“Literature sits uneasy in India,” one of Saikat Majumdar’s characters says, in the context of pedagogy, the teaching of literature, particularly literature in English, within conventional structures. The statement might well be true for literature in general.
Literature is not just the representation but often the embodiment of conflict. It can be activist, it is often propagandist, and increasingly, literature seems divisive. In atmanirbhar India, literature might even be expected to be entrepreneurial, productive, goal-oriented, and hypernationalistic. It is then a relief that in the writing of Majumdar, literature is what creates unease, forces the reader to question prejudices, take a closer look at privilege.
Never shying away from the difficult, Majumdar’s fiction has always explored the worlds of desire and difference with exquisite skill. His latest, The Middle Finger, delves into the world of academia and the spaces that literature inhabits inside and outside the classroom. Switching between university campuses in America and India, the novel also takes cognisance of the often intersecting categories of race, ethnicity, caste, and class. However, it remains, precisely, determinedly, a mediation on language, on poetry, and the complicated relationships between art, experience and appropriation.
No rude gestures
Majumdar’s protagonist is Megha Mansukhani, erstwhile grad student who has given up on her dissertation on 18th century poetry at Princeton, possibly because of what she sees as problems of authenticity. A poet herself, Meghna writes the lives she sees; she writes as witness to the current moment of history and culture and politics and interpersonal relationships.
She loves her writing in print but the sound of it, the transference from paper to performance, fills her with disquiet: “There was something savage about their sound that she couldn’t bear. The thought that she had written them was a slap on her face. They sounded alien. They claimed slimy muscles she did not possess. Suffering she had not suffered.” Her words become appropriative of someone else’s truth(s) when made aural.
This slippage of responsibility, causing dissonance between forms of language remains a constant refrain in Megha’s relationship with her art. Choosing to teach “basic writing” to a less tony set of students at Rutgers University, Megha writes, gets published intermittently, has a dedicated following that performs her poems at speakeasies and elsewhere, and wonders if she has thrown away her life by throwing away her dissertation. After all, as her thesis advisor says, in a statement that all research scholars ever will find absolute resonance with, “Dissertations are full of deceit. It takes time for them to love you back.”
Dissatisfied with her research, dissatisfied with the temporary solutions on offer, Megha decides to take up a teaching position at a new and dazzling university in her erstwhile city, Delhi. Funded by venture capitalists of Indian origin and Stanford pedigree, Harappa University is to be the answer to the educational needs of the well-heeled.
Delhi is where Megha slips into multiple skins. She is teacher / poet /muse, Amreekan / desi, liberal / class-circumscribed. Majumdar cleverly weaves in the character of Poonam, a Christian girl from Jharkhand, unsure of her language skills, awed by Megha, her books, her poetry; the Eklavya to Megha’s modern-day Drona.
The prologue to the novel quotes a version of the guru-shishya story where Drona recognises Arjun as perfidious and blesses the Bhil prince, the outsider, Eklavya, with his favour. Unfairly deprived of his thumb, the Bhil would still be able to shoot perfectly using his middle-finger.
There are no rude gestures in Majumdar’s book. There are no middle fingers being shown. There is, however, a thumbing of the nose at narrative and societal conventions. Poonam’s incandescent prose, which she insists has been unlocked in her voice through Megha’s teaching, a tutoring Megha has never consciously done, is a brilliantly subversive re-telling of the Mahabharata story. What kicks it up a notch is the idea posited in the other part of the epilogue, borrowed from Plato’s The Symposium- that of knowledge shared by an osmotic, sensual encounter. A thread of desire runs through the complexity of the Megha-Poonam relationship, never quite simplifying itself into the desire of the body for the other.
Written when it is, against the threat of an aspiring “trishul nation”, the book organically concerns itself with questions of privilege and the inability to problematise it. In America, Megha’s white friends are keen to visit spaces inhabited by Asian immigrants like her, but the smells clinging to people, stains of everyday existence that they might spot, are embarrassing to Megha in the otherness that they represent.
In Delhi, as her driver and his helpers set about arranging her furniture, she is conscious of a “male odour (that) floated all over her flat”, a “lazy, disagreeable smell”. When Poonam, unmindful of the dirt she is tracking into Megha’s living room, stains a new rug, Megha is upset about the filth her guests might have to witness.
The disgust Megha feels is not so much an individual as a social response. Martha Nussbaum, in her Hiding from Humanity, explains disgust: “disgust embodies a shrinking from contamination that is associated with the human desire to be nonanimal (…) the discomfort people feel over the fact of having an animal body is projected outwards onto vulnerable people and groups. These reactions are irrational, in the normative sense, both because they embody an aspiration to be a kind of being that one is not, and because, in the process of pursuing that aspiration, they target others for gross harms.”
Disgust, then, is perhaps a response to personal inadequacy? Shame and disgust are often interwoven with caste, class, and pedigree. Class and its invisible barriers are what prevent Poonam from acquiring a college education or direct tutelage from the woman she sets up and publicly acknowledges as her teacher. There is no real antidote to shame, but in a speech that Megha makes to a set of aspiring students, she presents a beautiful solution: ownership. Own your shame. Own your dissonance. The speech is not a plea but an unapologetic insistence on inclusion.
A collision of worlds
The book also challenges the normatives, the nostalgia of “home”. In a world where families are fragmented and identity lies in a flux of locations, where and what is home? Working at Rutgers, Megha chooses to live outside of the city and in a nondescript town because she finds it “oddly familiar, a patch of the warm country where she had grown up”. While thinking of Delhi, she wonders if it is home: “Was a city home if it didn’t have parents anymore ?”
While setting up her apartment in Delhi, she wonders if the furniture, with its associations of the people who have helped her source it, the people who have sat in chairs and eaten at tables and arranged books in their own peculiar notions of order, is what makes up home. In a particularly evocative scene where Megha plots Poonam’s home through the word-maps she has drawn, and in the act of setting up yet another bookshelf, an alcove, a shrine, Majumdar seems to suggest that home is where people claim each other, claim each other’s stories.
The Middle Finger is a space in which many worlds collide. Academia meets the compulsions of administration. Big city entitlement meets small town aspirations. Unthinking privilege meets the constraints of class. Majumdar brings alive cities, re-introducing the reader to breakfasts at Flury’s and lunches at Purani Dilli.
But in the midst of all these interfaces, I am immensely grateful to the author for his multiple affirmations of a liberal arts education, of an insistence on finding meaning in words, in the transference of truth from the written word to a spoken / dance performance, of the odd intimacies that spring up between the teacher and the taught – all, in a climate that is increasingly not just indifferent to but also antagonistic towards literature, art, and the beautiful and brutal realities that live in their interstices.
The Middle Finger, Saikat Majumdar, Simon & Schuster India.