Tabish Khair’s deft storytelling carries with it a deceptive simplicity that helps navigate deeply complex socio-political issues with beautiful ease. Khair’s works often feature diverse cultural and religious identities, and quite cleverly highlight the casual, latent, and oft-overlooked prejudices that continue to linger in modern society. Despite their overarching social commentary, his works remain incredibly grounded, concerned more with the stories of ordinary individuals facing extraordinary situations. With extremely realistic and relatable characters, his works resonate with readers from across the globe.
You recently published a collection of sonnets called Quarantined Sonnets: Sex, Money, Shakespeare. What inspired you to document your pandemic experiences in the form of rewritten Shakespearean sonnets?
TK: It came about from a request by a colleague who wanted me to collaborate on a paper on Shakespeare’s sonnets. This was at the start of the pandemic in 2020. During the first lockdown, in March 2020 or so, I started re-reading the sonnets, and then, initially just to keep the isolation of the lockdown at bay, I started rewriting the sonnets. That led to 21 sonnets, all very freely rewritten in the current context, and growing progressively darker with the pandemic. They explored, among other things, the failure of governments, the acts of politicians (one of them is almost entirely made up of lines by Trump, another refers to our infamous ‘folk curfew’), the effect of the pandemic on professions ranging from migrant workers and nurses to prostitutes, and environmental degradation. The tone was always humorous, often satirical. Then when Kitaab, Singapore, offered to publish it and contribute the profits (and my royalty) to a Covid charity, then I was more than happy to let them bring it out. It is more a pamphlet than a book. I think the strict form of the sonnets kept me focussed, and the exuberant performativity of Shakespeare – even in his sonnets you encounter so many personas and the final lines almost always present a dramatic twist – enabled me to take risks, assume personas of my own, while living in isolation. It helped me cope.
Born and brought up in India and now a writer as well as a professor in Denmark, have you observed differences as to how your works are perceived in India and other places across the world? Have you ever felt that one’s cultural identity and upbringing might pose to be an obstacle when writing for a larger audience?
TK: There are three categories of writers: those with powerful networks, agents, institutions, and houses behind them, those struggling to publish and managing mostly with personal networks, and those in between, like me, who do get published and reviewed, but survive precariously as they do not have the powerful networks that enable regularly high visibility. Writers like these, like me, depend on groups of committed readers, who mostly found them on their own and continue to find their books over the years. Some of these writers might depend on personal networks too, as the third group of struggling-to-publish writers perforce does, but that has never appealed to me. So, essentially, what I am trying to say is that the way my works are received in India and abroad does not vary that much: in all these places, it depends on the committed reader. Yes, an occasional novel, might get taken up by the Oprah Magazine and reviewed in the New Yorker or TLS, but that does not mean that my next novel will find review space in such mainstream and prestigious publications. For the next novel, I still depend on the reader who has found me and is looking for me – true, there might be a few thousand of these in South Asia and only a few hundred in France, but it is the same process. This means that I am not very conscious of a larger audience. It does not enter my considerations, despite the fact that I am not the kind of writer who sets out to be ‘literary’. I simply try to write what I think is a necessary and good novel – or book – in the knowledge that there are just enough readers out there looking out for it. As these readers are fairly scattered, I need to be true to what I am doing, and not try to ‘please’ all of them – not only would it be wrong; it would be futile. Hence, my cultural upbringing is not an obstacle in or for my writing, though it might be a problem in the reception of my writing by the mainstream publishing/reviewing world. But that is not my concern. Or anything I can change.
The overarching theme of your works is often based on topics that trace back to India in some way or the other yet the settings are often non-Indian. What do you think the impact of “Otherness” has on authors’ works and their audience? And how is it changing with time? We are curious to know your first-hand experience.
TK: That is a very difficult question, and made more difficult by the different ways in which people use the ‘other’. For instance, I was reading this excellent book – strongly recommended – Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World, and its author often states that precarity is a state of vulnerability to the other. Every time I came across that assumption or statement, in an admirable book, I winced. I can see that Tsing is using the ‘other’ in a largely anthropological sense, while I think of it in a literary and philosophical sense. For me, all of life is vulnerability to the other. Many of our problems arise when we try to make ourselves invulnerable to the other, something that is simply not possible – though genocides have been enacted to enable this, and probably will be in the future too. Precarity, in the Judith Butlerian sense, cannot be vulnerability to the other, because then it is just life. Something else is added to this vulnerability, and this something else does not come from the other. This something else is imposed on us as institutional, even structural, so to say, and it marginalizes both the self and the other, though sometimes of course the blame for it is given to the other. Hence, precarity is a state in which the self is always afraid of being othered – othered in the negative, disposable sense employed in colonial discourses, and not the more complex philosophical sense of Butler, Levinas or Buber. Tsing’s book is fully aware of this. But she still had these statements, which made me wince, for I was coming from a different trajectory of thought to the same word: ‘other.’ Because, again, for me, literature is all about otherness. Especially what is called creative literature. There is now a fairly established argument that the rise of modern notions of human rights coincided with the rise of novel-reading: surely, you as a middle class, law-abiding reader could not read about someone like Moll Flanders, by no means a paragon of virtue, without accessing both her difference and her similarity. We talk of empathy, but empathy is a simplification: all of creative literature is an engagement with the other. This happens at the level of the reading, of course, because you always read about someone else in another space and time, but it also happens in the writing, where, put in words, even the self is accessed as an other. Yes, even in autobiographical novels. Unlike what people say these days, especially in Americanised spaces, no creative writing is simply self-expression, not in that simplistic sense, because you never write yourself: you always write an other self. Proust was fully aware of this.
‘Just Another Jihadi Jane’ explores religious fanaticism and the title in itself seems to stand at a point where the alliterating words seem to contrast rather than complement. The theme of orthodoxy is not just confined by national boundaries; it expands over the east too. What made you choose the title, the theme and the setting of the novel?
TK: Currently, I am working on a study – it might well be my last academic study – titled ‘Literature and Fundamentalism,’ and that would answer your question in some detail. Actually, there is a difference between orthodoxy and fundamentalism, though often the dividing line is very fine. And, yes, fundamentalism is not confined to national boundaries or even to religions. For instance, Stalinism was a fundamentalist take on Marxism. Neoliberalism and ‘free market – trickle down’ ideologies are essentially fundamentalist ones. Some versions of positivism in scientific research can become fundamentalist, or come very close to it. Fundamentalism is a particular approach to language as representation, at its simplest, and it is through that approach that fundamentalism impacts on life. But I cannot really talk about it in a few lines. It is more complex than just that. To return to Just Another Jihadi Jane, yes, I was interested in a certain kind of fundamentalism, but not only that. The novel grew out of my earlier novel, How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position, which was essentially a humorous take on our prejudices about others. It was not really about fundamentalism. It was also a novel that revolved around three men. Someone asked me why I did not tackle fundamentalism per se in that novel, directly. I thought about it and I realized that male religious fundamentalists do not interest me: I find them predictable; I see them as bullies. So, they want to control ‘their’ women: what’s new or interesting about a male mind like that? But what if a woman in a western society chooses to join a fundamentalist movement? Her choice is complex. It contains contradictions, if not nuances. She gives up a lot to gain something else, whether real or imagined. She cannot be understood as a bully, or even as simply brainwashed, for, if she grew up in the West then she did have other choices. She chose something that is less easily or widely available as an option in the west, if she went for Islamism. She chose something that curbed her freedoms as a woman in many areas. Why? It is this that led to Just Another Jihadi Jane, a novel that revolves around two such women.
Whether it is “River of No Return”, “The House with the Grey Gate” or Sonnet 21 in Quarantined Sonnets: Sex, Money and Shakespeare, there are certain visuals and imagery of physical locations - city, highways, dwelling etc. Walk us through your idea and experience about the influences of urbanity in poetry?
TK: Deep in my heart, I have occupied a ‘small town’ space. I have mostly lived in what would be called ‘small towns’: my first 25 years in Gaya, my last 15 years in Aarhus, mostly in a village outside it. In between, about 10 years in all in Delhi and Copenhagen. Hence, my urbanity is in some ways peripheral. It is a cosmopolitan urbanity, but not metropolitan. It is, I hope, always urbane, but not necessarily urban all the time. Not just small towns but the villages on their peripheries also lurk somewhere in my urbanity. For years now, I have argued that it is a mistake to conflate cosmopolitanism with metropolitanism, a mistake that post-Rushdie Indian English literature tends to make far too often. This is not at all a nativist celebration of other spaces, but a realisation that cosmopolitanism is not a function of privilege. Cosmopolitanism is an openness to encounters with the other, and in some privileged metropolitan deserts this is less likely to happen than in some urbane taluk town oases.
The theme of this particular issue of The Medley is ‘Fragile’, which does not have a simplistic understanding. It is emotional, psychological and (sometimes) regional. Does being associated with a certain religion, region and ethnicity make one susceptible initially or does it bring about an “exotic” charm that comes alongside being the ‘Other’?
TK: No one can be an other. One can only encounter the other. We are always a ‘self’ to ourselves. What we encounter is the other. If you define yourself as Hindu, you may encounter a Muslim as an other. If you define yourself as heterosexual, you may encounter a homosexual as an other. But a Muslim will not be an other to him/herself; s/he will be a self and might encounter you, a Hindu, as an other. And it is the same with, say, a homosexual. The other, like the self, is not a stagnant quality; it is always part of a dynamic relationship. It is when we forget this (that the self is always in a relationship to the other and vice versa), it is then that we end up with all the problems of xenophobia etc. The realisation that we are, in our self, vulnerable to the other, and the other is vulnerable to our self, is a crucial realisation – which we often ignore or try to destroy in a wild panic. Vulnerability makes people panic at times, especially in Capitalist societies which are faced by this strange contradiction: they are premised on ‘safety’ but structured by increasing precarity. After all, it is vulnerability that makes some people avoid love or react with anger when their love is rejected. But vulnerability is a condition of life: it exists in the relationship of the other to the self, without which neither the self nor the other can be complete, can grow. We mostly fail to realise this. Exoticising the other is one side of the coin of this failure, the other side of which is genocide. As a highly self-conscious species, it is surprising that we have largely failed to work this out. It reflects poorly on our intelligence.
Khair was born in 1966 in Ranchi (then part of Bihar, now the capital of Jharkhand) and grew up in his hometown, Gaya. Gaya is a small but historically-significant town in Bihar; TABISH KHAIR is the author of various books including The New Xenophobia (OUP, 2016), Jihadi Jane in India (Penguin, 2016), and Night of Happiness (Picador, 2018).
His honours and prizes include the All India Poetry Prize (awarded by the Poetry Society and the British Council) and honorary fellowship (for creative writing) of the Baptist University of Hong Kong. He has been writer in residence at York University, UK, and visiting fellow or guest professor at Cambridge University and Leeds University, UK; Delhi University, JNU, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi (India), IIT Bhubaneswar (India), etc.
Khair now mostly lives in a village off the town of Aarhus, Denmark.