- [Biddy] For those of you who don't know me I'm Biddy Martin, president of Amherst College, and it's a great pleasure tonight to welcome Aatish Taseer to Amherst, back to Amherst. Aatish graduated from Amherst in 2003 and has gone on to be a major author and thinker. I know a little bit about his achievements at Amherst. I surprised him earlier by asking him whether the title of his thesis in political science was Gandhi Transcending the Body and the State, to which he said it was the title. It's a thesis that explored the Gandhian mode of political dissent and its implications for the War on Terror in the United States. I haven't yet read it but I would love to know what the implications are from you. And when he graduated, he also won a prize, the Frederick King Turgeon Prize for distinguished work in French. He had two majors, political science and French. And Aatish tells me that he didn't know any French until he got here. Is that really true? Okay, well, that's amazing. In looking at his accomplishments while at Amherst, I think we'll learn more about Amherst's impact on him tonight, but when thinking about just these two achievements, we already see his engagement with the complex layers of identity and heritage that mark the globally interconnected world that we live in. And he's someone who has moved and continues to move back and forth between and among Indian, European, British, and American cultures. The colonized, the colonizing, the hybrid. He shows how the fabric of identity is woven. And the process through which identity is formed is a theme that he has come to and tackled not only in his fiction but also nonfiction writing. It's a central theme of his new book, The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges, which I think will appear any minute. Is that right?
- [Aatish] In March here.
- [Biddy] Oh, that's not really any minute, but it's soon. So it will appear in March. The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges, in which he tries to understand his own estrangement from India, tell me if I'm getting this right, by examining the clash of cultures and beliefs that currently exist at the heart of Indian society. When it comes to the formation of identity in context, college frequently plays a pivotal role, at least for many people. It's the place where many first come into contact and develop relationships with people and cultures other than the one in which they grew up. And in college we're, many of us, all of us really, presented with important opportunities to see ourselves through other people's eyes and in a different context, to know that we're formed by context and also shape it. Aatish's work shows this vividly. He's the author of the memoir called Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands, and three acclaimed novels, The Way Things Were, which was a finalist for the 2016 Jan Michalski Prize, The Temple-Goers, which was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, and Noon. His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages and he's contributing writer to the international New York Times. He lives in New Delhi and New York. More New York, I think, than New Delhi. Yes. We're delighted to have you here Aatish. Please welcome Aatish Taseer.
- [Aatish] Good evening. I want to begin by reading you, well, the title of the talk is We Shall Be a Country With No History: Historical Awakening at Amherst College. And I want to begin with a portrait from my second novel, called Noon, of someone I knew at Amherst. Zach was slim and handsome, of mixed race and from the Midwest. He had spoken early on to me of his Protestant work ethic and already in those first weeks, when everybody was drinking beer from plastic cups and enjoying the good weather, I would see him putting his words into action. Every day he went directly from his classes to the soundless C section of the Robert Frost Library. He remained there in that gloomy basement 'til 4:30, surfacing only for a horrid cigarette. Dressed in stained khakis and a flimsy blue shirt, under which a white vest was visible, he could be seen pacing the library's granite steps, tensely studying the reference cards he had filled in in an abrupt and jagged hand with notes from his afternoon's reading. If anyone approached him, he would look at the person for a moment or so with the terrifying aspect of the Nietzschean solitary, wild-eyed and fresh from the cave. Then this expression would give way to an unnatural smiling manner that would send the intruder fast on his way.
Then the grimmer visage. At 4:30 he would break for dinner, which meant a short trip to the dining hall where he packed himself two sandwiches and brown paper napkins. Then he would return to the library for the rest of the evening. At close to nine, if I was lucky, I would be summoned for a drink. This occasion, though it had the outward appearance of a festivity, was no less utilitarian. It was a 90-minute session in which Zach smoked Black and Mild cigars while hastily drinking from a gallon bottle of Carlo Rossi's red wine, spilling it here and there, further staining his khakis.
Over the course of these 90 minutes, after which I would be ushered out of his room, he would speak, drink and smoke with the force of a man wishing to relax his mind for sleep. And as it softened, the day's reading poured out of him, bringing a variety of writers and musicians my way. DuBois, Ellison, James Baldwin, Nina Simone and Coltrane. Zach was absorbed with aesthetic questions that though outwardly technical were in fact about the aim of art. Questions of narrative, what you kept, what you left out, the function of economy, the importance of discovering one's material, of looking inward to see which of the stories we contained were important and worth telling.
At the beginning of our acquaintance, I had treated Zach's concern with these questions as one of the many pretentious conversations I had routinely had in college. Part of the reason was that I myself had never thought to question the purpose of education. I had come blindly to college in America from India because it was the thing to do. It was an extension of other forms of entitlement, like summer holidays in the West or the buying of a nice car. I don't think I could've answered the question of why I was going to college, not at least on my own terms. In my heart I would've known it was to impress those around me. It was like Tolstoy's youthful fascination with the idea of being comme il faut. And this desire to impress others would have extended to what I hoped to learn at the college as well, fashionable French and Russian writers whose names would serve me well at cocktail parties.
The college too, with its broad surveys of literature and performing professors, was complicit in the acquisition of this kind of learning. But Zach was different. And in our third year, still wishing to discover what gifts lay within him, what his responsibility to his talent was, he quit all his reading and writing classes to become a painter. Listening to him one night talk of negative space in his paintings, which he described as the equivalent of what is left unsaid in a story, I begin to feel that Zach was crossing the line between education that was ornamental and education that was real. And inspiring though his self-improvement was, it gave me a feeling of shame at my own wasted years, at the books read fast and for no other reason than to say I had read them. I wanted to go back and to read again.
I had by then acquired the aspiration to be a writer, but feared very much that it was no more profound than that initial desire to go to college in America. I wanted now again to look at its motivations and see if there was really anything there. I want to speak to you tonight of the role the African-American writers who came to me through Zach played in my discovery of history at Amherst, and I suppose in America more generally. The history to which I refer is not the history of history books. I'm going to let a story from which the title of this talk is drawn give you a better sense of what I mean. It is from Rebecca West's essay on the Nuremberg Trials, A Train of Powder, and it goes like this. "An American newspaper owner who had "also vast industrial interests "was showing some European guests "around his newspaper building "and had some difficulties with a Negro elevator man "who proved to be new, from the South, and illiterate. "One of the guests, an educationist, said, "'Ah yes, you Americans, "'you have your problems like the rest of us.' "The newspaper owner looked brutal in his contempt "as he said, 'No, we have not. "'You have all the problems there are over in Europe. "'But here in America, we have nothing to do "'but just go ahead and get rich. "'We shall be a country with no history.'"
It is clear from the vehemence with which the newspaperman in the story speaks of history that he cannot merely want to save America from knowing when the Battle of Hastings occurred or when the Declaration of Independence was signed or what the causes of the First World War were. So what does he mean? My hunch is that he wants America to be free of a certain kind of intractable history that is the warp and woof of societies in the Old World. This other kind of history arises usually from a painful episode, a historical wound that is reenacted from generation to generation. The Sunni-Shia animus in the Middle East is one example, the Hindu-Muslim antagonism on the Indian subcontinent another. Europe with its long history of religious, sectarian and racial violence has endured many such episodes.
It takes a long time for history of this kind to go quiet. Only then, after what is too often an expiation in blood, does it come to be within the reach of historians. Until it does it roils away under the surface of daily life, reasserting itself in new and surprising ways like the mutations of a virus. These cycles of historical recurrence can be a drain on the energy of a society. There are places with promising futures that committed suicide or lost out on whole centuries in their development on account of this kind of history. Russia comes to mind, as does Germany.
The promise of the New World was in part the promise of being free of the miring past. And if there is a note of panic in the newspaperman's voice, it comes no doubt from the fear that what James Baldwin describes as the interracial drama that played out on the American continent has given America the material for that first historical nightmare from which, like Stephen Daedalus, it will try and fail to awake. The newspaperman is right to fear history of this kind, for it is violent by its very nature. The source of that violence is the anger that comes to people who find the world sees them differently from how they see themselves. It is the sense, as DuBois writes, of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. The tension at the core of DuBois' idea of double consciousness, the tortured twoness of the Black American experience, will find an echo in the words of V.S. Naipaul writing a century later. To awaken to history was to cease to live instinctively. It was to begin to see oneself and one's group the way the outside world sees one. And it was to know a kind of rage.
To arrive in Amherst in the summer of 1999 was to be totally oblivious to the kind of history I have just described. Not only did I not know the deeper tensions of the society I was entering, I knew very little about my own. My background in India was colonial, overlaid by a more general experience of globalized culture. American television and international schools. India had a continuous tradition of literacy that was over 3000 years old, but no connection existed between the education I received, which was the legacy of the British in India, and India's classical traditions of learning. An epistemological break had occurred around the time of my grandparents' generation, severing us English-speaking Indians from the country at large. Beneath two centuries of British rule lay the centuries of Muslim rule. And deeper down, for the great majority of India, the old Hindu past lived on into the present. The society was a classic example of what Ernst Bloch has called the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous, the survival in a single society of ancient culture, thought, and social organization, alongside newer elements that are of a piece with global culture everywhere.
But we in English-speaking India were oblivious to these things. I quoted Naipaul earlier. As it happened I had a chance to meet the great and now-late writer in the summer before college. We knew Naipaul through his wife Nadira, who was a friend of my mother's. Naipaul was of an Indian family who had been indentured to Trinidad after the abolition of slavery. Aged 18 he won a scholarship to Oxford and had spent most of his adult life in Britain. His background, as he would say in his Nobel lecture of 2001, was at once exceedingly simple and exceedingly confused. My mother, I imagine, thought it would be nice for me to meet an esteemed writer before embarking on an intellectual journey of my own. But when Naipaul heard that I was on my way to college in America and not studying the exact sciences, he told me not to go. Indians, he said, they go to these places, they get dazzled by the institution, and they come away having learnt nothing but the babble.
What should he do instead, my mother asked. He should go boldly into the world, Naipaul replied. Naturally, I ignored his advice. I thought he was joking. The glamor and prestige of college in America was self-evident to us in India. Nobody in their right mind would tell an Indian boy lucky enough to be on his way to college in America not to go. We went to America as the generation before us had gone to Britain. One went if one could. It was as simple as that. It is strange that the idea of education, which is to a large extent an expression of a society's intellectual history, the past of the mind, should in a place with as complicated a history as that of India seem as simple as buying a car or going on holiday. Strange too that this phenomenon of boys and girls leaving in droves to go to a college in an alien society half a world away should go unremarked upon.
The simplest explanation I can give for the unthinking quality of my world in India was that though the land around us had been scarred by history, we ourselves were ahistorical. This journey out to Amherst was my first opportunity to see myself from the outside. I have often thought of what I would have been had I gone somewhere other than America, somewhere like Britain, say, where the seeds of historical antagonism between my society and the one I was coming into had already been sown. I feel certain that in Britain I would have had a ruder awakening to history. The twoness that DuBois speaks of, in my case of colonizer and colonized, would have split my personality.
But I didn't go to Britain, I came here to America. And as such, I came at an oblique angle to a society with which I had no direct historical relationship. Baldwin says of the American in Paris, "Since he is himself without a tradition, "he is ill-equipped to deal with "the traditions of any other people." The same could be said of me. I was an ahistorical entity entering a society notoriously impatient with history. What that meant on a practical level was that nothing could've been easier. No landing softer, no relationship less complicated.
To be an Indian boy coming to America at the end of the 20th Century was to feel that the wish of newspaperman in the Rebecca West story had come to pass, that this truly was a society without history. Or at least without those knots of intractable history that are so integral to identity in the Old World. There was no colonial baggage for me in America as there would surely have been in Britain, no angst. The achievement of American life was hidden from me no less than its inner controversy. Unlike the Indian palimpsest, where older patterns of life always showed through, America seemed complete to me.
The college was beautiful. I moved among its pretty red buildings picked out in white, with their louvred windows, chapels, greens and quads, as one proud of his fluency. I made friends easily, black and white, almost never Indian, with something of the vanity of a neutral third party pleased at his early mastery of the alien society, contemptuous of his countrymen who had more trouble. Among white friends, I represented an unthreatening novelty. India neither menaced America nor was it one of the great mother countries as far as population and culture were concerned. I encountered the odd polite questions to do with India, now about caste and inequality, now about food and Bollywood and spirituality.
But most of all my relationship with my white friends was marked by a degree of relief that here at last was a place Americans did not have to walk on eggshells around. When Richard Avedon photographed a fierce tribe of ascetics called the Naga Sadhus for the New Yorker, my friend Dan Glowitz pinned a picture of one with bricks hanging from his penis to my door in James and wrote in felt pen "Indian for penile enlargement." It was the kind of fun one could have when there was no bad blood, no history. My relationship with my black friends, though no less easy, was tinged with the suspicion that I was blind to the reality of race in America. I remember Jocelyn Goode pointedly handing me a tub of cocoa butter early on in our friendship with a stern admonishment. "You're not white, your skin gets dry too."
Zach who I spoke of earlier thought I was denying my racial origins by not joining the Students of Mixed Heritage Group despite having an English grandmother. My position was that this was not my history. These were not my markers. It was by sheer accident that I found myself in a society where color mattered as much as it did. And in those days before 9/11, my particular color excited no special scrutiny. I thought it was my right to enjoy the variety of American life without getting bogged down in its tensions. Besides, I was a man with a return ticket to India in his pocket.
I have often thought back to the blankness of those days. I was so easy, so neutral. The college, in turn, was cosseting. It encouraged one to act, to play the part, to hide one's uncertainty with a casual knowledge of intellectual ornaments such as Kant's Ding-an-sich or Nabokov's Poshlost. My notebooks from the time are full of the strain of self-improvement, the names of German expressionists gleaned from the pages of the New Yorker mixed in with those of fashionable restaurants. I would not have thought I was acquiring babble. I was merely filling in the gaps in my education.
The trouble is that education is not culturally neutral. "Education," writes Ruskin, "means finding out what people have tried to do "and helping them to do it better." Now when the people who have tried to do things in the past happen to be your people as well as those in whose image the college is molding you, the institution can serve as a real guide. When an education is complete, each college-made man or woman is left to evaluate the distance they have traveled. Sometimes the distance is no more than what exists between you and your parents. Sometimes that distance alone, two universes separated by only a few dozen hards, can be excruciating. It can make you feel you have betrayed your own. It can leave you with a terrible fear of exposure.
Through the uncertainty of this time, the people I found both then and now who understood what I was going through and who served as a mirror to my experience in America were the African-American writers who came to me through Zach. It was also through him that I was introduced to a seminar taught by the now-late Jeffrey Ferguson on Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Ferguson, an extraordinary teacher, taken from us far too early, used Ellison's own influences, which ranged from Melville and Eliot to Richard Wright, to teach us his great novel. In doing so he helped us to see the angle at which Ellison stood in relation to the Western canon, and how much it was both an affront to him as well as an essential part of his making.
For me, emerging out of a history of colonization and coming to Western literature at an odd angle, the experience of a man like Ellison was the only thing I could find in America that reflected my own. Ferguson's course, which reverse-engineered Ellison, gave me an entry point into books that might otherwise have seemed too far away. In my small, musty apartment above Antonio's Pizza on North Pleasant Street I inhaled a roll call of African writers whose work represented a history of reading that ran parallel to the Western canon. The black writers I read acted almost like commentators. Their concerns validated my own. Their nerves assuaged mine. Their fears about fraudulence gave me courage to voice my own. Once the ground was prepared by Baldwin and Ellison, other writers such as John Edgar Wideman came my way. Consider this passage from Wideman's wonderful memoir Brothers and Keepers. "College was a time of precipitous ups and downs. "I was losing contact with the truth of my own feelings. "Not trusting, not confiding in anyone else. "Learning to mistrust and deny my own responses "left me no solid ground, nowhere to turn. "I was an expert at going with the flow, "protecting myself by taking on "the emotional or intellectual coloring "of whatever circumstance I found myself in. "All this would've been bad enough "if I'd simply been camouflaging my feelings. "Yet it was far worse. "I had no feelings apart from the series of roles "and masquerades I found myself playing. "And my greatest concern at the time "had nothing to do with reestablishing an authentic core. "What I feared most and spent most of my energy avoiding "was being unmasked."
It was black writing and the black experience more generally that first alerted me to the presence of history in America. It made the TV-prepared reality I inhabited less flat. It was my first intimation of something tragic and complex at the heart of American life. And far from turning me away from the society, it made the place more familiar.
Soon after coming to Amherst and befriending Zach, I witnessed an episode that made me think, like the educationist in the Rebecca West story, ah yes, you Americans, you have your problems like the rest of us. My world in Amherst was racially mixed, but every evening at dinner in Valentine, it resolved itself, as if subject to an invisible force, into clean racial lines. The white students sat in the large atrium at the far end, while black students and others sat nearer the entrance in an annex of sorts that we and others openly called the minority section. No one meant any harm, it was just the way it was. I had of course known similar divisions in other societies that I was acquainted with, along caste and religious lines in India, along class lines in Britain. But nonetheless, it surprised me that they should exist without comment in a place as progressive as Amherst.
I was too new to America to know that the same division seemingly enforced mutually can mean different things to different people. I was too new to know that even naivety and what James Baldwin describes as that winning generosity, at once good-natured and uneasy, which characterizes Americans, can, if it is divorced from a sense of history, be suspect to those who have no choice but to be aware of the past.
One evening at Valentine, the main black organization on campus staged a protest of sorts. They arrived early, before everybody else, and contrary to the laws that had quietly reasserted themselves among us, they sat down with their seal trays in the white section of the dining hall. The protest had its effect. The white students, casual, suburban, athletic, strolled in some moments later, and their faces registered visible surprise, even shock, but mostly embarrassment. The protesters responded with knowing looks and laughter. The next day everything went back to how it had been, but for me, blind in my own country and culpably unaware in this one, the small scene was my first glimpse into how much the business of seeing and not seeing is at the heart of historical awakening. As ever, the African-American writers served as my guide.
Here is Baldwin. "You never had to look at me, I had to look at you. "I know much more about you than you know about me. "Not everything that is faced can be changed, "but nothing can be changed until it is faced." Here is Ellison, and observe the language of looking and being looked at. "It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, "although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. "Then too you're constantly being bumped up against "by those of poor vision, or again, "you often doubt is you really exist."
And here is Baldwin again, on my shoulder, almost as if he'd been present that evening in Valentine Hall. "Since white men represent in the black man's world "so heavy a weight, white men have for black men "a reality which is far from being reciprocal. "And hence all black men have towards all white men "an attitude which is designed, really, "either to rob the white man of the jewel of his naivete "or else to make it cost him dear."
After Amherst I spent almost 10 years in India as a reporter and a novelist. Then in 2015, I returned to the U.S., this time for good. In India, before my return, I had been covering the general election of 2014. It brought a populist demagogue to power, a Hindu nationalist whose political genius lay in opening a culture war on two fronts. Narendra Modi used the anti-Muslim feeling that existed among the Hindu majority for India's 170 million Muslims, a largely converted population that comprised of some of its poorest citizens, to attack the colonized elite, as represented by the Congress Party, accusing it of coddling minorities to the detriment of the majority. "Sounds familiar" I have in my notes.
I covered that election from the sacred city of Varanasi, which Modi had chosen as his constituency, repurposing its symbolic power to fit his politics of revival. I watched young men roam the riverside in the evenings, wearing cardboard Modi masks, the eyes cut out in almond-shaped hollows. They represented a new class of person, untouched by colonization but not spared globalization, who awoke as if out of a sleep to a world they had no hand in making, a world that had already formed all kinds of judgments about them, and one in which, if they were to succeed, they would have to forsake much of what was dear to them, from language and dress to culture and worship. The relationship between old and new was broken.
To be modern in India was to come empty-handed into an unfamiliar world. We spoke earlier of historical awakening as people seeing themselves for the first time as others see them. It is that, but it can also come alongside a demand that the rules of seeing be changed, a demand that can turn violent if others don't comply.
Seeing is an imaginative exercise. It requires intelligence and sympathy. But make no mistake, those who fail to see or see as they shouldn't will be made to see. It is from Varanasi itself that I booked a flight to New York, not intending to meet my future husband, but just to get away from the heat and hysteria of that election. Somewhere I must have known that I couldn't stay on in India, that in the country that was coming into being, regardless of who was in power, there would not be room for me as a gay man of Muslim parentage.
I returned to America a few years ago, not now as a student but as someone who wanted to make a life here. It didn't feel like immigration, but more like a desire to be done with the demands of belonging, to wait out my time in a neutral place. But I myself was no longer so neutral. I was bringing a new suspect shade to the American color wheel.
In the summer of 2016, I wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal about how welcome I felt in America. By the end of that year, the policies of a new president had brought about a Muslim ban, and David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was using a defaced version of my green card, my face canceled out with a large red cross, to celebrate the new era. It felt as if insecurity had followed me to America from India.
It was at this time also that I rediscovered my debt to the black writers and to black history more generally. In my little apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, not far from where Baldwin had once lived, I found myself gravitating towards writers I had read in college. If before the black writers had revealed the tragedy of American life to me, they now, through their own reckoning with the past, validated my right to be here. "It is precisely this black/white experience," writes Baldwin, "which may prove indispensable to us "in the world we face today."
Returning to an America in the throes of an ugly new nativism, the black/white experience did prove indispensable, but in a very specific way. I was grateful for the creation, in America, of a society that was as its germ biracial. I'm not speaking of any exalted sense of celebrating diversity or multiculturalism. In these uncertain times, I don't want to set the bar too high. What I mean by the achievement of a biracial society comes down to something very basic, maybe even quite crude. Here was a place where the most virulent racist might tell me to go back to where I came from, but it was also true that the same man, regardless of what else he may do or say, could not look a black man or woman in the face and tell them to go back to where they had come from. And oddly enough, this mutually-acknowledged twoness, no matter how fraught, was my greatest guarantee.
The theme of a society that is irreversibly biracial in a way that Europe is not comes up in that final incandescent essay in Notes of a Native Son. James Baldwin finds himself in a remote Swiss village where he seems almost as a thought experiment to reenact the primal meeting of black and white that took place on the American continent. He's among people who may perhaps have never set eyes on a black man before. They touch his hair, half-expecting to receive an electric shock. They feel his skin astonished that the color does not rub off on their fingers. "I am a stranger here," Baldwin says to himself. "But I am not a stranger in America." He goes on, "There is a dreadful abyss "between the streets of this village "and the streets of the city in which I was born, "between the children who shout nigger today "and those who shouted nigger yesterday. "The abyss is experience, the American experience. "The same syllable riding on the American air "expresses the war my presence "has occasioned in the American soul."
To return to America to live after 10 years was to feel myself a child of this war that had been fought on my behalf even before I got here. There is no greater security for me than this ballast of American experience with all its pain and violence. I have often asked myself what it is about racial attitudes here that are infinitely preferable to me than the casual racism one encounters on a daily basis in Europe.
In Baldwin, I found a compelling answer. "Europe's black possessions," he writes, "remained and do remain in Europe's colonies, "at which remove they represented no threat "whatever to European identity." The black man, as a man, did not exist in Europe. What was true of the black man was true of the Asian too. Britain went out into the world. Britain colonized.
And then Britain went home. Britain, until very recently, never had to reckon with what it had wrought. That could not be the case here. "One of the things that distinguishes Americans," writes Baldwin, "from other people is that "no other people have ever been so deeply "involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa." That involvement, the fact that there were always two, white and black, and that that twoness could never be undone is the basis of my debt to history in America. Because in the beginning there were two, there can now be three and four and five.
It doesn't mean that the cries for a socio-ethnic state won't kick up from time to time. It means that on some hard practical level, they will always ring hollow. "The fact that the illusion," Baldwin says, "white men nourish of recovering the European innocence, "of returning to a state in which black men do not exist, "must in America remain an illusion is a profound security."
It was here at Amherst through men like Baldwin, Ellison and DuBois that I first discovered what history meant. I learned that it was something that could not be made to matter if it didn't already. At the same time, once history takes root, once there is that first shadow across the lung, it cannot be willed away either. Like grief, its cycles have to be endured 'til it has worked its way out of the system and one is strong again. The newspaperman in the Rebecca West story wants America to be a country without history because he wants not to be responsible for the past. He wants not to face the discomfort of being seen by eyes that know him better than he knows himself. It is true that the racial history of this country has given the society's first definite signs of age.
America is now marked by experience. But it is a failure of the imagination to crave a time of innocence. Innocence, like utopia, is sterile because it derives its energy not from dreaming a world into existence but from wanting to undo the one that already exists. The only way forward, like an architect confronted with the task of building a house on a plot of hard, uneven land, is to recognize the creative possibilities of what history has wrought. It was at Amherst that I was given my first glimpse into America's historical wound. 15 years later, it is upon that scar tissue that I have been able to graft my own story. Thank you so much for having me back.
- Thank you, Aatish, for that really moving, wonderful talk. I have two questions. One is, I'm just fascinated by the comparison you draw between the U.S. and India. So the first question is why do you think it is that for Hindu nationalists under the current Modi regime, that there isn't the sense of twoness that you described in the U.S.? Why do they point to a historical injury that supposedly dates back to the 16th Century of Muslim rule? One might imagine in India too, Muslim and Hindu have been so intertwined that that twoness would exist in India as well as it does in the U.S. And the second question is what about Mexican-Americans in all of this, or those, or immigrants? You know, that seems to be part, anti-immigrant sentiment seems to be part of the global rise of right-wing populism. So would you draw a distinction between the experience of African-Americans as opposed to those who are immigrants or considered to be immigrants in the U.S. today given the rise of right-wing populism?
- [Aatish] With the first question, I mean, the desire to recover purity, and in a place like India it's even more illusory because you're talking about history, about people who are not necessarily the people of, I mean, they're trying to cast their mind back 1000 years to an imaginary past in which some idea of purity remained. So it's even more of a fantasy in some sense. But that doesn't mean that the potency of that fantasy, it's very easy, in a time when one is trying to repurpose history, to think of these, like, these ideal times, these times of utopia, of innocence. And actually, the further away they are from reality, sometimes the more vivid they become. And in the particular Hindu nationalist vision of what's happened, there's this notion of 1000 years of slavery. And so to them, this, it was, shrugging off the British was only part of the problem.
It's only now that they're gonna resurrect this past that no one has any real, I mean they have certain lines of connection to, but it's not a past that can, so, I suppose what I'm saying to you is that just as, in certain parts of the Muslim world, it was possible to weaponize the time of the Prophet as some kind of ideal time and to use it as a weapon against modern incursion against foreign influence, as a sort of wall to protect oneself, I think that that fantasy of Hindu India and of this great majority that's been done down by these 1000 years of slavery, like, acquires a kind of potency. This is not to say that it's, and so that's why I think that there would be no room for, and since the British left no population behind as a trace of their kind of history there, it's even easier to turn upon the Muslim population of India. As far as your second question goes, absolutely, I mean, what I'm saying applies to everyone. I do think that the core drama that played out historically, and this is again, like this talk was as much about, it's not a normative idea of how history should be, it's an idea of what takes root. And I think that the racial drama has a certain power over the imagination and it sets, it sort of, it sets up these, the arrival of two people on this continent. And I think that you'll see that that, as much as, like, you know, there'll be a lashing out at different groups, that original story is kind of like the story against which America will test itself again and again. And the symbolic power of that, I suppose, is what I have in mind. Yeah.
- So you mentioned that you left India for the U.S. Because of a desire to get away from the need for belonging. And I guess I wondered a couple of things. One was that what was it about your time at Amherst that sent you back to India with a lack of belonging? And secondly, now that you're living in the U.S., do you feel that you've transcended that need for belonging or simply put it aside? And whichever of the two the answer is, how do you sort of contend with that reality now?
- [Aatish] I think that that first desire to go back was very much, almost like a kind of like, it was strange because I came here, certain interests, an intellectual life, all of those things were excited in me, and at the same time, the more that I discovered intellectual life here, the more I felt a kind of, like a quest for authenticity, in a simple way. And to go back to India, to spend many years learning Indian languages, to be in some way engaged in Indian life was very important for me. And it took a long time before I realized that I was never gonna make that transition, that in some ways, I'd become something else and I was, I quite liked what I'd become, and that I would have to get rid of a side of myself. And that, in my particular case, because I'd grown up with Muslim ancestry in a non-Muslim household, I'd never really seen myself in this way, and very quickly I was shown how much people saw me differently. And I realized that there was this, that you can't assert yourself against a force as powerful as that. So that was, it was really, and it was very hard, it took a long time for me to be proud of my cosmopolitanism, of the fact that I was at ease here, the fact that I could be part of life here, and that I'd always sort of treated that as something that was kind of a fraudulent side of myself, in the interest of being part of this other thing. So that's the way that it's played out. As far as belonging goes, there's always gonna be an element, which is almost a kind of like, like an atavism of some sort. Like it's sometimes to do with just things like music, to do with, you know, it's very basic. And I'm certainly not trying to kill off that side of myself. And in a funny way, through discovering, for instance, Sanskrit literature, I'm able to have other relationships with India that can nourish me, but I don't want to fool myself any longer about, I don't wanna remake myself in a way that would fit what was needed in modern India. That is perhaps what I had meant.
- [Audience Member] So going back to this point of representationality, you know, in that question of who's doing the representation and who's carrying out this process of erasure of one's own history, you know, the newspaperman in the case of the story, you sort of grew up in a relatively, in a certain class, right? And you sort of, you know, cosmopolitanism is allowed because of the conditions of you growing up in a certain way. As with all of us, in that, like, you know, we at Amherst College, we are this sort of space where we pat ourselves on the back for being cognizant of these forces around us, but wouldn't wanna argue, for example, that the grounds where history's being erased, so the newspaperman or the Hindu nationalists in Varanasi who wear the Modi masks or the kind of people who show up at a Trump rally, they're not sort of, they're not connected at all with this kind of conversation that we're having here. So how do you contend with?
- [Aatish] I wouldn't say they're not, just as the right here is, you know, obsessed with what they imagine, they don't necessarily have an accurate picture of life on the coasts, they're certainly not aloof from it. They're able to use their antagonism to those places very powerfully politically. And the same is true of India. It's not true that, and despite a massive electoral victory, despite a massive, like, demographic imbalance, they are very concerned with elements of cosmopolitan life that have been achieved in the cities, with the symbolic role of the Nehru-Gandhi family, with the English-speaking classes. It is mutual. As much as the misunderstandings are mutual, as much as people don't see each other, it's not that one side is just getting on with their lives and don't know what this other side is. What becomes complicated, of course, is that it's very difficult to have a conversation. It's becoming harder rather than easier. Sure.
- Thank you so much for your talk, I really enjoyed it a lot.
- [Aatish] Thank you.
- I didn't really see it that much, not to make it monolithic, but I don't see this type of narration in Asian-American literature, where someone comes into kind of an Asian-American subjectivity, sort of positioning themselves within this historical antinomy between whiteness and blackness in this country, what some people might call a black/white binary, and those other minorities might feel themselves not included in that. But I think what you're doing is really nuanced and really important work. And kind of related to the question that was just asked, normally when blackness is talked about in this country, it's not usually talked to this really rich literary tradition as actually being an active stakeholder in where America is and what has been built here. And I'm wondering if you could speak more to that. And then, additionally, maybe this is a connected question, I noted something, there's such a great optimism in the way that you kind of conceive of your Americanness, if we could call it that, and it actually reminded me of shades of Baldwin's writing. He was one of the greatest, I think, critics of Americanness, or American literature, American culture, that this country's ever produced, and I'm wondering how you engaged not only his blackness but his queerness and his queer identity in your own work.
- [Aatish] Well let me answer the last question first. That's very difficult because it's so obscured even in Baldwin. I don't know if I engage with it. I'm aware of it. Coming to the question about the, yeah, well, about the literary stuff, well I think it's, I mean, to me it's an extraordinary body of literature because it's, we talk so often about what it means for like, a culture in a new place, just the idea of renaissance, for instance, of a culture to be reborn or of a culture to, like, have a dynamic, powerful relationship with another culture. And this is, we're seeing a situation where the conditions could not be more adverse. And yet, you have, in music and in writing, and in the plastic arts, a sort of really, a flowering that is, in my opinion, almost a model for, for instance, what might've happened in modern India, where the British were both essential to the making of modern India as well as an affront. And I feel that what Baldwin recognizes out of an act of almost unsurpassed humanity is this idea that, you know, you won't look away. And we can't look away. Like we, as much as you want to sort of claim a position that we're not locked in in this sort of very, in a kind of painful dance, there is the acknowledgement of a symbiosis in this cultural way, and it brings forth this totally remarkable literature which was a real comfort to me even when I was away in India, because I thought, like, this is what synthesis looks like. This is what the dynamic meeting of cultures looks like. And it doesn't necessarily, you can't fake the conditions. But this is creativity in history. And so, coming back to the point of optimism, I mean of course one is, I think that the thing that makes me optimistic about life, about American life, is that inner controversy. I feel like, as long as that engine is working away and one is able to sort of, one is able to see lines of, like, I mean these contained convulsions that we see in both political life and cultural life here. Like, that is a society, for better or worse, not coming apart, despite tremendous strain, and doing the work that it has to do. And the fact that it is draining and painful is really a symptom of the fact that it's happening. And so I think I do, in that kind of, like, that basic way of just, I think places that are interesting are gonna be okay. And this place is interesting. And India, 'til the other day, was interesting too. You know? You'll see, you'll recognize an inert society by a very different kind of atmosphere.
- George Kateb, one of Amherst's great political science professors, gave a fabulous orientation lecture to the class of 1965 in which he basically said that he viewed as a model for how to experience Amherst the colonialists in Forster's Passage to India.
- [Aatish] Oh, yeah.
- And his model, his says, should be of the one Brit who lived with the Indians who really immersed himself. And he said it really should be hard for you here, and if it's not hard then you're missing something. So the question I have is how have you participated in the fullness of this biracial developed reality that you found at Amherst? And later. You've described the amusement or the funny feeling about the one day of protest. Where were you in this?
- [Aatish] I was an observer. And it's been a complicated thing for me, is that I don't necessarily, coming back to the question, I think, that you asked, which is the, yeah, how does one become a participant, how is one an observer? Especially when the stakes are so high and the history's been so painful. I don't know if I know the answer to that question. Except that, I mean, it's engaging, and one comes to live here, in one case I'm married to someone, a sort of American from the American South, and that brings a new sort of wave of historical resonance and importance. And I think if one feels that it's your, I don't know if one is, can share in the idea of what is at stake, then one sort of starts to belong, but I don't know if, I don't know, I mean, I certainly don't, I could never be, you know, I'm a minor player. Sure.
- You covered the election in India in some detail, and now it's been a few years. That was obviously one of great import. I wonder if you could give us some perspective on what you see as more lasting political changes that may be catalyzed, cultural changes that may have shifted because of the current government, or is it just sort of more flash in the pan?
- [Aatish]I was saying to Amrita earlier that one of the big changes which hasn't happened here is that, and it is a bad sign, is that the old left in India, not just politically, but even as a cultural force, feels like it's kind of collapsed, that the victory on a cultural level is so total that there isn't that kind of, that the Prime Minister, despite having not delivered in many ways, is not vulnerable in a way, like, that he perhaps should be. And he's not, politically, of course, that's one thing, but even on a deeper level, culturally, it feels like the India I grew up in, for instance, with all its flaws, and it should've been under pressure, it's simply collapsed. So I think that there are gonna be things that will change about India that perhaps can't change back. What I have a sort of faith in is the kind of intrinsic perversity and bloody-mindedness of the Indian electorate. And I think that even if they go with this for a little while as an act of faith, that they're able, one thing that India's proven time and time again is the ability to throw people out. And you don't know, just as in America, you can't envision what the force will be that will throw them out. It's not, you know, one keeps looking back to what's come before, but actually, someone completely new will be produced. And as long as the conditions for democracy are not undermined, then that will happen. But at the moment, politically it looks very much like there is a feeling of malaise and of, like, economic despair and of joblessness and of all the things that were meant to have happened which the president here perhaps can say he has to his benefit, the prime minister in India doesn't. But there isn't a feeling of an alternative. There isn't a sense that someone is gonna come up and challenge him in any significant way. Sure.
- First off, I mean thank you, it was a really moving talk. My sense of your ability to sort of find a language to sort of speak about yourself and sort of belong through the sort of engagement with Ellison and Baldwin, great African-American writers, I'm just kind of wondering how you, in your thinking, struggle with the limits of that. When we think about Ellison, Baldwin, their thoughts about their blackness, they're inseparable from the history of slavery and bondage, of erasure of their history, you know, in terms of kinship and things.
- [Aatish] Yeah.
- How did you in your sort of finding of oneself in that language also struggle with the limits of that for yourself?
- [Aatish] I think that, I mean in, yeah, I think that, I guess in understand that those limits are created, they're not real limits, you know? In seeing a part of your situation and another situation, there's something, like, exciting and interesting, but there's also something sterile in, say, in trying to make clean equivalencies or in trying to sort of just completely borrow the situation of someone else. So I think those lines where there is something about being colonial that is similar to what happened here, and it's interesting in that way. But it's also apart. And so all of that, to me, those are tense and interesting lines, that they produce more thought, not less thought. So I think that, yeah, I don't necessarily see them as limits. I think the trouble comes in when one leaves the intellectual realm and starts to enter this realm of, like, well this is my history, this is your history, this is what, you know? If it starts to become a game like that, then very quickly, people can say, ah, well you have no right to this, or you have, you know? And I think that that's always difficult, that kind of language.
- Last night I started reading one of your books. I'm forgetting the name, Stranger From?
- Stranger to History.
- Yeah. So you said that when you came to Amherst you considered yourself apolitical, but from, like, just the beginning of your book, it seems like you had some idea of your place in Indian history or your relation to Pakistan, your relation as a Muslim growing up in a Sikh household. So I'm wondering, what did you, how did you contend with those identities before you came to Amherst if you weren't viewing them as political?
- [Aatish] I didn't. Firstly, I said ahistorical, but even, politics was always, my mother was a political journalist, politics was always in the house. But I didn't contend with all that. When I came to Amherst, for instance, I had a father from whom I was estranged, who was Pakistani, and I was very easy with the fact that I had this kind of, on a personal level, a sort of hole in my life. And all of that happened at Amherst, that journey to meet him, and then to start to understand what these connections, to fill out these connections, for them to not simply be personal connections, but to understand one's family's role in it, to understand how the personal is connected to the broader history of the Subcontinent. So those things came much later. They came in those 10 years after Amherst. And it my case, they just, one has to kind of read oneself and write oneself out of those situations.
- It's interesting to me to think that such questions can be resolved. Like, as someone in a similar, I mean obviously not that similar, but as someone also from the Subcontinent coming to the U.S., coming to Amherst, having that moment of realizing that you are a political entity or a historical entity. Like it's interesting to me that those questions can be resolved.
- [Aatish] One should not, I don't even know if one should try to resolve them. One should just fill them out. One should give them their adequate weight. What's problematic sometimes about Indian life is that there's a frivolity that's not real. The frivolity of the world I grew up in India wasn't real. It actually, the country, was not as placid as the situation I was in. And there's a very interesting moment in Nehru's autobiography where he, he goes back to India and for a while he's kind of floating around. And then there's this, like, very powerful thing, in fact, Naipaul writes about it as well, where there's this peasant rebellion, and he becomes sort of engaged in it for the first time. He's suddenly able to recognize Indian reality in a way that he's never been able to up to that point. And from then on its never the same, it's never, he's never able to look away again. So it isn't about resolution, it's just about being able to look better and better, as much as one can, I think. That is what I would probably say. Yeah.
- [Audience Member] So what did you care about in French literature?
- [Aatish] I kind of just sort of stumbled into a major in French literature. But I was very happy to have done, I didn't, as Biddy said, I didn't speak a word of French when I arrived and they were very proud that in the end I could speak So no, it was, I loved the novels of Balzac, of Maupassant, the French 19th Century seemed to speak to me much more closely than the English 19th Century, and I found that French and Russian writing was concerned with stuff that was much more familiar to me than the English writing where there was a kind of cultural self-regard. I just found, as England's real power in the world waned, that it was really hard for me to enter the world of Jane Austen, you know, of Dickens. It was too remote. And the French writers were nearer.
- [Audience Member] I had to ask that because I was a French major too.
- [Aatish] Yeah.
- [Audience Member] come to Amherst and then also gone back home, what place, 'cause it seems as if a lot of that was, like, the infrastructure that is in place in the Western canon and what it means for black authors here or the French authors you were just talking about. What place did authors, whether it be South Asia more broadly, have in that development?
- [Aatish] Thank you, that's a very nice question. I actually, almost the first thing that I did when I moved back to India was that I sort of started to learn Urdu, which was, my grandfather was an Urdu poet, and I started to learn Urdu. And my first book, before all of these other books, was a book of translation in which I translation 10 Urdu short stories by this sort of early 20th Century Urdu writer. And that led to a sort of engagement with Sanskrit literature, which, Sanskrit is sort of like the Latin and Greek of the Indian world. It was a language that united, like, different groups of people, but it was also sort of this language of liturgy and of religion. It's not spoken anymore, but there's a vast body of literature. And so, for those 10 years in India, I was really, all I was doing was reading, was reading Sanskrit literature, and the novel, the last novel, The Way Things Were, is steeped in those concerns. And the new book too is very much, like, it was almost, Sanskrit was this kind of, this sort of way for me to protect myself from more violent forms of belonging. And to have this, like, bloodline to the ancient Indian past. And I could, and because it's so exquisitely complicated and it has this huge body of work, I could sort of isolate myself in it and be connected, and not, at the same time, have to sort of confront these ways in which, especially Sanskrit actually, has become a tool in the hands of, like, Hindu nationalists and things like that. So it was a very, it played a very profound role, actually, for me. I felt like that was what, what I was trying to get back to was a sort of cultural bilingualism that had existed in India for a while. Like when that first meeting had happened between Britain and India, it had produced a flowering of people. And suddenly, that gave way to a loss of nerve, a sterility, a feeling that one had been overrun and that one had lost one's own things. So it's quite a distinct moment where suddenly the meeting of cultures turns toxic. And for me I thought the real benefit of being in my position was to be able to reenter that bilingualism, to be able to have both things. Yeah.
- [Audience Member] So you talk about moving from a space of being neutral, and that happened during your time at Amherst. And as we all know, Amherst is a very intellectual place. So it seems like, for you, education was the way to be shaken out of neutrality. My question for you is what, A, what happens when education doesn't shake one out of neutrality, and two would be, I forget which, but what happens when people don't have access to that education, is there another way to shake one out of neutrality?
- [Aatish] I mean that's a very, I think that, historically, if I understand you correctly, I feel like you're asking me, you found this synthesis in the way of education or in the way of books specifically, but what if people are denied books? What if people, well, I think in this country, like for instance, the thing that Baldwin gives voice to, that he theorizes in America for instance, on lines of race, that same meeting existed on many levels. Like, people were not, it was not simply that the connection was happening in an isolated realm of books and stuff. That meeting of cultures was happening in the realm of music, of manners, of language. The ground was, that was, I mean in the way that, so, so one shouldn't, I feel like it's, in a lot of places you can see that something that one might express in a rarefied register, where you're like, oh, well here we are in this isolated, high-minded place, well oftentimes, if the thing that you're writing about is important and right, you'll find that that same tension is playing out throughout the society in other ways. One can find what it is that one's interested in. One can find the thing that sort of draws you to it. But the actual meeting that is profound is not a meeting of, like, five people in a room with a red carpet. It'll be happening on the ground too. Yeah. Oh yeah.
- So a lot of what I've been thinking about in terms of your talk is also this idea of the intersections between this idea of hubris and law and class and gender and kind of, where it comes to play in the idea of space and place and belonging. And one of the things that I'm thinking about also is, you're talking about also this tension, and a lot of the conversations we've been having on campus, this year specifically, focus about this idea of globality and globalism. So I guess my question has to do with how you contend with representing, like, mitigating the idea of the local versus the global. Especially in the context of cosmopolitanism itself. I know it's a really kind of abstract question.
- [Aatish] Yeah, maybe ask it in a more specific way.
- 'Cause even in your writing, I would say, like whether you draw from, how you draw from yourself versus what you observe.
- [Aatish] I would be defeated as a writer if I was to keep those things. I work in very specific, very narrow ways. And one should begin with the personal and the local. And one should write out of those situations. The situations that I'm writing out of are things that have almost all had real, specific resonances in my life. It's important to be able to see that those things are connected to bigger things. But certainly from the perspective of writing, one wants to be very concrete. One doesn't want to be using those words at all, because it'll damage the writing. You'll come out with something, I mean, at least the kind of writing I do. Because originality depends on the specific. Yeah.
- [Audience Member] Is there a phrase, and I'm just asking because Do you have a phrase in that talk, the tragedy of belonging?
- [Aatish] No, it's the demands of belonging.
- The demands, okay.
- [Aatish] Yeah.
- Just thinking about the complexities of the demand to belong, the need to belong. Which we've been talking about on this campus. The demands of belonging.
- [Aatish] It's very nice, after a while, almost as a function of exhaustion, to not feel that so urgently. Because the world is so rich and one is so lucky to be able to encounter it in so many ways. It's just, it can sometimes, it damages the experience so much to have to make experience fit.
- [Audience Member] Yeah, that's what interested me. So there's that tension between belonging and what one might call cosmopolitanism.
- [Aatish] Yeah.
- You criticize your early Amherst days as having an ease there which, I guess, you wouldn't define as cosmopolitan but more as a sort of neutral stance.
- [Aatish] Yeah, it's not even a criticism. It's just a wonder that one, like, how long could one have gone and been so blithe and so unthinking? And of course, it was always gonna turn around. Of course, there was always gonna be something. But it surprises me that I was kind of still sort of, you know, the feet were moving but there was no, you know.
- There's just such an emphasis right now in this country, on the mini campuses and on this one, on the importance of belonging. And I always feel ambivalent about belonging because of my own upbringing and background. And I just really appreciated the way in which you complicated the notion of belonging and the problem of its demands, especially in the world we live in right now where belonging brings with it exclusion and shortsightedness of various kinds.
- [Aatish] Yeah.
- Anyway, thank you.
- [Aatish] Thank you for having me.