BACK IN THE 1800s, South Asian men arrived in the United States as peddlers or seamen. According to historian Vivek Bald in Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, they were single, and instead of creating enclaves of their own, they assimilated and married into Black and Puerto Rican communities in areas like Harlem and New Orleans. The fluidity between Black American and South Asian American communities didn’t disappear, but continued into the Jim Crow era, when some Black Americans put on turbans and pretended to be Indian to avoid harassment. Some used exotica to sell the illusion, and at that time of pre-yoga, when people knew even less about South Asians than they know now, the ruse worked. People could not tell the difference between Black people and the people identified as “Hindoos.”
Due to the United States’s immigration laws and policies, over the last several decades, professional Indians have become much more visible to the mainstream than working-class South Asian immigrants had previously been. Their collective economic success in the United States has been used to produce the harmful model minority myth, a myth that aggressively omits the numerous structural factors that have conferred advantages on members of this group: caste, class privilege, Brahmin and other upper-caste networks in America, India’s affirmative action laws, socialism built into India’s constitution, and learning English due to India’s prior status as a British colony. Although many Indian Americans subscribe to the model minority myth, Indian Americans as a bloc have been reliable Democratic voters for decades, and there are notable Democratic politicians with South Asian ancestry such as Kamala Harris and Pramila Jayapal. But more recently, several Indian Americans have risen to prominence under an anti-Black, anti-immigrant, far-right agenda (much to the mortification and embarrassment of their progressive counterparts who have set up a Desi Wall of Shame): Dinesh D’Souza, Nikki Haley, Ajit Pai, Raj Shah, Seema Verma, Dimple Shah, and Shalli Kumar.
The history of affinities and tensions between Black and Indian communities in America, as well as how White conservatives and liberals have exploited Indian immigrants over the last few decades to justify and produce further discrimination against Black communities, sets the foundation for Ishmael Reed’s ingenious, razor-sharp, seriocomic novel Conjugating Hindi, published by Dalkey Archive Press. Like other Reed novels, Conjugating Hindi is not only a novel, but is also a graphic novel, heavily illustrated with provocative hand-drawn cartoons. In the novel, you can see the aforementioned history upended and satirized for the Trump era.
“California is still the world’s biggest hideout,” the novel begins. Peter Bowman, or “Boa,” is a Black professional who is fleeing something from his past. He moves to North Oakland, where he teaches at a community college and explores the gentrified city. After taking an early retirement, Boa becomes a public intellectual and is invited to debate with a right-wing Hindu “intellectual” egomaniac Shashi Paramara on the subject of “Was Slavery All That Bad?” The Columbia Speakers Bureau tells him: “There’s an opportunity for you to make some more money. You’ll be able to break out of the Black History Month ghetto.” Boa mentally notes that the event, like Oakland, was being “gentrified” by non-Black people. Facing a tax audit, Boa needs the money offered for the debates, and reluctantly participates. Shashi argues that slavery wasn’t that bad, and is received with open arms and adulation by self-serving White right-wingers. Boa argues the opposite, standing in as a kind of straw man, and is ignored by Shashi, as well as the rest of the audience.
Shashi has a radical sister, Kala, a professor of Post-Colonialist Studies, with ink-black skin and who doesn’t fit in with her Brahmin family. She believes English is an imperialist language and demands that only Hindi be spoken in India. Boa is immediately intrigued, but his young Black chauffeur warns him off: “Indians can be as racist toward Black people as Whites. Some have called them the most racist people in the world. Not only do they hate Blacks but they have problems with the darker members of their own families. You got mobs beating African students…”
Boa worries, “A new bunch of racists coming into the country adding to the ones who are already here?” The chauffeur tells him that to Shashi and his Brahmin entourage, “[Y]ou’re a Dalit. An Untouchable.” Boa assumes this is ridiculous, citing Gandhi, but this gets him thinking, and he goes down the rabbit hole of learning Hindi (hence, the title) and exploring literature about South Asia.
Political tensions escalate. Eventually during one debate, the moderator announces that India just shot down an American passenger plane. The conservatives who had been nodding along with Shashi call him an Indian N-word and try to beat him up. He’s rescued by security. Meanwhile, Boa is rescued by Kala, who pulls up on a Harley and drives him home before heading off to her host’s home in the Berkeley Hills (her host is a Black woman whose best-selling memoir is entitled My Triple Oppression). Before she leaves, Boa asks how the mob missed her, and she responds that White Americans are always mixing her up with a Black person, that being Black doesn’t work in India, but in the United States it comes in handy for her. Boa is baffled.
The plane incident triggers all-too-believable xenophobic and racist mayhem. Indians wearing traditional clothing are dragged off BART. Indians bus from Silicon Valley to the San Jose airport and face racist insults. Mobs start hunting Indians. A Fugitive Indian Law is debated in Congress. Shashi comes to Boa, asking to hide out in his place, dressed like a “hip-hopper” in order to avoid being harassed. Boa agrees to let him stay, a shrewd callback to how South Asian peddlers sought and received refuge with Black and Puerto Rican communities in the 19th century.
The novel goes heavy into informal debate at this juncture, with Boa eventually confronting Shashi on his anti-Blackness (which Boa comes to recognize also as a kind of self-loathing and determined refusal to face facts regarding the British Empire). In his satirical rendition of the informal debates between Shashi and Boa, Reed nails the Dinesh D’Souzian failure to comprehend basic historical facts about both America and India. He sketches Shashi as both a naïve innocent and opportunist. The novel turns at points into a graphic sex comedy, with sex itself as another kind of border crossing — for really, how else could Boa communicate deeply with someone as obtuse as Shashi? The debates and sex comedy give rise to action, and then to tragic climax. The denouement genuinely satisfies.
In a reprisal of Reed’s Blues City: A Walk in Oakland, former mayor Jerry Brown is given a tongue-lashing in Conjugating Hindi for the “ethnic cleansing” and gentrification of Oakland that he believes has transformed it into a “hipster playground.” This serves as a symbol for the gentrification of Black History Month as well. The novel is more descriptive than Mumbo Jumbo, not only of Oakland scenes, but also of Boa’s internal landscape, which is shaped by academic texts and movies. Blended into factual material are fictions — the president at the time of the novel is “Kleiner Fuhrer,” for instance. In the kind of self-referential and darkly hilarious note also found in brilliant novelist Percival Everett’s work, Ishmael Reed himself makes appearances as a character throughout the novel. Also appearing is Chappie Puttbutt — Reed’s fictional Black literary critic who sides with whomever he can to get tenure in Reed’s 1993 novel Japanese by Spring (one of Chappie’s books is entitled What If I Prefer Beethoven Over Coltrane?).
Conjugating Hindi is a further exploration of Reed’s alternative Black aesthetic of Neo-HooDoo, informed by bricolage and jazz improvisation. It is not quite as poetic or gnostic as Reed’s 1972 masterpiece Mumbo Jumbo, but it is brilliant — the same sort of experimental brilliance observable in the fiction of Thomas Pynchon or the cut-up technique of William S. Burroughs — and more accessible. It hews to the satiric register of Reed’s Japanese By Spring and Juice.
The novel is what some academics have dubbed a trickster text, a text informed by the mischievous, shape-shifting, slippery figure of the trickster, found in folklore throughout the world. Implicit in Reed’s formal style, as well as his content, is the trickster disregard for caste of any kind. Heedless of boundaries and resistant to being pinned down or hemmed in, the novel is driven almost entirely by Reed’s deep, free-wheeling curiosity about why things are the way they are in regard to the use of the model minority myth against Black communities.
Reed’s incorporation of caste into the fictional debate between Boa and Shashi is fascinating and insightful — he understands the rigidity and cruelty of the caste system far better than many American writers and critics, who assume caste is a relic of the past or synonymous with class, rather than something far more insidious. This remains a set identity that a Hindu possesses from birth, describing his degree of “purity” or “pollution,” and consequently his entitlement to respect, as well as a script for social relations, including arranged marriages. There are moments where Reed brings his exploration of caste and race together in a way that felt a touch too pat, binding together a little too neatly anti-Blackness with the Brahmin identity of Indian immigrants assimilating into the far right. Hinduism can be fairly described as heterogeneous and protean and it does have trickster-like figures such as Krishna or the mohini, but the Brahminical mindset is a strongly anti-trickster perspective, and so those with this mindset could find equally appealing certain strains of center-left thought that push rigid identity, scripted social relations, and endogamy. In any case, by novel’s end, Reed’s novel surprises and delights and for the most part, he takes every opportunity to be artistically more subversive, more slant, more true.
The most famous Dalit intellectual of all time, B. R. Ambedkar wrote in The Untouchables,
It must be recognized that the selfish interest of a person or of the class to which he belongs always acts as an internal limitation which regulates the direction of his intellect. […] A Voltaire among the Brahmins would be a positive danger to the maintenance of a civilisation which is contrived to maintain Brahmanic supremacy. […] If any non-Brahmin were to make such an attempt the Brahmin scholars would engage in a conspiracy of silence, take no notice of him, condemn him outright on some flimsy grounds or dub his work useless.
This is an observation that holds true in the Indian-American diaspora, too. So far, nobody in the United States is publishing any Voltaire-like satires of caste and race by a Dalit American or a non-Brahmin Indian American, but this bold and memorable novel by a brilliant Black author is the next best thing.
Conjugating Hindi is a firebrand’s novel, the crackling, overflowing, pugnacious novel of someone who doesn’t care about genre boundaries any more than he cares about historical boundaries, but who does care deeply about innovating. In an interview with Callaloo that was conducted in 1988 at Reed’s home, Reed commented:
Well, Afro-American artists have always had to struggle against the middle-class. […] I mean when you write the truth, sometimes the black middle class complains or the white right wing will complain or the left wing will complain. […] I think most Afro-American artists catch it from all sides. I think most ethnic artists catch it from all sides.
As the United States’s ideals come under increasing attack, we need more flame-throwers like septuagenarian Ishmael Reed — more fighters, more tricksters, more eagle-eyed observers with an incendiary spirit, more dazzlingly original artist-writers — willing to defy what is permissible to say, willing to catch it on all sides, and willing to run over boundaries of all kinds into genuinely new or neglected territory.
Anita Felicelli is the author of Love Songs for a Lost Continent, forthcoming in October 2018. She has contributed essays and reviews to The New York Times (“Modern Love”), the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, and elsewhere.