By Ananya Dutta Gupta
Saikat Majumdar is uniquely placed to explore the innards of academic institutions and he is bold enough to tell on such spaces with a touch at once unsparing and light-fingered. The Middle Finger is essentially a campus novel. It reaches into the campus in order to expose its disconnect from the real world. Saikat’s protagonist and their peers exude a jaded ennui about the globalised machinery that academics today is. To let that quiet cynicism ring true, however, Saikat must draw on his own transcontinental familiarity with those very corridors.
It is evident that Saikat’s sustained scholarly engagement with modernism continues to tinge the naturalist’s gaze palpable in his fictional works. Impatience with the studiedly esoteric, the contrivedly sublime is a common thread I seem to be able to identify across his three recent novels, The Firebird (2015), The Scent of God (2019) and, now, The Middle Finger (2022). Majumdar looks for earthier truths, searching it out at the junctions between the personal and the historical, exhuming it from his memories of growing up and coming of age. He sets about unmasking the very elitism that he recognises himself to be rooted and mired in.
The modern, we might say, resides in the rebellion of the banal against the sublime. Majumdar is energised by the power of the banal to upstage the rarified, even draw blood from it. He seeks out the lie that we humans live, morally, culturally, socially; whether it is in the seedy green room of Kolkata’s post-Independence theatrical circles, the emotional violence and cruelty informing Bengali upper middle class family ties, or the sinister repressiveness of some evangelically minded educational institutions. In his latest, Saikat turns his scalpel to the exclusionism endemic and systemic in institutions of higher education across the world, one in which the denied end up repeating the historical injustice.
In all three books, though, Saikat’s archeological tool is the truth of the flesh, the pulse of human touch. Majumdar does not shy away from talking bodies and the bodily. The anti-Victorian streak in modernity is something that this scholar of modernism re-enacts without self-consciousness. The lovers’ sweaty, “intergraft”-ed palms in John Donne’s poem The Ecstasy resurface in the taut animal warmth between Megha and Poonam. For Saikat, evidently, not to acknowledge the chemistry of bodies touching, in hatred or tenderness, is to disenfranchise real humans, real people.
Majumdar is also uniquely placed to tell this story of his principal protagonist’s clashing priorities because he has embraced another kind of liminality himself. As a literature academic, critic, columnist, and writer of fiction, he knows the Faustian tug, the torture, the war in the head. It is the quandary of one mind buffeted between two or more completely different languages, squeezed between two mirrors, reflecting each other’s glows and gloom alike. The lure of this Arnoldian dividedness lies, however, in the dividends of cross-pollination. The creative and the academic mingle in unexpected symbioses of preoccupations and perspectives.
Having a creative side is like having a special talisman in times when an academic’s very calling is in question. It is one’s secret bunker, a funnel and tunnel into faceless freedom. In The Middle Finger, Megha is both enchained and empowered by her academic locus and pedigree. Her poetry is her catharsis for a rage that is increasingly relatable to academic professionals today. They are forced to reinvent themselves as producers of human resources; as facilitators of a tangible base of superficial rather than immersive skills and tools. They are no longer mashtarmoshais, i.e. shapers of probing minds that challenge the unthinking perpetuation of habits.
Sadly, poetry doesn’t pay Megha’s bills. On the contrary, her reputation as poet of rage feeds off much the same network as is sustained by her academics. She is but a part-time rebel. Rebellion is heady, but the academic life, even in its current vestigial state, makes for a very convenient compromise. You can resist with words even as you reap stability and solvency from sticking to the brief. All thinking academics probably feel that combination of guilt and resentment right now. The guilt comes from the knowledge that we are enjoying the residual and rapidly dwindling leisure to think critically, indeed to think at all! And resentment, nostalgia and self-pity erupt when that leisure is threatened by a new definition of work, one that enjoins quantifiable transparency instead of intrinsic luminosity of output. In this new, increasingly stringent arrangement intellectual freedom is not a natural prerogative but a privilege that can be withheld or withdrawn by institutions at will.
This is particularly true of English literature academia, which is liable to allegations of double disconnect, linguistic and disciplinary. We are an endangered species, the last vestiges of an ecosystem gasping for breath, wounded by rejection on all sides, misfits in an ecosystem that rightly prioritises the contemporary, the popular, the subaltern, the vernacular, the blasé and the brash. Our own students sometimes fail to relate to us, the very students we have sought to make “our contemporaries”. They are right to dare to ask back, no doubt. Some of us are either not successful enough or not radical enough to be their role models. How are we to tell them that we can see right through both these models?
We feel impelled to have to explain the obvious. We are no Prosperos! Some of us are at best Ariels, dangling from a promise of deferred emancipation. Others are disgruntled Calibans left behind on the island. Caliban must have hated Ariel, and rightly so. The English-language academic is the Ariel to the vernacular Caliban. Nobody wins. Why did not Ariel free Caliban? Because he was kept too numbingly busy with errands! He was always roving, while Caliban was always chained. They were systematically debarred from the leisure to meet as minds.
Yet here I am, the loyal Ariel, naturally leaning on Shakespeare to explain the very wedge that being able to read him has driven between “us” and normal people. We like to think that we are an asset, as people that know the problem, a literary intelligentsia empowered by Western methodology to question our own hypocrisy. But alas! It is not enough for the native to return to roots, even those who probably never left physically. The change is in our way of seeing, in how our tongues move. It is an almost irrevocable molecular change. The closer our India inches towards the global North in outward trappings, the closer we get to being seen as citizens of the world, the farther we get from our true neighbours, our fellow natives, our other India. The cultural belongingness of the English-educated, sometimes English-literature-teaching educated middle class is the greatest casualty of its Protean globality.
In Megha, we experience this searing pathology of alienation, the solipsism of the goldfish bowl called metropolis-based English-speaking academia, a tribe that is equidistant from both the teacher of functional communicative English as a foreign language and the hagiographers of vernacular-based cultural purism. We like to think of ourselves as sceptics, who read everything. Nietzsche’s ambivalence is our felix culpa. Yet we are considered unreliable narrators, undependable followers, because we are not loyal to a fault except to our practice of reading. Our rigour is methodological, not the rigidity of judgmental dogma.
Megha’s spontaneous unease with Poonam’s powerful assimilation of her influence across the social rungs separating them is similar to the reaction I had once heard on BBC Radio Four from a news-presenter about call centre employees in India. “Oh dear,” she said, with consternation. “They even say ‘good morning’ like us!” I was stung by her embarrassment and resentment at discovering that those whom they didn’t want to teach still ended up learning from them. We sometimes replicate that sneer, in spite of ourselves. Those who mimic us with deference embarrass us and compel us to acknowledge our own rickety non-belongingness. We are shaken out of our sense of control. And we react with cringing disownment.
Ultimately, however, Saikat lets the emotional traction between Megha and Poonam triumph over this resistance by social habit. Saikat eroticises it with impassioned candour, much as in the Renaissance discourse of friendship. Two women bond over books, living words, food and tea-making. Doing up each other’s bookcase becomes their expression of love.
One wishes though that the novel had been longer, long enough to probe, more immersively, the complexity of literary loves, bonds forged with the power of thoughts, ideas and words; loves that despite the magic wand of words are doomed to the brutal cudgels of institutional structures and norms. Megha’s other friendship – with Jishnu – gets short shrift in the process, serving as a narrative foil to the Megha-Poonam story. Perhaps the author didn’t find in it the right knot of social tangles needed to trigger the frisson of the sufficiently forbidden.
Somewhere the provocativeness of the title is hard to see. Incidentally Saikat’s title evokes a very Western gesture and signifier of the cancel culture around dislike, defiance and disrespect, one that is probably even younger is currency than Valentine’s Day. Megha’s dissertation gets written, new friendships are quickly made, students and teachers mingle, party, and part. Fundamentally, they don’t have any life-changing experience. They come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Perhaps it is us. Perhaps it is the hollowness of contemporary existence, within and without the campus. It is this essential languor of privilege that lingers in our reception of the book. One cannot help but feel that The Scent of God and The Firebird had more memorable persons leading a more fundamental life. There’s more meat and teeth to their crises, their lusts, their furies and their anguish.
This brings me to my other recent read, Kunal Basu’s In An Ideal World (2022). Basu’s is a moving tragedy set between Kolkata and Manhar. The nondescript private engineering college in that small town is eons away from the cosmopolitan liberal arts circuit of Majumdar’s Harappa. Yet in this small town college campus unfolds another face of an increasingly polarised India, one which looks to redress the country’s colonial blight armed with the dangerous naïveté of assuming that histories and historiographies can be played off against each other.
In Basu’s discerning representation, this disconnect is inter-generational. Middle-class educated Bengali parents with a background in youthful Leftist activism get sucked into the quagmire of small town political turf war as they desperately try to rescue their brainwashed son Vivek. Vivek or Bobby, as he is called at home, comes across early on as prime candidate for a heady mantra of social revisionism. In the vignettes of household interactions that Basu so deftly weaves together, we encounter the alienation pervasive in Bengali nuclear families unmoored from the more close-knit support structures of the past. The unhinging is owed of course to the inexorable sweep, of urbanization first, and then liberalization. The latest and most insidious blow, evident in the young adult Vivek’s Bildung, has perhaps come from the comprehensive digitization of interpersonal communication. It has all but robbed physically proximate family members of mutually nourishing conversation, creating artificial needs around virtual reality that flatters to deceive, leaving a deeper, more damaging sense of alienation in its train. Some of our disaffected young millennnials, who sadly find no common ground with their parents due to the accelerated pace of social change in the past twenty years, end up looking for emotional anchor in ideology; the kind of narcotic disguised as altruism that Freud talks about in Civilisation and its Discontents (1930).
Basu masterfully plants episodes of dissonance that overlap with the same intersectionality of gender, class and caste-based disparities Majumdar seeks to expose. En route to becoming Vivek, Bobby challenges what he sees as his parents’ indifference and apathy towards the hardships of Ratna, their domestic help. In what way has the cultural elitism of the Left-minded Bengali urban middle class addressed the plight of somebody like Ratna? Vivek asks. And we acquiesce in his questioning.
The problem is that it is so easy for the likes of Vivek to be deluded into thinking that some other ideology, some other political dispensation will uphold the principles of humanity, and heal the poor. Thanks to this very bankable pathology of misplaced hope and altruism, impressionable youth play into the hands of politicians and ideologues of all colour. Basu is wryly critical of the active or sometimes passive complicity of the Bengali middle class. Joy Sengupta’s businessman friends collude, while his academic friends refuse to react overtly to the enveloping crisis. Perhaps they too are busy surviving?
In all wars, foreign, civil, actual, ideological, the Leviathan called the state happily sacrifices its young men, and sometimes women. As I write this, Ukrainians and perhaps Russians too are singing anthems for their own doomed youth. Basu focuses on the contemporary menace in our new India. Sadly, however, history has been most unimaginatively repetitive on this score. Neel Mukherjee’s Lives of Others (2014), Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (2013), and indeed Kunal Basu’s own first Bangla novel, Rabi-Shankar (2016) stand witness to those uncomfortable truths.
The prodigal son, brainwashed into running amok on campus, returns brain-dead, comatose, literally a rag doll, resting on his grieving mother’s lap. In this grim replication of piéta, we experience an epic moment of reckoning. We are reminded, all over again, about the visible personal human cost of the political game of chess, one that the real players have always managed to play down. The chilling last page of Basu’s novel, one which marks the beginning of two aging parents’ endless wait for their son’s return to health and consciousness, is far from the good cheer offered by the two women in Majumdar’s tale.
Kunal Basu and Saikat Majumdar both turn their spotlight on the Janus that is India today. Riven, fractious, schizophrenic, this India is a site for desperately competing utopian fantasies in desperate denial of the dystopia looming in the wings of history.
Ananya Dutta Gupta has been teaching at the Department of English & Other Modern European Languages, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, for over sixteen years now. In 1999, she was awarded a Felix Scholarship to pursue an M.Phil. in English Literature, 1500-1660 at the University of Oxford. She was awarded the degree of M.Phil., in part, for a dissertation on the philosophy of war and peace in Renaissance European and English Writings. In January 2014, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, awarded her a Ph.D. degree for her dissertation on Renaissance English representations of the city under siege. Her revised Orient Blackswan Annotated edition of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book I (2012) is currently in worldwide circulation and she has several other scholarly articles published in national and international journals to her credit. She was Charles Wallace India Trust Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Cambridge, in 2015. She has also published book reviews and translations of essays, poetry and short stories. Her poetry, creative non-fiction and travel writing may be found online at Cafe Dissensus, Rupkatha Journal on Studies in Interdisciplinary Humanities, Muse India, Pratilipi, Caesurae and Coldnoon Travel Poetics. She sings, writes poetry and does digital painting in her leisure.
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