Varsha Tiwary is in conversation with author, academician and columnist Tabish Khair as his seventh novel ‘Body by the Shore’ is soon to release in India.
Tabish Khair was born in 1966 and educated in Gaya, a small town in Bihar, India. He is the acclaimed author of 6 novels–of which Interlink published two: Just Another Jihadi Jane and How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position–and 2 poetry collections. Winner of the All India Poetry Prize, his novels have been shortlisted for more than a dozen major prizes, including the Man Asian, the DSC Prize and the Encore Prize. An Associate Professor at Aarhus University, Denmark, he has been a Leverhulme Guest Professor at Leeds University, UK, and has also been awarded guest professorships or honorary fellowships at Delhi University (India), York University (UK), Cambridge University (UK), and others.
My first acquaintance with Tabish Khair was through his conscience-shaking novel “The Night Of Happiness,” Next I was knocked off by the love-story, “Filming.” which traces the growth of India’s early movie industry from the silent, bioscope era to the Studio system in pre-Partition Bombay; and how the essentially cosmopolitan social values of the film-industry threaten the reactionaries in an increasingly communal, per-independent India.
Since then, I have systematically read every one of his books. The characters of his novels often have an organic proximity to otherness (non-urban, small-town Bihar, Muslim, low- caste). The Indian edition of Author Tabish Khair’s seventh novel, “Body By The Shore” —a literary speculative novel is due for release in September, and I was fortunate enough to be graciously granted an opportunity to speak to the author whose words have often spoken to me.
A full time academician, a prolific author, and a regular columnist in the Hindu and the Quint, Tabish‘s prodigious output also includes four non-fiction books; three poetry collections, countless anthologies. He has edited several anthologies and regularly publishes short stories in International literary magazines. He is based in Aarhus, Denmark, where he is an Associate Professor, Aarhus University, Denmark. This interview was conducted through back and forth on email.
VT: In most speculative stories/movies the threat is external— a mutant spider/chimpanzee/ alien/mutant microbe—bent on finishing off humanity. And the hero saves the world. Your book reads the post-pandemic times like an oracle. Highlighting that the threats are us. That not only now, even in the past we have always been bent on auto-destruction. But the evil capability of a few to inflict their will on the rest is intensifying as time passes.
Though in your story the savior heroes emerge at the right moment and the evil Russian is gunned down, there is no doubt in the reader’s mind that while this oil-rig-gig has been blown up for now, the Magic Gates, the shadowy cabals are bound to crop up again. Perhaps the only hope lies in other worlds and other life-forms—in the under-ocean rose gardens……. because there is no doubt that the world is going to implode? This sense that this cannot go on?
TABISH KHAIR (TK): You are right: I do believe that we are running out of time, in the short historical rather than long geological sense. Of course, this won’t really worry most politicians, who only think ahead to the next election, and most corporate-types, who usually think ahead to the next dividend report, and we are still talking of millennia. But, as climate change suggests, we might soon, maybe even in a few decades, be on a slippery slope and it will be much harder to stop sliding then. But more than that, because I have read my share of Enlightenment thinkers, the tragedy is that we can be doing so much better right now. We have all the means we need to eradicate poverty and provide education globally, and we are nowhere close to it.
We have the understanding, skills and science that we need to live a more sustainable existence, to allow space for other species, but it is far from happening. Having said that, I am not a pessimist, though I do have a poor opinion of humankind in general. I see humankind as capable of ‘miracles’… and genocides. I fear that the latter component dominates, because genocides are easier to commit and actually less disturbing than ‘miracles’ for the ordinary person. But I still hope, I keep hoping, so this novel is not a verdict, more of a warning. It is a kind of Cassandra novel, but you are right about it extending to the past: I do want to say that the roots of our failures are deep. That unless we question our convictions and our past, we will get nowhere.
VT: There is a sense though, that the natural optimism that animates your previous offerings, is, like the reality on the oil-rig—in suspended animation. Michelle’s descriptions of the rig actually have a surreal, metaphorical quality. It indeed seems to be Limbo personified. No difference between night and day. Simultaneously limitless and intensely confined.. What made you choose an oil rig as a setting?
TK: True. I am less optimistic now than I was a decade ago. Still not a pessimist, but struggling… Re the oil rig, I needed to find a space where a complicated laboratory, one doing cutting edge experiments on the human brain and microbes, could be set, and I was looking around for possible candidates. Land was possible, but difficult, as there would be others, police, laws etc. Too much to explain away. Maybe an island? But it sounded too Dr. Moreau-like to me. Then I discovered that there are oil rigs out there, some partly dismantled and abandoned.
Some still containing chemicals and refuge that can cause environmental devastation. That, sadly, fitted into my critique of the world: these corporations rubbishing the earth to make a quick profit and leaving elected governments (using our tax money) to clear the garbage, if we can. Like those thousands of satellites that Mr. Musk and others are sending up, filling the space with stuff that will be junk in a few decades, and with no plan or funding to clear the junk. So, alas, an abandoned oil rig fitted my story.
VT: I keep thinking about the ways in which we can talk about our dystopian times. The injustices are obvious but the nexus between capitalist dollars, the outsourced governments, the hired militias present too wide a canvas.
Do you think that science fiction/ speculative fiction offers more space to talk about the current inter-connected global problems, which are a result of untrammeled profit-oriented capital-technological growth?
TK: Yes, but I also think that all Literature, at its best, allows that space. Literature, as I keep telling my bemused students, is written in language about a world that is both shaped by that language and exceeds that language. That is why Literature is not just about what is said, but also about what is not said, sometimes what cannot be said. To read Literature, we need to pay close attention to its words, and then to the gaps, noise, silence between the words. That is why Literature allows us to talk about matters that are not possible to address in many other contexts. It can go beyond words, let alone permitted or sanctioned words.
VT: Tell me something about the process of writing this novel. Did you begin with the idea of scientific characters whose research would be appropriated in the near future or did you begin with teh protagonists first? Also a thriller involves such intricate plotting, the laying down of a trail, and notching up the gears towards the end. Did you enjoy this more than the usual character-driven plots of yours?
The book has a thrilling end but is equally full of nuances and poetry and well-etched characters. Did you plan to write only a thriller, which turned literary or was it the other way round?
TK: No, actually, I had a literary thriller in mind from the start. You know that I play with different genres in different novels, though literary critics do not seem to have noticed it yet. Isn’t it funny that good actors are praised for doing different roles, but novelists are usually celebrated for writing the same bloody novel over and over again? I think a particular genre usually enables me to tell a certain kind of story. I select my genre-affinity accordingly. In this case, I was looking at a Sci-fi influenced literary thriller, what can be called speculative fiction too, though I did not want it to get too thrilling from the start: I wanted to build up places, people, ideas first. I did not want it to be a typical thriller, in other words: not just a what-happened-next story.
I did have the basic ‘speculative science’ idea in mind, related to the mitochondria, which marked the beginning to multicellular organisms when a kind of microbe consumed another microbe: this idea runs through the novel but I underplay it a bit. My take on the idea has to do with the reason/emotion divide, where the novel suggests that the human ability to reason in an abstract manner is the consequence of a kind of microbe, perhaps from outer space, that has made the human brain its host. Then, of course, I read up in the field, and the idea developed and changed. The characters had to come too; without them, I would not have proceeded.
VT: American publishers as compared to Indian Publishers, as The Body by the Shore has been published in USA, and will be out in India only in September 2022?
TK: I have a faithful and respected US independent publisher (Interlink) behind me. I went to them after my big league publication by Houghton Mifflin, who brought out The Thing About Thugs in USA, but were not interested in my next novel, as it was totally different. I am not looking for any other US house. I am happy with Interlink. I would prefer to be with one publisher, also in India. But in India, I am published by big league houses, and their editors change their minds at times – or, actually, are forced to change their minds by their marketing people.
This is inevitable when you are a commercial enterprise; I am not blaming them. But my Indian imprints keep changing: Picador, HarperCollins, Penguin, back to HarperCollins this time. And in the UK, I have no idea what works: I suppose you need to belong to certain London circles or have an Oxbridge background: a few good old chaps who know you personally seems to help in UK. I don’t have these good old chaps. So, again, in UK, my imprints keep changing. Apart from my first two, which were published by Picador in UK, all my subsequent novels have been published by different houses there. It is a pity. One would like to work with one editor, who knows your trajectory, but that almost never happens anymore.
VT : Lit fests are full of people who think literature is like a Rado or a Louis Vuitton, something that can be plucked off the shelves of the literary marketplace, something to adorn their personality with. Do you think festivals actually do any good? I would much rather have a vibrant lit mag scene, more culture of people actually writing ( and hence thinking); more book clubs. What’s your experience been like?
TK: I have enjoyed attending the occasional festival, when invited. I would not go to one on my own though, not as a reader, for I prefer not meeting my authors. I write from Denmark, where I keep a low profile, especially after moving away from Copenhagen and settling down in a village outside Aarhus, where I teach. Only two of my novels have been translated into Danish. I do not do the literary circles in Aarhus, or anywhere.
So literary festivals are fun for me, in a largely anthropological manner. I am not sure they do much for a writer like me, who does a festival only once in a while, but I hear of writers who do festivals regularly, and I am told they lead to better sales for such writers. My exposure depends on my readers and the occasional editor, scholar and festival host who cares for my work. There are enough of them to keep me floating as a writer. I am most thankful to them, as I have tweeted once or twice.
VT : You are one of the most prolific Indian writers. You have constantly explored new themes in every novel. You write poetry, short stories, essays, research papers and you teach English literature full time. What kind of spiritual, mental, physical energy does it take? What makes you reach for the pen to begin a new one? And has it already begun?
TK: You know, Varsha, I wish I could answer this question: why do I reach for the pen and begin a new book? Often, after finishing a book, I feel that I am exhausted, and will not write another book for years, maybe forever. The effort, the exhaustion, the frustrations, the disappointments, the sacrifices in normal life, the unhappiness it usually causes those around you who cannot share in the writing life and inadvertently barge into your time and space, the constant struggle, these are surely not worth another book? I even say so sometimes.
But 8-9 months later, and sometimes even 8-9 weeks later, I am working on something else. And I do feel something like purpose in the process: it gives my life a direction, it enables me to cope with the world. And yes, actually, I am finishing a study right now, and I have to thank the Carlsberg Foundation in Denmark which funded the study, allowing me to teach a bit less: it is on literature and fundamentalism.
VT: And the topic literature and fundamentalism sounds so crucial for our times. In India coming of full day TV in the 90s with K serials and reality shows and then in mid 2000’s mobile phone followed by WhatsApp created fertile ground for simplistic narratives. And I think popularity of fundamentalism is the ultimate triumph of the simplistic narrative.
There are no pat solutions for the TV and phone addicted generations, but as you also teach literature a few insights on introducing the youth to literature? Do you think that a pendulum that has swung to the extreme right would start swinging back, if only the place of liberal arts can be restored in our instrumental education system?
TK: Yes, that is essentially my position in the study too: fundamentalism is essentially an inability to read, an inability to read texts in language which extends to a failure to read reality. Fundamentalism allows only one or two permitted readings, which reduces the complexity of the text, and which in turn reduces a person’s ability to cope with the even greater complexity of life, or reality. The problem, of course, is that fundamentalism is not confined to religion. You can see how fundamentalists take a religious text and simplify it, shear it of its complexities, its thinking elements, whether it is the Ramayana or the Bible or the Quran. But this happens in other areas too: for instance, economics, with its current mantra that free capital is the only option, come what may.
Or even in science, though less often by scientists and more often by journalists writing about science, as when something so complex as genetics is turned into “genes for crime” etc! These are all fundamentalist readings, and the ability to read literature – as literature, not only as sociology or politics or entertainment etc. – is the best way to guard against it. I am a bit despondent at the tendency in universities to read literature as anything but literature – I think it is a kind of fundamentalism too, because literature cannot just be reduced to the social or personal or aesthetic or market aspects. If we do so, we are subjecting literature to a fundamentalist reading: it is all of them, and more. So, yes, the larger liberal arts are essential to education, real education.
About the Book
Harris Maloub, a killer with an erased official past, now in his fifties, is visited by someone who could not be alive and given an assignment. In Aarhus, Denmark, Jens Erik, police officer on pre-retirement leave, somehow cannot forget the body of a Black man recovered from the sea some years ago. On an abandoned oil rig in the North Sea, turned into a resort for the very rich, Michelle, a young Caribbean woman, realizes that the man she has followed to this job is not what he claims to be. And neither is the rig, where a secret laboratory bares to her a face that is neither human nor animal. Behind all this, there lurks the ghost of a seminar in 2007: most of the participants of that seminar are dead or untraceable. Why was their obscure research on plants and fungi and microbes so important? What is the secret that killed them? What is the weapon that powerful syndicates are trying to obtain – or develop?
Narrated from the perspective of the post-pandemic world around 2030, but moving back in time to cover all of the 21st century, and even bits and pieces from the 20th and the 19th, The Body by the Shore is a novel of suspense and speculation about the complexity of life and intricacy of the earth. It is also a novel about reason and emotion, love and despair, greed and hope, human beings and microbes. When the narrative strands come together, a world of great terror and beauty is revealed to the reader.
About Varsha Tiwary
Varsha Tiwary lives and writes from New Delhi, India. Her short stories and essays appear in DNA-Out Of Print blog, Kitaab; Basil O’Flaherty; Muse India, Jaggerylit, Manifest-station, Spark, Usawa, Café Dissensus, Gargoyle magazine, Outlook magazine blogs, Shenandoah lit mag, Eclectica, Pinecone Review, Months to Years Covid Flash, Cordella, Third Lane Magazine and Gulmohar Quarterly.