HYDERABAD: It’s not often that you belong to a minority-within-minority-within-minority bracket and rise to a grand stature in the literary world making the very same identity your strength. But it takes a Tabish Khair to make this possible. The author of more than ten books, his works have been shortlisted for prestigious awards like Encore Award, Vodafone Crossword Award, Hindu Best Fiction Prize, Man Asian Literature Prize, DSC Prize for South Asia among other honourable listings. Hailing from a small ancient town of Gaya, Bihar, Khair’s sensibilities reflect in his works be it poetry or prose he has shaped his images, characters and plots in such a way that the likes of late Khushwant Singh, Keki N Daruwalla, and Amitav Ghosh put their penchant stamp onto them. Khair was in town for Hyderabad Literary Festival, 2016. We had a conversation with him:
Small town from a distance
Tabish Khair grew up and was educated in Gaya which has this rich cultural and historical background of being a part of ancient Magadh Empire under Maurya and Gupta dynasties. It was in this town that Gautam Buddha attained nirvana under a Bo Tree. The characters and images often reflect in his work especially in his poems. But now for years he has been teaching at Aarhus University after having completing PhD from Copenhagen University. We ask him how different does his hometown look from a distance so far. He smiles and answers, “Places like Bihar in a Third-World country like India have gone through a hectic turbulent phase for the last 30 years. The places have grown, but they haven’t necessarily developed. There are people with money, but the cultural factors are missing. Many of the developments take place in the big towns. Small towns don’t have that vibrant cultural sphere. When I look back, I don’t see Gaya becoming different as I teach at a village in Denmark. I see Gaya becoming different because 30 years back there were more cultural events, more writers, more publications coming out. Now it’s not the same and it’s true about all small towns in Bihar and UP. These towns provide such little opportunities that most of the ambitious people move out. So, when they move out, the opportunities, too move out with them.”
Images or symbols?
Though he may have have moved out of his town and country, images like burning tyres, incense sticks on graves and local women cooking halwa on Shab-E-Barat appear frequently in his poems especially in his books ‘Where Parallel Lines Meet’ and ‘Man of Glass’. Though these appear collectively as marks of symbolism in his thought-process he has something different to say, “It’s been part of the reality where I grew up. Symbols are rooted in reality. I use an image because it captures a certain experience. To that extent it’s symbolic. I see them more as images than symbols.”
‘You need to be more lazy for poetry’
In his poetry book ‘Where Parallel Lines Meet’, he writes about his hometown, its sounds, smells and sounds. His other poetry book ‘Man of Glass’ explore fairy-tales, Shakuntala and Ghalib that make the reader feel the burden of nostalgia blooming in an ice-covered country. But after that Khair has not penned any other poems. He shares, “Poetry is far more difficult to write. With my job it’s so difficult to write as poetry needs more space. You need to be more lazy to write poetry.”
‘The New Xenophobia’ is the new book by Tabish. He says that racism is a form of xenophobia elaborating, “The reason I wrote this new book to tell that there are other kinds of xenophobia too. People are constructed as strangers sometimes tightly confined within abstract definitions. Racism we can see very clearly after what happened in the 19th century and what the Nazis did to the Jews. We can feel racism. As Indians we can feel it more because we are at the receiving end. Their ability to live and work is threatened and their existence is denied. So, I wanted to deal with this fear of strangers in other forms.”
Network and noises
With a lot of lit fests happening do network and ‘noises’ about political issues make a good and successful writer? He ponders and then answers, “Yes. Charles Bukowski is a classic example of that as an offbeat writer who didn’t go to university. He was discovered working in a post office when he was 50 years old. Then he sold this idea so well that for the coming years of his life he was hugely successful. It was his writing that made him survive. I don’t do any networking. I go to these Lit Fests once or twice a year. Partly because I have a day job to do and children to bring up. I like meeting my readers. If I overdo it. I might end up tiring myself. Some people who are impressed with my work say that I have suffered as as writer because I don’t do networking. They add that I have a reputation which is restricted only to readers circle. They might be right, they might not be right.” He adds, “Writing is a very solitary act, but literary scene is by definition not a solitary space. So, if you are going to be very active on the literary scene you won’t have much time to write or think. On the other hand you can be very easily misled in terms of your own writing. It’s one thing to be a celebrity, it’s another thing to be a writer.”
Do MFAs help writers?
A blend of writer and professor that Khair is he has a mixed opinion on MFA in poetry and prose the much-sought-after course by upcoming writers. “MFAs have been in America for the last 30 years. These courses have been popular in England in the last 10-15 years. Now obviously Indian middle class is attracted to it. Hanif Kureishi dismissed MFA saying that MFAs don’t make a writer. You have to learn writing on your won. Hanif himself teaches creative writing though. On the other hand an MFA can bring you close to other writers from different backgrounds and you can have more exposure. When I took to writing people told me that I will starve. I wouldn’t do an MFA as I wanted to experience life and can’t think of writing as a special box. For me writing comes from life. A lot of writers choose to remain single. But not me because I want to be involved with life. MFAs provide work and good salaries for writers like Hanif Kureishi.”
He is coming up with a family epic based on the tale of his hometown Gaya. “I am working on a family epic. It will take more than five years. It’s based on my hometown. My recent novel is a short one which is upcoming. It’s named ‘Jihadi Jane’. It’s about two South Asian girls living in England who run away from their homes to join Jihad,” he signs off.