ABOUT TABISH KHAIR:
Khair was born in 1966 in Ranchi (then part of Bihar, now the capital of Jharkhand) and grew up in his hometown, Gaya. He did his Masters from the local university. Khair had his first collection of poems, 'My World', accepted for publication by a major national house (Rupa & Co., Delhi) before he left his hometown. It was favourably reviewed by senior poets and critics like Keki N. Daruwalla, Adil Jussawalla, Vilas Sarang and Shiv K. Kumar. After about four years as a staff reporter in Delhi, Khair left for Copenhagen, Denmark, to do a PhD, which he completed in 2000. It was published as 'Babu Fictions' by Oxford University Press in 2001 (a paperback edition came out in 2005) and has since become one of the important secondary texts on Indian English fiction. In 2000, Khair also published a collection of poems, 'Where Parallel Lines Meet' (Penguin), which is considered to be "one of the most significant collections in recent years by an Indian writing in English." It included poems for which he had won the prestigious All India Poetry Prize. Khair's second novel, 'The Bus Stopped', was published by Picador in 2004. Along with novels by Hari Kunzru and Nadeem Aslam, it was short-listed for the Encore Award (UK). His new novel, ‘The Thing About Thugs’, published earlier this year, has been shortlisted for the Hindu Best Fiction Prize.
Question 1: It is often said, or implied, these days that literature cannot and should not be defined. Do you agree with that?
Tabish Khair: Not at all: I believe that one has to define the matter. It is a pressing need today, in particular, for the definition has been left to market forces or political ones, or to narrow academic exegesis, or people have thrown up their hands and equated all linguistic uses with literature. In a book that I have just completed with the French writer, Sébastien Doubinsky, Reading Literature Today (to be published by Sage in 2011), we engage with exactly this, and without kid-gloves on. If the great danger of the first half of the 20th century was the tendency to equate literature with the ‘folk’ (or, in Marxist versions, the ‘proletariat’), the great danger of our half of the 21st century seems to be the inability to distinguish between literature and the ‘market’. But while both the masses and the markets play a role in the definition and consumption of literature, it takes only a moment of thought to realise that democracy is a political concept and the market is a socio-economic construct, while literature is political, socio-economic and much else. Definitions of literature cannot be reduced to the masses or the market.
Question 2 & 3: What the hell is literature then? Can it be defined?
Khair: When one looks at scholarly (and writerly) definitions of literature, one comes across various overlapping trends. There is the attempt to define literature in terms of mimesis, which focuses on literature’s relationship to an external reality. Then there are attempts – magical realism being only the latest and most visible of such literary trends, not unrelated to earlier romanticist expressivism – to talk of literature in terms of fantasy or the imagination: such definitions focus on literature’s relationship to an internal reality. Aesthetic and objectivist theories, on the other hand, focus on literature in terms of art, having its own largely autonomous system of internal relations. In recent years, when story-telling has moved from being in need of defense to having become a hegemonic critical mantra, there is also a tendency to reduce literature to narrative. No literary ‘gimmicks’ goes the chant. But while literatures contain narrative, so do films and comic strips. To define literature in narrative terms is to define only an aspect of some kinds of literature; to celebrate literature primarily as narratives is to impose a non-literary criterion of selection on literature.
There has been a more promising trend in recent years. Anne Sheppard, for instance, claims, with justification, that “meaning in art is really like meaning in language” and applies this perception to a reading of literature. But while this is a necessary perception, it is not sufficient. For meaning in literature is also not like meaning in all other kinds of language use – in that it assumes its character not through legibility, coherence, transparency etc, but through a careful intermingling of these common characteristics of language use with the ‘literary’ use of what can be called a kind of ‘non-language’ (in the logical sense): noise, gap, silence, contradiction etc.
To understand this, we have to state two obvious facts. First, literature is written in language. Second, literature is not just about language. In other words, literature is written in language about that which cannot and will not be confined to language. Literary language, in particular, refuses to delimit its meanings and concerns, as ‘scientific’ or ‘business’ or ‘administrative’ language does (or pretends to do). Hence, literature is where the problems, possibilities and limits of language can no longer be avoided. But these problems are also the problems of philosophy: of ‘reality’ and ‘representation’, at its simplest and most complex. I would use this perception to define literature. In short, literature is that which presses against the limits of language in life.
Questions 4, 5 & 6: What do you write about? What do you seek to represent? Isn’t it problematic to use English to write about India, a country of so many languages and of millions who do not know English?
Khair: Any representation, or claim to represent, is problematic. Can I represent anyone other than myself? On what grounds can I speak for someone else? When I speak for someone else, don’t I actually put my words in his/her mouth? Actually, it is worse than that: can I even speak for myself? Is my self-understanding so profound that I can claim to understand myself thoroughly, to see myself as transparent enough to be represented fully in my own words? (And yet representation is both an existential and political necessity: we need to represent ourselves, society is run by our ‘representatives’ etc.) So, of course, when a privileged class starts writing about a less privileged class in a particular (not necessarily shared) language, the matter gets even more complicated and dubious. But this is not to dismiss Indian English fiction per se. I do not think many Indian English writers set out to represent anyone: they basically tell stories as they see them. It is largely in the West that they are considered to be ‘representative.’ Some of them let this impression stay unchallenged, as it provides them with ‘authenticity’ and a larger readership in the West. It also connects to a sad tendency in the West to read non-Western literature in sociological, historical or psychological terms – as providing an insight into a problem, a society or, say, an immigrant’s ‘mind’ – and not primarily as art. However, any fiction is by definition about things that one has not really experienced. That is why it is fiction and not a factual essay, not journalism or a report or an autobiography. Fiction does not really make truth claims, at least by definition. So, one cannot really dismiss Indian English creativity on such grounds. My early study Babu Fictions (Oxford UP, 2001) argued for an awareness of this problem (which is largely ignored); it did not castigate or dismiss Indian English fiction in general. One can wish (as I do) that Indian English writers would address this problem more directly in their fiction. I think that an awareness of the problem will make Indian English fiction more complex, varied and vibrant: as it is, much of Indian English fiction today is becoming a kind of polished story-telling, with very little cutting edge in terms of form, politics, structure, genre etc.
Questions 7 & 8: But what readership do you write for, then? Don’t writers have readers in mind?
Khair: I think many creative writers probably write for themselves: they choose to write in the language they are most comfortable with. Some writers might have a readership in mind too, and (to be honest) there is a limited readership for Indian English literature in India: very few Indians are fluent in English and even the educated middle class hardly reads serious fiction in English. So, by default, the readership of Indian English fiction is ‘global’: not just ‘Western’, for there is a large Indian (even Asian) diaspora that seems to be reading these novels in greater numbers and there are ‘globalised’ Asians in the bigger cities of India, Pakistan etc.
I write from a compulsion to tell certain stories, explore certain ideas, explode certain myths: if I have a readership in mind, it consists of people who are interested in similar ideas, themes, stories, experiences and/or the same endeavour to question and explore.
Questions 9 & 10: As a writer from a Muslim background, what do you think of the current climate of suspicion and acrimony? How does it affect you as a writer?
Khair: The problem, I think, lies in the discursive monolingualism that afflicts the West (and the Arab world too): just as no Arab can understand the complexities of the ‘West’ if he confines himself to Arabic, no European or American can understand the complexities of ‘Muslim’ societies if he confines himself to European languages. I often tend to get misread on all sides. Recently, a major British Commonwealth critic attributed these views to me: “The bombing of the World Trade Towers and similar actions were to be expected and will continue until capitalism is defeated and there is a more just sharing…Until that revolution comes (and perhaps even after), Khair is likely to remain irritated [at the West]…” However, in my essays I have expressly written that nothing justifies terrorist violence (which is not to say that it should not be analysed and understood in context). Moreover, I have even written that violence can never be a response to violence of any sort, for violence, like a virus, spreads by infecting us and others. I see violence as an extreme and extremely tragic symptom to be carefully analysed, and not as a political prescription. I do not even have any quarrel with the ‘West’, for I am as much part of the ‘West’ as I am of the ‘East’. But I do have a quarrel with some dominant trends in the ‘West’, in which elites of the ‘East’ (including Muslim ones, both ‘religious’ and, sometimes, ‘secular’) as well as pseudo-revolutionary movements like Islamism are complicit. Part of the logic running through my works is that Muslims, including secular or agnostic Muslims, have to reclaim their own religious-cultural heritage (without automatically becoming practicing Muslims), or it will remain the preserve of fundamentalists and Mullahs. After all, secular, even atheistic, Christians can go to the church and celebrate Christmas without being accused of being religious or being considered suspect in their views about secular or religious matters. But if you were born a Muslim and want to be considered secular (let alone agnostic), it appears that you have no option but to accept the dominant Western perception of your own complex and contentious heritage! If you do anything else, it seems that even some cosmopolitan scholars get at least a tiny bit suspicious of your affiliation and intentions. And of course the fact that in some Islamic countries a Muslim can get assaulted or imprisoned if she openly professes, say, atheism, is the other side of that coin. On that side, you can be Muslim only in certain Mullah-accredited ways. As such, most thinking persons from a Muslim background, believing or unbelieving, find themselves between the devil and the deep sea these days.
As a writer, it affects me only to the extent that I have to be prepared to be misunderstood and, sometimes, misquoted. I have been threatened, verbally and physically, by Islamic fundamentalists, Hindu fanatics and Danish nationalists on different occasions, so I have learned to live with that. I dislike writing to provoke people; there is something a bit juvenile about that attitude of permanent teenage rebellion. But I write what I have to write, and if it provokes someone else, I guess one just has to live with that.
Monthly literary column by Khair:
Review of The Thing About Thugs, Khair's new novel:
Monthly literary column by Khair:
Review of The Thing About Thugs, Khair's new novel: