Interview with Saikat Majumdar | Times Higher Education (THE)


Saikat Majumdar, Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University, a private liberal arts and science university in India, will publish his fourth novel, Middle finger, Next year. He is also a frequent commentator on higher education and an advocate of Indian literature.

Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Calcutta. In terms of daily life, it was a depressing place, with a corrupt government, blackouts and traffic jams. It was a frustrating place to live. But looking back, it’s a fascinating place for a writer. Most of my first three novels take place in Calcutta. It is a city with a unique cultural character, and I have had wonderful teachers there. I developed a relationship with her in a way that I never could with other places.

How has your education affected your outlook on life and your work?
My mom was a stage actress who had an MA in Literature – and it really shaped me and my love of the arts. She passed away while I was a graduate student in the United States. my novel Fire Bird (2015), although largely fictional, reflects the anxiety of a child whose mother had a job that, even in the 1980s, was considered unconventional.

Did you grow up bookworm?
My parents divorced when I was young and I was an only child. Because of this, I had a greater relationship with the books. It was actually a tough childhood – and it prompted me to be a lonely person who needs time and space for herself.

You write a column for the Los Angeles Book Review called “Another Look at Books from India” and 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 United States can be quite insular and it is known to be monolingual. Canadians are a little different because they don’t have the same sense of exclusion. In terms of promoting Asian literature, there are some spaces in universities and journals, but it is hard work. English translations have only developed in the last 10 to 15 years, and American universities are intellectual islands in the country. It is very important for us to be connected to both worlds.

And what about the challenges of promoting literature at the national level?
Creative writing programs are a relatively new thing in Asia – I helped develop ours here in Ashoka. So, in addition to promoting literature abroad, I also try to develop new native audiences. I speak at high schools, literary festivals and workshops, and I also write about literature in print media and mainstream online. We are doing as much as we can.

The perfume of God (2019) covers controversial ground. Were you pushed back to India for this novel?
In September 2018 India decided that gay sex was no longer a crime, then my book, about love between two boys in a boarding school run by a Hindu monastic order, came out in January 2019. There is so got a lot of attention. , especially since it is based on a real school, where I had spent five years. There was a lot of buzz from the elders.

Was the book seen as some kind of activism?
A review in a Bengali literary magazine was very positive, but made the book more explosive than it was. Ironically, there were queer activists who thought it was too calm, too quiet. But at the end of the day, it’s a literary book about boys discovering their sexuality in a monastic setting – I think it’s meant to be a calm, literary book rather than a gesture of activism.

In exploring these questions, have you encountered any political correctness issues?
There is a lot of debate about what “mainstream” or “minority” writers write. This post raised questions about my own sexuality and who has the “right” to write a queer book. There was also some conflict between the rights of an artist and those of an activist – perhaps inevitable given the topic.

What will your next novel be about?
Middle finger (2022) is about a young woman, poet, and college professor, and her life on college campuses in the United States and India. It is motivated 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 extensively on higher education issues in the media and in your non-fiction book on the Indian system, College: path of possibilities (2018). What changes do you see in this region?
There is a lot of enthusiasm in higher education. Being here is like being in the middle of it all. In India, China, Singapore, a new student population is emerging. Much depends on the responsibility – or the irresponsibility – of governments. My own experience is that I have been in many different education systems: that of India, which is based on a British model; Canadian; and the American, which is unlike anything else in the world. So I think a lot about what the different systems have to offer.

What lessons can the education sector learn from the ordeals 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 accentuated by the pandemic. It will take years, if not decades, to understand the long-term educational consequences of the pandemic, especially on young children and vulnerable groups in society.

Joyce Lau


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