Interview: Saikat Majumdar

The sensory filters of politics: In conversation with Saikat Majumdar

Print edition : January 28, 2022


Interview with the novelist and literary critic Saikat Majumdar.

Saikat Majumdar has emerged as one of the most powerful and important voices of his generation in Indian literature in English. Through his beautiful and often dark writings, Majumdar has not only explored the complexities of human relationships in their different socio-political milieus but has also gently questioned universally accepted social norms, traditions, and behaviour. Formerly a teacher at Stanford University, Majumdar is at present Professor of English and Creative writing at Ashoka University. He has also published several acclaimed books on education and literary criticism, including Prose of the World (2013), College: Pathways of Possibility (2018), and the co-edited collection of essays, The Critic as Amateur (2019).

Nearly three years after his last novel, The Scent of God (published in 2019)—which deals with homosexual love in a Hindu religious institution—Majumdar's latest and fourth novel, The Middle Finger, will be released on January 25. In an exclusive interview with Frontline, he talks about his new book and various aspects of his art in an increasingly conservative and intolerant society. “I think writing fiction is more like living life in its messiness and unpredictability—more so than theorising politics, or even following particular ideological trajectories.” Excerpts.

“The Scent of God” ruffled quite a few feathers and enjoyed its fair share of controversy and acclaim. “The Middle Finger” is about to be released this month; and it already sounds controversial. What are you dealing with in this work?

A writer is moved when their work generates discussion. But controversy that pushes dissent beyond the space of a lively debate is unfortunate. However, a work of art is a living, organic being, and like a person—sometimes an impulsive or opinionated person—they end up provoking other people. The Scent of God was a love story. It was about the relationship between two teenage boys in a Hindu monastic boarding school, one similar to the school where I studied for a few years. Even though the story is fictional, the atmosphere is real, as are some of the characters. I remember a maddening milieu of spirituality and desire, austerity and eroticism, all mixed up, which I just had to write about, and so it happened. Institutions continue to play a defining role in my fiction, but in the new novel, it is the university campus.

I don’t know if The Middle Finger sounds controversial—perhaps the title does; but it actually comes from the retelling of a myth. At the heart of this novel is the nature of the relation between a teacher and a student, the many confusing shades of that relationship. Who gets close access to a teacher, to certain kinds of education, and why? What are the limits of friendship and intimacy between a teacher and a student? What is the connection between the artistic, the intellectual, and the erotic? Once again, it is a fictional story, with historically recognisable settings, perhaps a few characters, who knows? A couple of stories were humming in my head while I wrote this. One was Plato’s Symposium, which imagines, sometimes ironically, an erotic connection as the medium of learning between a teacher and a student.

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Also influential was the story of Drona and Ekalavya, and particularly a Jaina retelling of that story from the 16th century. In this version, Ekalavya’s thumb is chopped off because of Arjun’s trickery rather than a demand made by Drona. In this story, Drona curses Arjun and blesses Bhil warriors with the ability to shoot arrows using their index and middle finger. How can these conflicts play out in a university campus today? That’s what my novel tries to imagine.

You said this book explores among other things the “limits of intimacy and friendship between a teacher and a student”. But a teacher’s position vis-a-vis a student’s is one of enormous authority and power. In fact, the relationship is often perceived to be that between a guardian and a ward. Did the recent “#MeToo movement” in the universities and colleges of the country also feature in the back of your mind while writing this novel?

Yes, of course. It’s impossible to think of the limits of the student-teacher relationship in terms of intimacy and power without also thinking of the structural abuse of this power relation that the academic #MeToo movement has exposed. There is no doubt that the most obvious power equation between the student and the teacher, especially at the university, works in the teacher’s favour, and puts the student in a position of vulnerability, which is ironically deepened as you go higher along the educational ladder as the career stakes become more deeply concentrated in the hands of the teacher. And there is no doubt that by far the largest instances of abuse have been those by heterosexual men, of women who have occupied positions of structural disadvantage or vulnerability in relation to such men. Once you acknowledge that, however, you may be ready to see power, desire, and intimacy through finer nuances than a simple binary of the abuser and the abused, though that binary may very well also co-exist with these finer nuances.

My novel is complicated by caste/ethnic identity, as Ekalavya comes from a very different social space from Drona and the rest of the students. But Drona and Ekalavya, in my retelling, are both women, while Arjun is a man. So the intricate web of friendship, intimacy, and hidden desire that welds the central teacher-student relationships in the novel move between the normative and the transgressive. Also, this is a novel that moves between India and the United States, and between characters with very individualistic upbringing and Western education on the one hand, and characters whose upbringing reflects different kinds of indigenous and colonial traditions. So there are cultural conflicts around the issues of pedagogy, learning, and mentoring as well. What kind of desire does learning embody? Is desire itself a kind of learning? Does one learn the methods of artistic creation, or does one need to unlearn in order to grow? I think this novel ends up with all these questions, which are, in the end, messy and impossible to resolve.

But no matter how much you think about these issues, at the end of the day fictional characters are their own animals, and they have lives of their own. You can only talk about the larger social features they share. There are always things about them that are purely private and idiosyncratic, which cannot be explained through larger historical patterns.

A person’s desire to love, learn, or fight, is ultimately their own, and no one can quite make sense of the mysterious alleys of the human heart or body, not even the characters themselves.

Coming back to “The Scent of God”, did you expect the book to generate so much discourse? And how did you deal with it?

The subject of the novel felt intoxicating from the start—the bizarre tension of the sensual and the spiritual—and I felt it might be a little unsettling for some people. But I think the sensitive themes were quite understated in the novel, and it came out as a quiet work of literary fiction in the end. However, in September 2018, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was repealed, leading to the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and The Scent of God, coming out in January 2019, ended up being among the first group of books about queer love out in a post-377 India.

So it got caught up somewhat in the celebrations and the criticisms, being showcased in queer literary festivals, Pride Month selections, etc. There were members in the queer community who found the book not activist enough, not daring enough—which was probably what was called for in that historic moment of celebration, but which, I felt, couldn’t ring true in a story of two hesitant, confused boys in a religious boarding school. One gay magazine took issues with its rootedness in Hindu monasticism and called it a right-leaning book, which completely amazed me, but later I realised that for some people in India any discussion of Hinduism automatically branded you as part of the Right, as the queer scholar and writer Ruth Vanita told me later.

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Still, on the whole, I wouldn’t say that the novel really triggered any violent controversy as such, as for instance what we saw with Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, or Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman. It would have been surprising if it did— most readers found the sensitive themes quite hidden and buried. I did receive a barrage of messages from people who’d had complicated relationships with religious education, and many people who had studied in boarding schools, but most of them were positive responses, though many of them had very strange stories to share. The alumni of the particular school fictionalised in the novel, naturally, took a keen interest in it, and it so happened that Desh, the leading Bangla literary magazine, carried a positive but very provocative review of the book by the writer Sumit Chakrabarti, an alum of this school. This review was shared widely in Bangla circles but I don’t think most people read the book, just the review. The translator Arunava Sinha is now translating the novel into Bangla, and it will be interesting to see what people feel about it; if it is read more widely within the culture from which it comes.

An interesting fact in your novels is that the education system is always looming in the background—particularly in “The Firebird”, “The Scent of God”, and even to some extent in your first novel, “Silverfish”—and yet your protagonists are always breaking out of that system, as though they were freeing themselves from a confinement. They come into their own only once they have broken out of the system. I am curious why, especially since you are a teacher and a part of the academic system yourself.

You’re absolutely right. I think the abiding theme of my writing life is that of education. Education not just in terms of institutional settings—schools, colleges, hostels, universities—but that of human development on the whole, especially till a certain age in life. This is where the Bildungsroman comes in—the “novel of education” that charts life from birth/childhood to the early twenties, and I can see why both The Firebird and The Scent of God, novels about young boys and their growth, have been read as examples of the Bildungsroman. I’m drawn to childhood and adolescence as a writer, as these are phases of life when you can’t make much real sense of the experiences that hit you—there is something primal and shocking and beautiful about that life that you can’t really analyse, and that gap between experience and understanding makes for powerful art.

It sometimes feels to me that I have this daytime personality as an educator—and as someone who writes articles and books affirming different kinds of education, such as the liberal arts, trying to unpack and explain them from time to time. But deep down, I also recognise education as a kind of a repressive force that harnesses human subjects to the dominant order. In that sense the Bildungsroman is simply the story of an individual reaching their fulfilment as a normative citizen and a subject of the capitalist state—a father, a worker, a husband (the classical European Bildungsroman focussed exclusively on the white male subject). Both The Firebird and The Scent of God, I realise, tell stories where this induction into normative citizenship has failed catastrophically. With the former novel, the protagonist, who is around 14 when the novel ends, has drifted into a path of social and psychological destruction, emerging into a kind of toxic sexual precocity through incestual desire. The latter novel, which ends with the protagonist on the cusp of college, reveals him as straying from both civic and heteronormative lives. Both novels, I now realise, chronicle failures of education as a force that shapes normal, productive citizens.

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Possibly 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 guess The Middle Finger, with a poet and educator as the protagonist, is caught right in the middle of this—the great power of education to liberate and motivate people, but also as something commodified, branded and made unevenly available across society. Who gets access to education? Who gets to stake a claim to the teacher? So much of it depends on who you are, and where you come from. Emphatically so in capitalist societies such as the U.S., 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 U.S. 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.

Now let us come to the politics in your novel. It’s never in the fore, nor are there any direct political statements ever made, yet it is pervasive and unmistakably present. In “Silverfish”, “The Firebird” and “The Scent of God” you have presented, I feel, quite a scathing picture of society under Marxist rule in Bengal, and at the same time you are no darling of the right-wing either. How have you managed to alienate both the Left and Right in your writings?

This is such a brilliant question! I’ve realised that as a novelist I’m quite obsessed with the political, and yet I don’t have much interest in the obvious public spaces of politics, be it Parliament or Partition. I’m drawn repeatedly to the politics of the bedroom, the bathroom, the neighbourhood chai-shop, and, of course, the politics of education, of life in schools and colleges. “Pervasive and unmistakably present”—I love the way you put it. The personal, in the end, is the most pervasive, especially if characters must come to flesh-and-blood life. Some of my most defining intellectual influences are Marxist—for instance, I’m strongly drawn to the importance of the physical and the sensory in Marxism, as for instance in the amazing introduction to The Communist Manifesto, especially compared with the abstraction of the Enlightenment and Hegelian Idealism. And the evocation of the political in my novels is primarily physical, as for instance that of Communist rule in Bengal—the carrom boards outside the party offices, the dim yellow lightbulbs hanging over them, the neighbourhood vigilantes, political graffiti on walls, the loose pyjamas, the rhythm and the chant of the political rallies. In Silverfish, where the evocation of city life now seems to me a little derivative and anthropological, it was the dusty files in government offices and the rusted bureaucracy—unsurprisingly [laughing], I also wrote a book of literary criticism at that time on the colonial experience of boredom!

In The Firebird, the novel where I feel I really found my voice as a writer, it was the moral vigilantism carried out by the Communist Party, especially its neighbourhood leaders and cadres, on the sexual lives of people, especially women whose lifestyles seemed unconventional and out of sync with middle-class morality. Particularly it was about the relation of the party with theatre—on the one hand, with experimental “group” theatre that symbolised the progressive Left, on the other, the decadent naturalist theatre associated with feudal entertainment, known as commercial or professional theatre. The ruling party naturally supported the former and couldn’t care less about the latter, which in fact came across as morally or sexually corrupt to the middle class as well as to the cultural ideals of Marxism—especially given their historical association with the women of the red-light areas, and the traditional location of some of these theatre halls close to these neighbourhoods.

In the 1980s, when the novel is set, commercial theatre was bleeding dry, thanks to high production costs and audiences lost to television and video entertainment, but group theatre is also perpetually short of funds and dependent on scarce government aid. There were actors of every gender trying to somehow cobble together a career and livelihood, scrambling between different kinds of stage, including the folk form of jatra, often forced to suspend their artistic idealism. Garima, the protagonist’s mother in the novel, is one such actor trying to patch together a faltering artistic career between different theatrical forms. It feels to me that the thrust of the political in the novel is in the suspicion of the performing woman, and her never-forgotten lineage from women of sexual entertainment. But claustrophobic as the grip of political morality is, I’m most interested in how this poisons the self-making of her own son, gives him a toxic childhood, and creates his destructive obsession with the art form of theatre itself.

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If you understand the political as personal, then few things are as explosively political than religion and sexual desire. They are now intensely politicised in India, but I don’t think they were as openly politicised in the late 1980s or early 1990s, the period in which The Scent of God is set. Or perhaps the obvious politicisation was just getting under way. At any rate, in Bengal, saffron was not yet of significant political importance—the State was still red all over. The seed of this novel was a snatch of sensual memory, of the explosive undercurrent of desire and monastic celibacy in the ashram boarding school, and yet such things do not come across as political to the adolescent, who is perhaps driven more by the body than the mind, and he is not quite able to understand the body as a political thing either. Even the terms ‘queer’ and ‘straight’, much less the politics around them, don’t make much sense to their fumbling, confused sexuality. But living in India of the present, this 2019 novel feels kind of ominous—the Islamophobia of the bhadralok Bengali, as for instance evident around an India-Pakistan cricket match, or the identification of sexual temptation with the presence of women—something that would become a symbolic controversy over the entry of menstruating women in the Sabarimala temple in Kerala in 2018.

I guess somewhere at the back of my mind I imagined the conflict of colours—red versus saffron—though over the course of time there would be no real conflict between Communism and Hindutva in Bengal, as the former would be long gone before the latter became something of a political force. But in The Scent of God, in the end, the protagonist is faced with a choice of colours, though they are not equally politicised at that point—between a gritty heterosexual life on the streets of Calcutta, working for the Communist party, and a quieter life in the pastoral setting of the ashram, where another kind of relationship beckons him. He makes a personal choice, but who is to say it is not political at the same time, or will not appear as political in the eyes of posterity?

I think writing fiction is more like living life in its messiness and unpredictability—more so than theorising politics, or even following particular ideological trajectories. A moral police can belong just as easily to the Right as to the Left. If the Communist Party acted as a vigilante against what it felt was moral or cultural perversion in Bengal in the last decades of the 20th century, the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] has now taken moral and religious vigilantism to a whole new dystopia. People who identify queer activism with the left have been taken aback by the Hindu Right’s co-option of queer rights over, say, the status of Kashmir, pleading Islamic intolerance of homosexuality, essentially pitting 370 against 377, as it were. Politics is deep inside every millilitre of human body fluid, but its flow is idiosyncratic and unpredictable, and often beyond the reach of science and theory.