Ekalavya, Power and the Tradition of Mentorship: An Interview With Saikat Majumdar

The writer's fourth novel, 'The Middle Finger,' tackles disturbing questions on who gets access to knowledge and who gets to stake a claim on the teacher.

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Saikat Majumdar and I have been planning to meet in New Delhi for several months now. However, the waves of the pandemic, restrictions on travel and eating out have prevented this rendezvous. So, when his new novel, The Middle Finger, was published earlier this month, I seized the opportunity to interview him.

I have been an admirer of his work since reading his second novel, The Firebird (2015), which brought him instant fame. Set in Calcutta (Kolkata) in the 1980s, it brings alive the world of theatre in the city – a subject very close to me.

Even before The Firebird, he had published two collections of short fiction and two novellas – all published by Writers Workshop – and the novel Silverfish (2007). I started corresponding with him since reading his third novel The Scent of God (2019), often seeking advice on my own attempts at fiction, and have been a beneficiary of his generosity.

Saikat grew up in Calcutta, where he studied at St Xavier’s College and Jadavpur University (also my alma mater). He did his PhD at Rutgers University, and then taught at Stanford and was a Newhouse Fellow at Wellesley. Now, he is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University.

Besides his fiction, he also writes literary criticism and essays on higher education, leading to two books, Prose of the World (2013) and College: Pathways of Possibility (2018).

This interview was conducted over a series of emails earlier this week. Edited excerpts are as follows. 

Would you like to begin by telling us a little about the title of your new and fourth novel The Middle Finger? 

I was drawn to the idea of retelling the Ekalavya myth in a contemporary university campus. The title comes from a medieval Jain retelling of that story recounted by Wendy Doniger in The Hindus: An Alternative History   

‘The Middle Finger,’ Saikat Majumdar, Simon & Schuster, 2022

In this version, it is Arjun who cheats Ekalavya of his thumb. Drona becomes angry with Arjun upon discovering this, and offers the blessing that a Bhil warrior will be able to shoot arrows without his thumb, using his index and middle finger.

The phrase contains possibilities of unusual or unexpected strength that is rudely disruptive of established power, something that eventually becomes a part of the novel. 

Education especially the relationship between the mentor and the mentee is central to your writing. You addressed it in your previous novel, The Scent of God, which was set in a school very similar to Ramakrishna Mission institutions on the outskirts of Kolkata.

You have also written about it in your book on higher education, College: Pathways of Possibility. Would you like to talk a bit about it?

The subterranean life of education, with its repression, inequity, and consumerist branding is as intriguing to me as its daytime promise of enrichment and upward mobility.

While I’ve always taught at universities and have supported this daytime life through my research, teaching and general nonfiction, the underground reality, I think, manages to burst through the novels, where characters either deviate from the path of normative development, or as in The Middle Finger, face disturbing questions.

Who gets access to knowledge? Who gets to stake a claim to the teacher? So much of it depends on who the student is, where they come from. One can only think of education as something whose greatest strengths are impossibly entangled with its most terrifying problems. 

Studying in a private university like Ashoka or O P Jindal Global University where I teach is beyond the means of most people in our country. So, is a liberal arts education to be provided to only those who can afford it? (You do write about it in College: Pathways of Possibility.)

 The challenge here is not just financial, which attempts at financial aid can try to address but making a certain mode of thought and intellectual practice available beyond a small minority.

College: Pathways of Possibility, Saikat Majumdar, Bloomsbury India, 2017.

I saw the same thing when teaching at Stanford you think of applying to elite schools only if you’ve already received a certain kind of secondary education. There is, in India, the added burden of the violence of colonial education system on indigenous modes of thought, which makes modern liberal education doubly inaccessible to many.

Consciousness about class privilege was quite central to The Firebird and The Scent of God, but in The Middle Finger, most of the central characters except Poonam are very comfortably off. The working-class characters are framed through perspective of the well-off characters. Why this change?

This narrative voice was a departure for me, and I’m still a little nervous about it.

Novels like The Firebird and The Scent of God were rooted in the bare, ignorant, and sometimes confused perspectives of young boys in provincial spaces.

The driving sensibility of The Middle Finger belongs to someone more like you and me, an adult, an artist and an intellectual, with both privileges and problems of her own. She’s a woman, which brought me certain writerly challenges.

She also foregrounds a more contemporary, cosmopolitan sensibility, something I haven’t explored before in fiction.

Working-class characters are key to this novel and especially to the development of the protagonist’s character, but they also lie somewhat beyond the reach of her understanding, with the sole exception of Poonam, whose voice is crucial to the novel.

Mentorship, which we spoke about a little earlier, is not without its pitfalls, especially in the era of #MeToo and a rather reductive cancel culture. The recent Netflix series The Chair and Anindita Ghose’s The Illuminated are recent examples of fictional works engaging with it. How influential were these debates to you while you wrote The Middle Finger?

Very influential, as the stories of Ekalvaya and Socrates indicates.

Just as we’re talking, the controversy over eminent Harvard academics supporting their colleague following his sexual harassment accusation and inquiry, is rocking the academic world. But topical issues tend to hover over my fiction in a misty, dreamlike way, rather than enter directly.

I found myself thinking more about the Gurukul tradition in India, the culture where a student serves a mentor in a self-sacrificial way in order to gain learning and knowledge. Myths have always glorified this tradition, but I wonder to what kind of abuses this tradition must have been open.

Obviously such traditions are still quite alive, particularly within the musical and performative arts of India, and even within the regular university. Topical issues are important, but they don’t initiate books for me. A story of mentorship and its limits in terms of power and intimacy, for me, has a lifelong incubation.

Do you write poetry? Who are some of your favourite poets, older and contemporaries?

I don’t write poetry (though I tried to create some lines of verse in this novel), but I love reading it. Particularly during the writing of this novel, I was reading a lot of it. 

Initially, poetry by black American poets – Claudia Rankine, Evie Shockley, Morgan Parker. I also read and wrote about the poetry of some contemporary Indian poets – Basant Rath’s Own me Srinagar, Sarabjeet Garcha’s Lullaby of the Ever-Returning. Also revisited some of Arundhathi Subramaniam’s poetry of faith and found inspiration in Tishani Doshi’s poetry of performance.

Why is the protagonist of The Middle Finger a poet? I am asking this because the other themes of the novel could have been explored even if your protagonist was a novelist or a professor of literature.

She had to be a poet, as the tension between poetry as read and poetry as performed is central to Megha’s relation with her own art. It is far less likely for novelists to think about their art in these terms of print and performance. You write both poetry and fiction, so perhaps you can tell.

Politics – in this case, racial politics – gets an embodied life when poetry is performed, and that troubles the protagonist more, sharpening the question about who gets to make poetry out of what kind of pain, belonging to whom, whether you need personal ownership of these experiences to write about them.

The explosive relation between read and performed art has occupied me since the centrality of theatre in The Firebird. As someone who writes only prose, I’m fascinated by literary genres that also have vibrant performative lives.

Identity is central to our times. How were you confident as a cis-het man of authentically creating a queer, female character such as Megha? 

‘The Scent Of God,’ Saikat Majumdar, Simon and Schuster India, 2019.

This is a tough question – and I hope you’re not giving a bit too much away! I imagined Megha’s queerness as something of an open question – far less pronounced than the more sure-footed arrival at homosexual love in The Scent of God. 

Megha is a woman, and she also shares life spaces and experiences of the kind of people I know well, so she is not really foreign to me. Writing a certain kind of female friendship, particularly one that crosses class lines, however, was a big challenge, and I’m nervous to see what readers feel. But living in the intricate web of entangled social relationships in India, you see such friendships around you, and it’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a while.

Also, I think it is important to remember individual uniqueness while writing people from different backgrounds. No one is just a product of their background.

Literature, especially, is interested in the ways in which people are idiosyncratic even within their social and historic space.

Last year, you wrote an introduction to a collection of feminist poetry exclusively by men, Collegiality and Other Ballads (New Delhi and Kolkata: Hawakal Publishers), edited by the poet Shamayita Sen. This led to a bit of a controversy, with some critics calling out the raison d’être of a collection of “feminist poetry” without any women. Any thoughts on this?

 I love the poems in that collection – I think Shamayita did a fabulous job with the book.

I knew it was going to be a sensitive project – but the request to write a foreword came to me from the female editor of this collection of poetry by “non-women” – so it was probably easier for me to agree than if it had been envisioned by a man.

I saw that project as literary experimentation around a politically charged subject. Its experimental nature drew me in, but I anticipated some criticism as well, so that wasn’t fully unexpected. 

Gender politics, especially queer identity, was central to The Scent of God as it is to The Middle Finger. But do you think there has been a substantial change since 2018 when the Supreme Court decriminalised consensual non-heteronormative love? Do you think the queer novel in India has also responded to this in any way?

There has been some significant change and the initiation of different conversations in the queer public spheres in the country. But I don’t think imaginative and experimental literature responds so quickly to topical changes in legislation, or even social reform. It takes more time. History is influential, but not in ways that are easy to understood.

The Scent of God captured reality from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, and yet the writing was indirectly inflected by conversations both about queer and Hindu identities at the time of its writing. Past, present, and future are more mutually continuous than we sometimes think.

After The Scent of God and The Middle Finger, is there a third campus novel you have planned?

Ha ha, it’s too early to tell. I have the seeds of a novel inside me, though not one particularly rooted in a campus. Education and teaching, particularly artistic education, will continue to mark my writing, even my nonfiction.

 I am curious about how you identify those from whom you seek endorsements for your book. Michael Rezendes of The Boston Globe, who investigated child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, gave you an endorsement for The Scent of God. For The Middle Finger, you have sought out Arundhathi Subramanium and Shashi Deshpande.

How important is this to the aesthetic process/appeal of your novel?  

That’s an interesting question! I like my books to be endorsed by writers whose writing has meant something to me. Michael and I got talking at a literary festival and then I read his investigative journalism about the suppression of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, captured devastatingly in his book BetrayalThe Scent of God is not about abuse, and yet, sexuality in a monastic order is central to it.

Arundhathi read an early draft of the novel and given my enjoyment of her poetry of faith, I felt it would be nice have her say some things about this novel where poetry finds religious inspiration for a key character.

And it is hard to get a larger or more impressive assemblage of intelligent and powerful women fighting probing questions of their own than in the novels of Shashi Deshpande.

Uttaran Das Gupta’s novel Ritual was published in 2020. He teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University in Sonipat, Haryana.