Interview with Saikat Majumdar
Source: Rujuta Singh
Saikat Majumdar, a professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University, a private liberal arts and sciences university in India, will publish his fourth novel, The Middle Finger, next year. He is also a frequent commentator on higher education and an advocate of Indian literature.
Where were you born and brought up?
I was born in Calcutta. In terms of daily life, it was a depressing place, with a corrupt government, power cuts and traffic jams. It was a frustrating place to live in. But in hindsight, it’s a fascinating place for a writer. My first three novels are largely set in Calcutta. It’s a city with a unique cultural character, and I had wonderful teachers there. I developed a relationship with it in a way I never could with other places.
How did your upbringing affect your life view and work?
My mother was a theatre actress who had a master’s in literature – and that really shaped me and my love of the arts. She passed away when I was a graduate student in the US. My novel The Firebird (2015), while largely fictional, reflects the anxiety of a child whose mother had a job that, still in the 1980s, was considered unconventional.
Did you grow up a bookworm?
My parents divorced when I was young, and I was an only child. Because of that, I had a greater relationship with books. It was actually a challenging childhood – and that pushed me to being a solitary person who needs time and space for themselves.
You write a column for the Los Angeles Review of Books called “Another look at India’s books” and have also taught world literature at Stanford University. What are some of the challenges of promoting Asian literature in the Western world?
My direct experience with the West is in North America. The US can be quite insular, and it’s famously monolingual. Canadians are a bit different, because they don’t have the same sense of exclusionism. In terms of promoting Asian literature, there are some spaces in universities and journals, but it’s an uphill job. English translations have only picked up in the past 10 to 15 years, and American universities are intellectual islands in the country. It’s very important for us to be connected to both worlds.
And what about the challenges of promoting literature domestically?
Creative writing programmes are a relatively new thing in Asia – I’ve helped to develop ours here at Ashoka. So along with promoting literature overseas, I’m also trying to develop new indigenous audiences. I speak at high schools, literary festivals and workshops, and also write about literature in the mainstream print and online media. We do as much as we can.
The Scent of God (2019) covers some controversial ground. Did you get pushback in India over this novel?
In September 2018, India ruled that gay sex was no longer a crime, and then my book, about love between two boys in a boarding school run by a Hindu monastic order, came out in January 2019. So there was definitely a lot of attention, especially as it’s based on a real school, where I had spent five years. There was a lot of buzz from alumni.
Was the book seen as a sort of activism?
A review in a Bengali literature magazine was very positive, but made the book sound more explosive than it was. Ironically, there were some queer activists who felt that it was too quiet, too hush-hush. But ultimately, it’s a literary book about boys figuring out their sexuality in a monastic setting – I think it's meant to be a quiet and literary book rather than a gesture of activism.
In exploring these issues, have you come across issues of political correctness?
There is much debate about what “mainstream” or “minoritised” writers write. This publication brought up questions about my own sexuality and who has the “right” to write a queer book. There was also some of the conflict between the rights of an artist and those of an activist – perhaps inevitable given the subject.
What will your next novel be about?
The Middle Finger (2022) is about a young woman, a poet and a university teacher, and her life on college campuses in the US and India. It is driven by questions about the limits of intimacy in the teacher-student relationship. The novel also explores the ethics of education and the realities of equality and access.
You have commented widely on higher education issues in the media and in your non-fiction book about the Indian system, College: Pathway of Possibility (2018). What changes do you see in this region?
There’s a lot of excitement in higher education. Being here feels like being in the middle of everything. In India, China, Singapore, there is an emerging new population of students. Much depends on the responsibility – or irresponsibility – of governments. My own experience is that I’ve been in many different education systems: the Indian one, which is based on a British model; the Canadian one; and the American one, which is different from anything else in the world. So I think a lot about what different systems have to offer.
What lessons can the education sector learn after the hardships of the Covid pandemic?
The past year and a half has brought out a variety of issues, including the plight of rural students, the digital divide, caste and economic divides heightened by the pandemic. The long-term educational consequences of the pandemic, especially on young children and vulnerable groups in society, will take years and even decades to understand.