The Interview: Tabish Khair
(Rachna Singh in conversation with Tabish Khair)
The Wise Owl interviews Tabish Khair, an eminent poet, writer and critic, who was born in Ranchi, grew up in Gaya and is currently working as an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. Tabish Khair has authored several books of poetry, fiction and studies which have been critically acclaimed. His writings include poetry collections, My World (1991) Where Parallel Lines Meet (2000), Man of Glass (2010), and the studies, Babu Fictions: Alienation in Indian English Novels (2001), The Gothic Postcolonialism and Otherness (2010) and The New Xenophobia (2016). His novels include The Bus Stopped (2004), which was short listed for the Encore award (UK), The Thing About Thugs (2010), which was short listed for a number of prizes including the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Man Asian Literary Prize. Some of his other novels are How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (2014), Just Another Jihadi Jane (2016) and Night of Happiness (2018). He has a new novel, The Body By the Shore, coming out in 2022. His academic papers, reviews and essays have appeared in various prominent journals and newspapers. His honours and awards include the All-India Poetry Prize (Awarded by the Poetry Society and the British Council) and various honorary fellowships in India, UK and Hong Kong. He was also writer in residence at York University (UK), Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University, JNU, Delhi University, etc., and a Leverhulme guest professor at Leeds University, UK.
Despite innumerable awards and his status as a globally acclaimed poet and writer, Tabish Khair is affable, approachable and has none of the arrogance one would associate with a writer of his standing. He is especially supportive of literary magazines and small presses, which he considers to be the ‘lifeblood of literature and culture.’
Thank you Mr Tabish Khair for taking time out to speak to ‘The Wise Owl’
Q. You are a poet, a writer, an academician and a teacher. Which role appeals to you the most (if I may ask)?
A. That is an easy and a difficult choice: easy because I have never seen myself as anything other than a writer, and hence my other roles (journalist, academic, teacher), have always been a way to keep on being a writer. Difficult choice too, because I would not choose between being a writer and a poet, though I hardly write poems anymore.
Q. In ‘Night of Happiness’(2018) you say ‘writing reaches out and catches you by its sleeve. You feel its desperate tug.’ Our readers would like to know if writing for you is a ‘desperate tug’ and call of the Muse?
A. When I was young, I scoffed at the idea of the Muse, and I still believe that writing is, to use a quote out of context, 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration. But with age, I have realised that the one percent does count for something, and that, unknowingly, I have always had a Muse: these were people who, even if they did not read me, somehow made me write. To begin with, my father and mother, of course, but then other people too, including the women in my life. Also, non-human aspects, like the town I grew up in, a small town I was largely happy to leave and am entirely happy to live away from most of the time, but which did drive, prod, stab me into writing, and still does: that is, at least in its almost generic ‘small townness,’ which I sense in other places too, which informs even my reading and criticism of literature. So yes, writing is a kind of ‘desperate tug’, though in that novel the narrator is talking more of the impact of the writing on the reader.
Q. In a photograph on your website, you sport a T-shirt with ‘words are inadequate’ emblazoned on it. Would you like to comment on that?
A. Any writer who thinks that his or her words are adequate is a bad writer. Words always fail us, but they are also all that we have. One writes and lives with that knowledge. One makes the most of it, struggles against it.
Q. Is Tabish Khair, the poet, who wrote ‘My World’ (1991) different from Tabish Khair, the poet who wrote ‘Man Of Glass’(2010) or ‘Where Parallel lines Meet’? If so, how?
A. I was still in Gaya, my hometown, when I wrote the poems that, thanks to a national competition by Rupa and Co, were selected for publication as My World. I was a voracious reader, but my reading was dated, my exposure to what was happening in literature stopped somewhere in the 1960s, probably even a few years before I was born. More recent literature was not available in a place like Gaya. One of the things I did as methodically as possible was to catch up with contemporary literature after I left Gaya for Delhi and then Delhi for Copenhagen. I think that is the main difference between my early works and the other two collections. It was not and has never been some kind of anxiety of influence: I suppose my literary trajectory, coming from small town non-Anglophone India, protects me from that sort of stuff: after all, there is no established ‘tradition’ for people like me in English or even (metropolitan) Indian English writing. We are on our own. But I needed to know what was around me. I see literature as a magic wall, full of tiles, wonderful tiles, but the wall is absolutely full and there is no space on it for your own little tile, until you realise that it is a magic wall, and this is the magic: if you look at the wall long enough, deeply enough, a small space opens up for your own little tile.
Q. Your poetry collection, ‘Man of Glass’ straddles 3 poets/writers of different cultures and vastly different eras. Their creative genres are also different and so is the language they expressed themselves in. How did you think of bringing together Kalidas, Ghalib and HC Andersen and manage to meld them seamlessly so as to appeal to a contemporary reader?
A. Actually, it just happened. I gravitated to one author each from three ‘cultural’ and linguistic traditions that had influenced me. I think the fact that these three writers in some ways met in me, even, to a degree, made me the writer I was at that point of time, enabled the poems to meld seamlessly, as you so kindly put it.
Q. In your book, ‘The Thing about Thugs’ some critics have claimed that you have engaged with established ‘diasporic, subalternist or post-colonialist narrative traditions’. Do you think your writings fit into such definitions? Or do you resent this square-peg-in-a-round-hole kind of categorization?
A. It never ceases to amuse me how much more widely that novel was received, because it fitted into exactly those traditions, and there is a space – a minority space, but nevertheless a space – in global and national academia and publishing for these traditions. I dislike institutionalisation, and have stayed on the fringes of institutional authority, even as an academic. Because I think institutions do not just enable you – which they do in a big way, if you fit the slots – but they change you into something else in the process. That saying about how power corrupts is just a very small part of it. Of course, I went on to write novels that did not fit into those traditions, or not in the same way, and my next novel manuscript was rejected by a major house, which had published The Thing About Thugs outside India, with the explanation that it was too different and they could not ‘place’ it in their list.
Q. In your book ‘How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position’, one of the characters says, ‘he did not get worked up about what the west has been doing to all the rest.’ Does the statement reflect your thinking? If so, what do you think the ‘west has done?
A. I think so. I grew up in a professional small town family, where English had been the professional language for three generations (of doctors) before me, but it was not a cultural language; it was not even consciously associated with colonial prestige. It was just a useful language, a convenient tool. Our cultural language was Urdu. I lost Urdu in the stupid political conflict between Hindi and Urdu when I was in school, and unconsciously moved to English as my cultural language, my first language. It was neutral territory, and already part of my inheritance. Growing up, like other historically and politically aware people, I obviously had my resentments against the West, both over the colonial past and issues like Palestine or Cuba. I still take a stand, but over the years I learned to distinguish necessary criticism from bitterness and resentment. Or so I hope. There is a difference. It is important to be able to see that difference.
Q. In the same book Ravi says, ‘You think anyone would give you real reasons in a civilized country’. This suggests that people in the so-called ‘civilized country’ sport a polite veneer and that truth hides behind this façade. Do you feel that ‘being civilized’ today means that a person moves from truth to untruth rather than vice versa?
A. The claim to civilisation, like the claim that words are adequate, is always suspect. But the attempt to be ‘civilised’, like the attempt to do what one can with words, is also absolutely necessary, and mostly admirable. This applies to all peoples, nations, religions.
Q. In your poem ‘Nurse’s Song’, you talk about the rootless koel that ‘sings of separation.’ In ‘Immigrant’ (Man of Glass) you talk about how ‘it hurts to walk on new legs’ and wonder if ‘it’s a fair trade.’ Do the poems reflect your own ache of alienation at being separated from your roots? Did you ever think of going back to India permanently? (You may choose not to answer this question if it intrudes into your personal space)
A. Actually, I have a complex – and slightly unconventional – relationship to roots. I have never felt rootless. But then I did not feel overly rooted even when I was in Gaya. I did not feel rootless there either, but I did not feel fixedly rooted either. I continue to feel that way about all spaces I have lived in: neither rootless nor rooted, and also both rootless and rooted. However, the idea of separation, or the pain (or joy) of beginning anew, and similar matters, these do exist for me, deeply, viscerally even, but I do not see them as connected to all that standard talk of roots. On the other hand, I am also not a great champion of routes or movement. I think both roots and routes exist, and there is no point fetishizing either of them. Actually, ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ are linked. Though, as a conservative Danish character in my forthcoming novel, The Body by the Shore, says, when his daughter quotes from Salman Rushdie to the effect that trees have roots while people have feet to move on: “People also have buttocks to sit on.”
Q. You talk about ‘the slippery inheritance of a rented language’. The reference is presumably to your adopted language, English. Did you ever feel you would be more comfortable expressing your creativity in your own language? (Hindi and Urdu are both beautiful languages)
A. I actually cannot place that phrase, so I do not know in what context I had uttered it. Is the speaker me, or one of my narrators? At least now, I personally do not see English as a rented language: I do not owe anyone any rent. It is my first language. I have three others, Hindi, Urdu and Danish. But I came to Danish too late, and the puerile political squabbles between Urdu and Hindi, which sometimes cost me grades in school, alienated me from both. I overcame my alienation later in adulthood, but by then it was too late: I was far more comfortable in English than in any other language. It is the language in which I can best grapple with the inadequacy of all words.
Q. I was going through your collection ‘Quarantined Sonnets: Sex, Money & Shakespeare.’ What made you use the sonnets of Shakespeare, as a vehicle for political and social commentary on the contemporary world?
A. That was very much a quarantine pamphlet. The first pandemic lockdown in Denmark in 2020, and I was asked by a colleague to contribute a paper on Shakespeare’s sonnets. So I started re-reading the sonnets, and then started re-writing some of them in the context of the pandemic, mostly for myself. I re-wrote 21, which seemed to be an adequate number, and when Kitaab (Singapore) kindly offered to publish them and donate the money to a charity, I thought that would be a good idea.
Q. In a blog post of 2010, ‘Dancing With myself: Tabish Khair interviews Tabish Khair’ you have raised questions such as What do you seek to represent? What would you say if I asked you this question today?
A. Today, I would prefer not to answer that question. I would say that I answer the question only in my writings. I was more verbose when I was younger. One might not get wiser with age, but one gets more taciturn and hence passes as being wiser.
Q. Your new book ‘The Body by the Shore’, which will be out in the summer of 2022 is set in Aarhus, Denmark. Does that mean you now feel assimilated in a milieu which till now was alien?
A. I do feel more at home in Aarhus than I did 15 years ago, but that has more to do with my children growing up there. I had set How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position in Aarhus too, so it is not entirely new. But that novel mostly featured immigrants and this time there is a substantial Danish character: it is true that I feel I have lived in Aarhus long enough to take up a character like him. Actually, The Body by the Shore is also set on an oil rig in the North Sea – and some smaller excerpts take place in different countries too, including India. The oil rig and Denmark are the main settings, but not the only ones.
Q. Would you want to give any advice to our readers, especially those who have literary aspirations?
A. Write because you have to, not because you want to. And if you want to become rich or famous, almost any other profession will offer you a better chance. Even buying a lottery ticket would be smarter in that case.
Thank you so much Dr Khair for taking time out of your busy work schedule to talk to us. We are honoured and very appreciative of your encouragement and support to our magazine. We wish you lots of success in all your literary ventures and look forward with pleasure to many more books from the quill of a master craftsman.
Some of the Books Published by Tabish Khair
1. My World (1991)
2. Where Parallel lines Meet (2000)
3. Man Of Glass (2010)
4. Quarantined Sonnets (2020)
1. The Bus Stopped (2004)
2. The Thing About Thugs (2010)
3. How To Fight Islamist Terrorism from the Missionary Position (2012)
4. Just another Jihadi Jane (2016)
5. Night Of Happiness (2018)
1. Babu Fictions (2010)
2. The Gothic Post Colonialism & Otherness (2009)
3. Reading Literature Today (2011)
4.The New Xenophobia (2016)
Expected in 2022
1. The Body by the Shore
A look at the Book Jackets