’s poetry of faith, and found inspiration in Tishani Doshi’s poetry of performance. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Book of Indian Essays. And much else.
I was really interested in the choice of the title. What made you settle on The Middle Finger?
That’s Drona’s blessing in the version of the myth discovered by Wendy Doniger quoted in the epigraph: that Bhil can shoot arrows even without his thumb, using his middle-finger and his forefinger.
Finally, what are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on translating into English three stories for the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of the short stories of Rabindranath Tagore. It’s making me think a lot about certain impossibilities – and sometimes the undesirability – of translating the local and the provincial for a global audience.