Memory and Place: A Conversation with Saikat Majumdar




In May 2015, I found myself among the few American readers and critics fortunate enough to receive an advanced galley of Saikat Majumdar’s exceptional new novel, The Firebird (Hachette India, 2015). It was an opportunity that I didn’t immediately take advantage of; I had intentions of reading it sooner, aware of Majumdar’s reputation as a writer and scholar, but as a writer, editor, critic, and professor myself, I’ve found increasing difficulty in staying current with the dozens, if not hundreds, of promising books in my queue. Aside from the backlog, another obstacle toward reading Majumdar’s book was that I intended to give the novel the sort of close reading that I anticipated it would merit. When I finally did finish The Firebird for the first time, it exceeded my already lofty expectations, and I regretted not having read it sooner. The novel accomplishes so much, on so many levels, it proves difficult to summarize its many achievements, but perhaps the book’s most impressive qualities are peripheral in nature, such as Majumdar’s knack for literary, artistic nuance, and his ability to capture humanity in all its complexity, merging raw, intense emotion with a subtle, resilient profundity.

I contacted Majumdar immediately after reading The Firebird with my initial, enthusiastic reaction, and soon afterward, we connected for a lengthy, gratifying phone conversation. For several hours, we discussed everything from family, and “home,” to all things literary: the ways in which the craft of writing and the pursuit of art dominated our respective lives.

Now, a mere eight months after its official release, The Firebird has launched the Stanford academic to new heights of literary success in India. However, in spite all of the media attention back home, aside from limited availability on Amazon, copies of the book in the United States, Majumdar’s current country of residence, and elsewhere, are a scarce commodity. As Western readers anxiously await the widespread distribution of The Firebird in 2017, one might delve into Majumdar’s novel via excerpts in fine journals such as The Kenyon Review and World Literature Today.

As is often the case with great books and splendid conversation, our discussion proved much too worthwhile to end with a single phone call, so Majumdar and I continued with the following interview, addressing afterthoughts to our previous communication, and opening a dialogue that I hope will ultimately fortify the path to many similar future exchanges.

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JOSEPH DANIEL HASKE: In a recent issue you edited for American Book Review on “Little India,” you conclude the introductory essay with the following observation:

The vibrant, sometimes disturbing history of post-independence India can be re-imagined as the intriguing transformation of the cosmopolitan into the provincial, and the energization of the erstwhile provincial backwater into a new, vernacular cosmopolitanism. It is a reminder that the provincial and the cosmopolitan are much more than hostile binaries: they make each other possible by their hopeless mutual entanglement. As the finest achievements of literary modernism reveal, the most exciting life of cosmopolitanism is paradoxically embodied in its provincial incarnation.

In what ways is this phenomenon unique to contemporary Indian writing or Indian expatriate writing? Is there a scholarly bias, in your opinion, against the provincial? Are such texts frequently dismissed as less literary, or are critical readers more inclined to see their respective merit?

SAIKAT MAJUMDAR: I would say the celebration of the provincial defines Indian writing, particularly vernacular Indian writing, more than it characterizes Indian expatriate writing, which tends to be in English. Provincial visions of cosmopolitanism, too, is something we are more likely to find in writing coming out of India than in expatriate writing, though there are some fascinating exceptions to this, as for instance in Anand Pandian’s Ayya’s Accounts (reviewed in that issue of ABR by Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan). Pandian offers an intriguing instance of what I call “diasporic provincialism,” where rootedness in certain locations paradoxically defines the immigrant’s transcontinental journey.

Provincial cosmopolitanism, however, flourishes in local traditions of Indian literature, as for instance in the stories of the bildung of rural or suburban intellectuals and artists, both in vernacular-language literature, such as in Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Pather Panchali and Aparajito, and in English writing coming out of India (as in the early memoirs of Pankaj Mishra or Nirad C. Chaudhuri). Much of expatriate Indian writing, on the other hand, is rooted in the experience of the bourgeois, professional immigrant, as for instance in the stories of the skilled immigrants who started to come to the United States following the 1965 Immigration Act. Literature emerges from this experience primarily in the English language and tends to reflect the cosmopolitan ambitions of this upwardly mobile, professionally successful immigrant community, even if it sometimes also represents the forms of cultural provincialism that takes shape in immigrant communities.

American writers of Indian origin, such as Jhumpa Lahiri delineate this sensitively. I’m tempted to describe such coupling of free-market capitalism and old-world values as a form of “cosmopolitan provincialism,” though this is less interesting than the cosmopolitan aspirations of the poor and provincial subject of Indian literature. The British-Indian novelist Sunjeev Sahota’s powerful recent novel, The Year of the Runaways, is a striking exception to the kind of bourgeois cosmopolitanism with which the literature (and academic literary criticism) of the professional South-Asian diaspora is identified; it transplants gritty, working class Punjabi immigrants to a brutal, working class northern England, avoiding the St. Stephen’s-Oxbridge route altogether, while encapsulating this gritty, spare manner of living with the evocative but austere meanness of its style.

Do you see parallels to this phenomenon in American fiction with respect to this cosmopolitan/provincial paradox?

American literature is one of the greatest literatures in the world when it comes to the aesthetic celebration of the provincial, the rural, the backward, and the non-modern. Locations in the rural South or Midwest have been immortalized in classic American literature — I find myself thinking of Sherwood Anderson, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, countless contemporary examples. Your own novel, North Dixie Highway, brings the snowy bite of rural Michigan alive in a visceral, sometimes even vicious way — the very title of the book tells part of that story. Inasmuch as such literature becomes part of a celebrated experimental tradition, one can say that they export their provincial to the metropolis, or as the critic John Marx has argued, makes provincialism a metropolitan affair.

Has living abroad, particularly in the United States and Canada, enabled you to better perceive, and perhaps exploit, the potential of provinciality in your own work? The temporal and geographic distance from “home” I experienced when writing North Dixie Highway, impelled me to convey the place and people much differently than I would have if I were still living there. I sense the same in your treatment of the 1980s Calcutta in The Firebird. Did you find epiphany, clarity, maybe, in your separation? What role did nostalgia play in the creative process?

The American novelist Fae Myenne Ng once told me: “The first five years is all you need.” Ng’s searing novel, Bone, one of my all-time favorites, is an exploration of childhood and family life in San Francisco’s Chinatown, in the same neighborhood where Ng herself grew up. The first five years of life, Ng argued, is the material for a lifetime of fiction writing. This statement impacted me powerfully, and made me realize why in spite of having spent the last 17 years in North America, hardly any of my fiction is set here. Why the first five? Or 10, perhaps 15 at the most? Before adulthood, at any rate? Because, I now realize, that is the period when one forms a relation with place that is non-intellectual, raw, and visceral, or at least predominantly so, full of primal joys and terrors, sensual memories, absurd connections made on the basis of daily habits and bodily experience.

Writing about such a place now, from here, becomes an exercise separated not only by time and space, but also by a certain kind of awareness and sensibility. I’ve come to realize that I’m an ethnographer of memory, not of reality. It’s hard for me to write interestingly about a room when I’m physically there — it comes much better to me when I’ve left the room, and I’m groping my way through memory, which acts as a force of natural selection. Memory identifies my relation with places and objects rather than merely recording them; it makes me part of the narrative, part of that place in a way I cannot be when I’m actually there.

And memory’s my research; I have a hard time forming a relation with place and with my subjects, for which I need to step into a conscious, writerly role, or put on the anthropologist’s hat — go around doing fieldwork, taking notes, interviewing people. I did some of these while trying to get a better sense of the theater world of Calcutta, which shaped The Firebird, but that work simply ended up giving me a sense of security, rather than finding its way into the novel. The novel was powered by memory and my sensual relation with the remains of these places, as they exist today, and as they surround me when I visit Calcutta.

Living in America heightens this distance, deepens a kind of desire and sharpens the editorial power of memory as you live the absurdity of sitting in Palo Alto and writing about north Calcutta — no two places could be more unlike, of course. There is a kind of safety in that distance. Through that distance, a place emerges as a subject. Inasmuch there is an element of auto-ethnography in such fiction, it becomes possible and sustainable only at some distance —because, I’m afraid, I do not yet have the stomach to write about it while there, although I think I’m getting ready to do that slowly.

And then of course there is the question of writerly craft and training, where all these years in America have shaped me somewhat — I went through graduate school here, and also got my MFA in Creative Writing here. I guess I am what I am as a writer both because, and in spite of, that training.

You mentioned to me in a previous discussion that, to some extent, you envisioned The Firebird as a traditional Bengali novel written in English, correct?

I don’t know about a “traditional” Bengali novel — it’s so hard to say what’s traditional and what’s not — but yes, a Bengali novel that happens to be written in English. That’s how I sometimes feel about The Firebird. I wouldn’t say I envisioned it this way. When you start writing a novel all you have is a story that needs to be told, and characters that ache to get a full life. You may have a rough sense of its worldview, but you still don’t have a good grip on it — at least I don’t. But as it got under way, and certainly when I finished the first draft, I realized what I had in my hand was a story that was rooted in the blistered earth of the lanes of Calcutta. And not just in language and food and dress habits, but in its fundamental value system. It was a moral universe that felt somewhat out of joint with the craft of the novel that encased it, and even the English language that gave it body. This out-of-jointed-ness has given me pause, made me hesitant about what kind of animal this novel has become. And yet at the end of the day I realize that whatever strength this novel has is inseparable from this out-of-jointed-ness.

I kept thinking about the alienness of the values that drove this novel — a deep-rooted moral suspicion of women in theater, the infiltration of the power of a corrupt and dysfunctional Communist government into the local community and the family, even in the private space of the bedroom. For instance, I ended up using the Bengali word para to express the peculiar entwinement of physical space and the intimacy of a gossipy community, whose breath lingers in this space; the English word “neighborhood” felt more spatial to me, rather than the unique confluence of space, life, and culture that these dense urban microclimates contain.

My training, both critical and creative, is predominantly Western, and yet while writing this novel I found myself increasingly turning to texts and traditions in South Asian literature, all the way from The Mahabharata to Saadat Hasan Manto, especially to the kind of moral ambivalence, even anarchy, that one finds in these worlds. And finally there is always the question of language. Like Raja Rao said many years ago, one has to capture in English a life not lived in English. Once in a while the syntax has a shadow of Bengali over it, too — sometimes that was deliberate, sometimes it happened without my noticing it.

We share an affinity toward certain writers, many of them literary modernists, such as Joyce, so at the risk of inflating your ego, I have to say that The Firebird evoked some of the best elements of Joyce for me. You effectively bring the reader to Calcutta, for example, with the clouds of cigarette smoke and auto rickshaws, in much the same manner that Joyce takes us to the cobblestoned streets of Dublin, demonstrating the beauty of place in all its imperfection and splendor. There’s also something about the novel that reminds me of Chekhov, another of my favorite writers, and the story centered on the theater seems to reinforce that idea. How heavily do such writers influence your work?

I think Joyce is one of the most deeply provincial writers in the entire history of literature. And also, one of the most cosmopolitan. But his provincialism is more important than his cosmopolitanism — the latter is substance while the former more of a form. The fact that I grew as a writer admiring the cosmopolitan Joyce over the provincial Joyce now tells me that I was admiring his form over his substance — not to imply that they are magically separable but that there are radically different, and yet bizarrely complementary worldviews, even as they work together. The deadness and bleakness of the locale, its exclusion from major forms of historical modernity, its backwardness and provincialism, all of this inspired Joyce. Some of the same things have inspired me as well, and I’m very happy that you notice that. Still, I feel my affiliation with Joyce in this novel is more atmospheric than thematic. The story, though it also has, like the early stories of Dubliners, a young boy at its heart, is rather different, and probably owes more to theater and performance than modern prose. It inhabits the body of prose but I’d say it ends up abandoning its spirit, especially as the narrative moves on.

It’s interesting that the association with theater should remind you of Chekhov. I think Chekhov — and perhaps Gogol — are a continuous influence in my work, but an unconscious influence. I haven’t read Chekhov or Gogol in the last 15 years, I think, unlike Joyce, about whom I’ve written, and who I’m always teaching in my classes. But then one doesn’t need to actually read Chekhov or Gogol to be a Chekhovian or a Gogolite, certainly not if a writer is touched by modernity.

Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard haunts me all the time, even though I’ve read it many, many years ago — the intensity and grandeur of historical change absorbed into the inevitable placidity of quotidian life, which seems to me quintessentially modern. There is some of this interlocked tension in The Firebird, I hope — the attempt to capture the pre-modern, perhaps primitive art form of performance, seeped in ritual and religion, in the calm modernity of prose. The embodiment of some of the energy of a sensual and bodily art form — theater — into one that is relatively abstract and intellectual: prose fiction. If the novel succeeds as a work of art, I would say much of its success derives from this strange crossbreeding of the pre-modern and the modern, the visceral and the linguistic.

The Firebird is a huge critical and commercial success in India. What does it offer for a Western audience?

Your reading of the book, and your questions say it all, don’t they? You — in singular and in plural — are the Western audience this book seeks. The fact that the author of a brutal saga of snowy, rural Michigan is drawn to this Calcutta novel makes me hopeful that the rich provincialism of American readers and writers will find something in it as well. Just the way the most exciting incarnation of the cosmopolitan is to be found in the provincial, I like to imagine the story most deeply rooted in local soil can be the most intensely human, and can be felt beyond the breath of that soil. A young boy’s disturbing attachment to a mother in performance, a community’s suspicion of women who perform, and an intense relationship to an art form that eventually turns toxic: perhaps it is a local telling of an idiosyncratic story, but arching over it is a reality that is, at the end of the day, human. Not universal, perhaps, but human.

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Joseph Daniel Haske is a writer, critic, and scholar, whose debut novel, North Dixie Highway, was released in October 2013.


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