A Conversation with Author, Activist & Professor Pranav Jani about his book ‘Decentering Rushdie’

A Desi Woman Podcast
A Conversation with Author, Activist & Professor Pranav Jani about his book 'Decentering Rushdie'
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Transcript:

Soniya Gokhale (00:05):
Welcome back to another episode of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale. And the voices I am seeking may have never been heard before, but their stories deserve to be told. What is a desi woman? She is a dynamic, fearless, and strong woman. She is your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us whose on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment. I am Soniya Gokhale, and I am a desi woman.

Soniya Gokhale (00:40):
Hello, and welcome to another edition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhal. And today we are excited to be joined by associate professor of English at the Ohio State University, Pranav Jani. Pranav has a focus upon post-colonial studies and critical ethnic studies. His research and teaching interests lie in the literatures, cultures, and history of colonized and formerly colonized people in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Ireland, as well as people of color in the United States.

Soniya Gokhale (01:18):
In his widely acclaimed book, Decentering Rushdie, the Ohio State University Press 2010, Pranav analyzes the emergence of Salman Rushdie and other postmodern writers in light of the failings of de-colonization. Jani’s current book manuscript provisionally entitled Marxism Nationalism in the 1857 Rebellion in British India investigates the impact of the historic uprising on Indian political and cultural imagination from the 19th century to the 21st century. Jani has received the Dr. Marlene B. Longenecker English Faculty Teaching and Leadership Award, and has served on the Executive Committee of the South Asian Literary Association. Dr. Jani received his BA from Yale University, his MA from Indiana University, and his PhD from Brown University. Pranav, welcome to the show.

Pranav Jani (02:21):
Thank you. Thanks for having me, Soniya.

Soniya Gokhale (02:24):
Well, we are very excited to speak with you today about a variety of topics, but we will start out with a focus upon the concept of critical race theory and then move into your critically acclaimed book, Decentering Rushdie. And I was so delighted to find out about you when I came across your name related to an article via NPR related to critical race theory. And so I have to say, it’s just great to have you here with me today. And you happen to be local, I’m based in Columbus, Ohio. So even more delightful that you’re here locally.

Soniya Gokhale (02:59):
So we have many global listeners, and so I wanted to define in loose terms what we’re talking about as it pertains to critical race theory or an acronym CRT. And no question that race has been historically and continues to be a very hotly debated topic in all aspects of American society, especially as it relates to education. And proponents of critical race theory assert that it’s a framework that offers researchers, practitioners, and policymakers, a race conscious approach to understand educational inequality and structural racism, to find the solutions that lead to greater justice.

Soniya Gokhale (03:42):
Placing race at the center of analysis, critical race theory scholars interrogate policies and practices that were purportedly taken for granted to uncovert over and covert ways that racist ideology, structures and institutions create and maintain racial inequality. And notably, in the United States, which was very interesting to me in the course of doing this podcast, is that many Asian-American groups are strongly opposed to this approach and concept. And so I wanted to get your thoughts just baseline on this issue on topic. And then I do have some follow up questions for you.

Pranav Jani (04:20):
Yeah, sure. Yeah, thanks again for having me. And I’m glad you saw that interview. And it’s great to be in dialogue, especially like you said too, especially because you’re a local. So it’s not just about a podcast, but it’s an ongoing connection. So I appreciate that. So I’ll just say very quickly that I’m very happy to comment on this because it’s in the public sphere and because talking about race and racism, researching it, teaching about it in many different ways and many different contexts, that’s part of what I do and because it’s in the public sphere as a dialogue. So I think someone like me ought to be talking about critical race theory. So I’m happy to do it.

Pranav Jani (05:09):
But I do want to emphasize, and I think this should be part of any definition of critical race theory, that critical race theory is a framework that was really developed within law schools with reference to the legal system. And critical race theory is something they especially teach in law school as a set of techniques, perspectives, and skills that lawyers should take with them when they examine the history of the legal system and current cases in front of them. And I’m saying it and I’m making it that specific, so from that point of view, I’m not an expert on critical race theory.

Pranav Jani (05:52):
And the reason why I’m saying that is because it’s the right wing conservative attempt to turn critical race theory into a kind of everyday bogeyman that’s lurking behind every corner, that’s lurking behind every conversation about diversity, every conversation about racial justice, every attempt to change the curriculum from a white centered, European centered focus, to actually be open to the multiple peoples that have shaped the world. The right wing has put that label of critical race theory, that label of CRT, and thrown it onto the education system to say that this is prevalent everywhere and be aware of it.

Pranav Jani (06:39):
And so I’m happy to speak about it as a scholar and an activist. But I’m not an expert on it because it is such a narrow thing, it’s not actually being taught in our schools, it’s not. I would be like saying, taking some very specialized technique or discipline in some field and pretending that K-12 students are getting that when they get some version of it or some say version of it in their curriculum. So I just want to put that out first, and I think that’s something very important to say.

Pranav Jani (07:12):
In terms of critical race theory itself, I think again, putting aside the question of what CRT actually is, I think you defined it pretty well, but I would add that legal part. So instead of just going into that question, let’s talk about what it is that’s happening in the schools and what is it that the right wing is afraid of.

Pranav Jani (07:34):
And so what I see K-12 educators who are interested in racial justice, interested in social justice, what I see them as trying to do from my own conversations with them, from my observations and in a parallel sense of what I’m trying to do with my classes is to actually question the idea that the West is civilized and the East or the rest or non Western people are somehow backwards. The West is scientific and rational, the East is spiritual and has a lot of catching up to do. That relates to questions of race that white people are somehow inherently superior, and that black people, brown people, native people, indigenous people, Latinx people, Arab people, these are overlapping terms, some of them, that they are somehow backwards and in need of saving.

Pranav Jani (08:37):
And so to give an example, what’s being taught in schools now is not just 1492 when Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue, we’re not only learning that. Well, people are trying to say, “What happened to the native Americans? What does it mean to say that the country was on genocide? What does it mean for us today?” They’re asking, “How do we look, not just say 1776 as this moment of great liberation, but actually ask why is it that slavery intensified after 1776?” To ask, why is it that the Americans, those who became Americans after the revolution, why is it that they had? Growing up, we all hear that all the British quartered soldiers in the house, do you remember that Soniya from your school?

Soniya Gokhale (09:28):
I do, yes.

Pranav Jani (09:29):
And if you ask people, what does quartered mean and that idea of housing people? It’s like the only time we hear the word quartered used that way is when we talk about the British soldiers quartered in the houses of the settlers, right?

Soniya Gokhale (09:41):
Right.

Pranav Jani (09:43):
But when you ask, “Well, what were those soldiers doing there?” So granted, that’s a terrible thing, to have a whole army living in your house, but what were they doing there? And they were trying to enforce treaties with native Americans in which the British said, “We’re not going to go further west.” And the American settlers, the lovers of freedom, we’re like, “We’re actually going to go as far west as we want. This land was made for you and me from sea to shining sea and we’re not going to let the British Treaty stop us.” And they wanted to go farther west.

Pranav Jani (10:16):
And just as a taste of the kind of education that folks like myself and my peers in the K-12 are trying to build, which is to ask deeper questions, they got liberation from Britain, but what did they do with that freedom and how limited was it? And one of the things they did was to go further west to deepen slavery and to have a whole really decades and decades of immigration policy that favored European immigrants and tried to keep everyone else out, except for periods of labor, when they wanted labor in the West Coast and Asians came in, etc.

Pranav Jani (10:57):
So I said a whole bunch of stuff, but what I’m trying to get at is that what the right wing is scared of and what they’re calling critical race theory as the bogeyman, what they’re scared of is the decades of change that’s happened in education frameworks since the Civil Rights Movement. They want to roll it back. They want us to just think about George Washington and cherry trees, and Abraham Lincoln and log cabins. They don’t want to think about how, for example, black people were central to the end of slavery and not just Abraham Lincoln giving it from above. They don’t want us to change those narratives. They can’t keep up.

Pranav Jani (11:34):
And in this climate where the country is extremely divided, education has become yet again, a site for that sharp political debate and critical race theory is being used in order to fight that battle. And so I’ll say something about Asian-Americans as well, but I wanted to stop there since I’ve talked a bunch.

Soniya Gokhale (11:54):
No, those are remarkable insights and especially given your background. And I think that you are absolutely correct, as an educator, it’s important for you to be on the forefront of this dialogue. And I would concur with you that I would say on both sides, both the educators that are proponents of critical race theory and the right wing. We’ve allowed them to hijack this conversation. And the ones that are paying the price are children, in my opinion, because these hotly debated board of education meetings, and it runs rampant across private schools as well.

Soniya Gokhale (12:30):
I have heard stories, troublesome stories of young children, children that are perhaps school age, elementary, being presented with theories and topics that may be too mature for them and stories where perhaps they may be multi-racial. And they come home and ask their parents, “What should I do if one half of me hates the other half?” But these are very serious and poignant stories that need to be heard. And I think that it’s all getting lost in the fray. I completely support what you’ve outlined, I know my children, for example, would love to hear about the legacy of slavery, see an actual bill of sale for a slave. I mean, that would be life-changing to recognize that that happened in this country and in India, by the way, which we’ll be pivoting over to that soon.

Soniya Gokhale (13:25):
But I couldn’t agree with you more and it’s such a shame. But you’re right, we’ve seen this across the country, it’s become a political issue. And I really hope educators like yourself take the reins of this conversation and take it away from politics, because I genuinely believe I’ve seen some of the finest institutions, some of the finest educational programs in the country being torn apart by this, and so sad.

Pranav Jani (13:52):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And I want to put something out there and maybe you’ll agree with it, but maybe you’ll disagree with it. And that’s okay too. So I want to put something out there which is that I don’t see it as two extremes that are causing the problems with kids as victimized in the middle. And the reason why is that, so if it seemed that way, I want to reframe what I said a little bit, I don’t see racial justice educators and least of all critical race theory proponents as bringing politics in the classroom in order to disrupt education as usual. And maybe that’s not what you meant either, but I wanted to clarify.

Pranav Jani (14:43):
I don’t see that as the problem, I actually see there as being a great need for racial justice education. I actually see those changes in education as positive that have happened over the last several decades. And I do think that sometimes education and knowledge can be painful. It may be challenging and it may be painful, so I’ll switch to my own example as someone from an upper caste family. It was painful for me to recognize that all my life I had thought of my upbringing as fairly liberal in terms of caste, and I saw my family’s general stance that we don’t talk about caste because we don’t believe in it. I saw that as a sign of enlightenment. But I never actually studied any Dalit, Bahujan writers or histories or perspectives. I just had that feeling.

Pranav Jani (15:50):
When I went to India and I saw that the domestic workers seem to be of a particular caste or seemed to be Adivasis, I didn’t really know what to do, but I didn’t find anyone really questioning it. So when I learned about those perspectives and started learning about those histories and trying to teach them and bring them into my own life as well, not just teach them, it was pretty painful. It was pretty shocking to think that, “Wow, my family didn’t simply make it and come to America, but they had certain privileges that allowed them to get that education by which they were able to do it.” You see what I mean?

Soniya Gokhale (16:31):
Absolutely.

Pranav Jani (16:33):
So what I’m trying to get at is that I do think there’s something painful about changing the way the curriculum works, and I do side with and consider myself part of the racial justice educators. I do think that sometimes it gets political, not in the narrow sense of Republican, Democrat, but political in the sense of actually saying, “Yeah, I have a worldview here.” Education is not simply objective, but it actually is tied up with these histories which are complicated.

Pranav Jani (17:05):
At the same time, and sure there’s people who do it wrong, admit it, but I think there are ways for the sake of the children with a great awareness that children need to be educated in a way that challenges them, but also empowers them, with the idea that even our white children, we’ll be bettered with a truthful understanding of history rather than one that is simply Eurocentric. With that conviction, I think we can have a racial justice educational system. And I think that’s different than just going out there as you see on Fox News every day and saying, “Look at these CRT people,” and really telling lies about CRT with the aim of reinserting an old curriculum that doesn’t really fit who we are as a country. So I just wanted to put that out there. And maybe some of it you agree with, maybe some of it you disagree with, but I wanted to make sure I said clearly where I was coming from.

Soniya Gokhale (18:19):
No, I very much appreciate that. And I think what you indicated about some people “do it wrong”, I think that that is what I am objecting to in some respects. I realized that these are young minds, I mean, I don’t know the age that this is being rolled out in a lot of different school systems. I have no disagreement with anything that you stated and I think that we need to rely on academia and educators to recognize that there’s inaccuracies here in what we learn. But I think you’re right, I think that there is no margin for error being permitted when you’re dealing with young minds. And like you said, a deeply emotional and sometimes uncomfortable topic. And so I think what we can hope for is that the conversations will evolve and try to bring parents and educators together to agree on a consensus about what’s best.

Soniya Gokhale (19:16):
But to your point, I think that just like we trust the healthcare practitioners and medical field to understand what the coronavirus and its implications are, I think that there has to be some trust offered to educators and those who spend their entire lives studying history and saying, “Hey, these are aberration and we’re not doing ourselves any favors if we are not teaching this to current and future generations.” So we are wholly aligned on that. And I really appreciate your insights on that because that’s not going to be the sum total of our conversation today, because I do want to pivot now and move on to your critically acclaimed book, Decentering Rushdie.

Soniya Gokhale (20:00):
And to offer an overview of the book and targeting current theories of cosmopolitanism, nationalism, and aesthetics in post-colonial studies, Decentering Rushdie offers a new perspective on the Indian novel in English. And since Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981, it’s post-modern style and post-national politics have dominated discussion of post-colonial literature. As a result, the rich variety of narrative forms and perspectives on the nation that constitute the field have been obscured, if not erased altogether. And when I read this, I was really taken aback. And your book points out so many important points around what I just outlined. So I want to see if you had any comments around that before I dive into some questions.

Pranav Jani (20:55):
Yeah, absolutely. And thank you for looking at the book and for taking both the critical race theory stuff and some of the scholarship. So yeah, just to give a quick overview in a way that people are not necessarily interested in the ins and outs of academic study on this could nevertheless follow, I guess I would put it this way, which is, what the book does is it tries to link the Indian novel in English to history and to link it to the development of post-colonial India and ideas about what freedom meant, ideas about what nationalism meant, ideas about what cosmopolitanism meant, meaning the comfort with being around many different cultures, not simply a singular culture, and how does that link to fiction?

Pranav Jani (21:59):
So what I wanted to say, so basically in my field in post-colonial studies, which is a study of literature from places that were colonized by Britain and other European powers, that’s what post-colonial studies is. And so in my field of post-colonial studies, what I was finding is that when people talk about the Indian novel in English after independence, they take Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, which is a brilliant novel, they take that novel as the template for what Indian writing in English is. But that’s written in 1980, ’81, and post-colonial India, like Pakistan, begins in 1947.

Pranav Jani (22:46):
And so what was happening is we were getting an idea of the post-colonial that was based on books from the ’80s and not really investigating what was happening before that. So when I say Decentering Rushdie, it’s not an anti Rushdie book. I actually like a lot of his work very much even if I may disagree with him politically at different times. It’s not an anti Rushdie book, it’s a book saying, “Let’s investigate more. Let’s not simply make him the center.” And to ask, “Why has he got such a dominant position as well?”

Pranav Jani (23:28):
And so the main thing I do in the book and in several of the chapters is look at Indian novels in English between 1947 and the early ’80s, and ask about them and what their interests are when they about the nation, when they talk about cosmopolitanism. And what I find is that they speak a little bit different than Rushdie. They’re interested in the same topics quite often, but their attitude towards the nation is a bit different. They see post-colonial, post-independence India as having a lot of problems, but also having a lot of possibilities. One of the authors, Nayantara Sahgal, she writes in a novel called A Time To Be Happy, which is 1958. She writes in there, it’s crude, she says, “It’s an ugly baby, but it’s our baby,” right?

Soniya Gokhale (24:28):
Yeah.

Pranav Jani (24:29):
So in the book playfully I call it namak halaal cosmopolitanism. So namak halaal means true to your salt. And so cosmopolitanism might make us think about, “Oh, people don’t have any interest in the nation or don’t have any national roots because they’re cosmopolitan.” And I’m like, “No, nationalism and cosmopolitanism aren’t actually opposites.” That in this period, in the early parts of the independence era, you have people from different political positions, even when they’re quite critical of the nation and where it’s going, they see the nation as worth their time. They see it as a site. Just after independence from Britain, they say, “Let’s give these folks a shot. Let’s see if they can make something out of this now that we’ve gained independence which we fought really hard for for decades. People suffered a lot for that independence. So it’s not perfect, but let’s see what we can do.”

Pranav Jani (25:35):
And so what I’m describing is what I call namak halaal cosmopolitanism is this constant turn to the nation as a site for improvement. Now, in Midnight’s Children in the ’80s and after, you get a very different notion, which I call post-national cosmopolitanism, and there’s a deep skepticism. And there’s a sense that not only has the nation messed up, but it never was going to do anything good. There’s a sense of everything falling apart. Now, I’m not a nationalist. A nationalist might say, “See, the post-nationalists don’t love India,” or something like that. That’s not my interest. I’m trying to trace what are the different tendencies in these novels.

Pranav Jani (26:26):
So again, my problem with the post-national, etc, is not that it exists, but rather to explain why that exists too. And I note that in the Indian emergency, that the travesty that happens under Indira Gandhi’s emergency, which was building since the 1970s, all of these post-independence nations in Asia and Africa were given a really raw deal. They got independence and were hit immediately with economic crises, that they weren’t strong enough to withstand after being gutted for decades and decades by the Europeans.

Pranav Jani (27:08):
And so you see, again and again, across Asia and Africa, the return of authoritarianism in the ’70s and the ’80s, and that happens in India with Indira Gandhi. And so Midnight’s Children explicitly refers to the emergency, it’s in the same time period. And it despairs about the nation. So Saleem Senai the protagonist of the Midnight’s Children, he’s born at the hour of independence when the clock strikes 12:00 at midnight, that’s when he’s born. But he’s falling apart because of the emergency. So this is not a critique of Rushdie in the sense of, how dare you criticize the nation? Not at all. It’s trying to historicize it and saying that the shift after the emergency has everything to do with the post-national turn.

Pranav Jani (28:03):
So just to wrap this up a little bit in terms of an overview, so what I’m offering is a periodization of the Indian novel in English, and saying that the emergency marks have shift, and that before the emergency, you have various kinds of namak halaal cosmopolitanism. Remember it’s still the Indian English novel, it’s still quite elite people who are writing and reading this stuff. So there’s questions here, if we go to novels that are not in English, do they look different? Is there a different periodization? We have to ask many more questions.

Pranav Jani (28:40):
But I’m suggesting when we talk about the Indian novel in English, the pre and post emergency situation matters a great deal. That while both are cosmopolitan, both are in English, both are interested in the nation as well, you have a namak halaal attitude before it, you have a post-national one after it. And then to wrap it up, like every researcher, you have to test your thesis. And I also wanted to oppose this idea that you could just look at a history book and then figure out what the literature of the period says. You know what I mean?

Soniya Gokhale (29:15):
Yes.

Pranav Jani (29:15):
Because we know that literature written in the same historical period might be quite different. The author may have different ideas and experiences and perspectives, etc. So what I do in each chapter is put two texts next to each other, and I draw out how they’re similar and also how they’re different just in order to be a bit honest. My last chapter for example, is Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, which is after the emergency. But when I read it closely, I felt it actually feels a little bit like the namak halaal positions of the earlier books.

Pranav Jani (29:52):
And so I explore that a little bit, to what extent is The God of Small Things a wonderful novel, probably my favorite novel ever, to what extent is The God of Small Things actually building on Rushdie and learning from Rushdie, especially with a certain postmodern aesthetics, and at the same time, to what extent does it mark looking back at that namak halaal attitude, as we know from Arundhati Roy’s political writings, where she’s quite committed to the transformation of India even though she has many, many critiques of it.

Pranav Jani (30:26):
And so what I try to do in the book is not just make it, okay, now we’ve got the puritization down and we can just plot the different books in those periods, we don’t even have to read them then, we just look up when they were published. And so to go against that, I put different novels in conversation with each other, both to draw out these general trends, but also to say, “Well, art is not just locked to history. Artists have a certain freedom. Art does new things that doesn’t just conform on,” to get that complexity in there as well. Well, that’s a long overview, but hopefully that was clear enough.

Soniya Gokhale (31:04):
That was extremely, extremely clear. And I wanted to pull something from the book which you just commented upon, but as Tabish Khair writes in relation to India there has certainly been a large increase in levels of literacy wealth and leisure time grown over the course of the 20th century and accelerating after 1947. And general literacy has increased from 6% in 1911 to about 15% in the early ’40s to about 50% in the ’90s. And life expectancy similarly has gone up from 32.1 years in 1951, just shocking, to 60.8 in 1992. GNP has similarly risen. And nevertheless, though millions of Indians today can afford to “indulge” in commoditized leisure activities and have the exposure and education to include the reading of novels and stories, it is a small percentage of this privileged class which actually reads fiction in English.

Soniya Gokhale (32:09):
So it seems that the Indian (English) novel seems to mainly look abroad for its readers, partly because of its appeal. It seems to be only two elites. And partly because even in the context of a growing middle class, there’s only a small audience. So I wonder if you could expand on this a bit more.

Pranav Jani (32:30):
Yeah, yeah. So for the sake of this discussion, let’s take Tabish Khair and these different stats as true. Because some of these could be debated and we can find out more about it, etc. But I would say, let’s say that it’s true overall. So I would say, yeah, we have to talk about global audiences, we have to talk about the diasporic nature of many of the writers of Indian English fiction. The way that they often live outside of India as well. This actually connects with the first part of the interview, we have to look for the increased desire for multicultural education in the West and an increased market for it and a demand and look at how those texts are orienting themselves towards readers outside of India. So all of those things I think are legitimate.

Pranav Jani (33:28):
And so I just want to put an asterisk there and to say that Bollywood does a lot of that too. Bollywood with its global audience, of course, it’s a very different kind of genre, but it’s really a global audience. I remember with Lagaan and movies like that, people were like, “It’s really looking at the NRI and shaping things that way.” I taught a class once in which we took three different figures of the NRI, one from a ’70s movie, one from the ’90s, and one from contemporary. And you see that the NRI starts as this betrayer of the nation. Actually in the movie Namak Halaal with Amitabh Bachchan, in that movie, those who are more Western are less namak halaal, are less trustworthy. And so you have that figure, and then nowadays it’s a much more complicated.

Pranav Jani (34:28):
And so I guess I would first say, we should ask that question about globalization and culture in general. And I would say Bollywood is much bigger than the Indian novel in English, but it’s similar kinds of questions. But then of course, Bollywood has the internal Indian consumption as well, and that’s on a completely different scale. So anyway, that’s just some commentary on how globalization culture works at some parallels with Bollywood.

Pranav Jani (34:53):
But I guess my question would be that, having said that, having said that the Indian English novel has an elite audience in India and then this non-Indian audience, what should we make of that claim? And some use it as a way to de-legitimized the entire field. And again, that’s that same approach that if it’s cosmopolitan, then it’s somehow anti national or somehow not linked enough. And I want to say, let’s recognize that the Indian English novel is an elite space, but then to look at, to not just see elite spaces as elitist. Because within that Indian non English novel, we still see a great range.

Pranav Jani (35:45):
So I would argue that the methods I’m using to analyze that particular genre can be used to analyze many other kinds of genres, some of which have a much bigger readership, some of which have a very different history. But our basic approach should not be to simply say, “If this is cosmopolitan, then it’s post national,” but actually dig into those genre and see the different tendencies that have existed and that have changed over time. And so that’s how I would take on that question.

Soniya Gokhale (36:21):
Well, no, I appreciate that response. And I think you’re right, it does tie in ironically to the first part of our conversation during this podcast. And maybe actually isn’t that what’s happening is we’re all connected and that’s what the pandemic has I think underscored as isolationism of the past is literally never going to happen and that time is over.

Soniya Gokhale (36:47):
Now, one of the other very, very compelling aspects of the book pertains to women and women’s writing since 1970. The book argues, Vinay Dharwadker argues, “Our focuses mainly on the unequal distribution of power across gender differences within middle-class Hindu, Muslim and Sikh societies, but also deals with more complicated situations in which gender inequities combined with asymmetries between upper and lower cost, higher and lower costs, urban and rural environments and generationally as well.” In other words, women writers began not only to resist their exclusion from the ‘nation’ as you refer to it, but to refute the restrictive division of the world into gendered public and private spears by viewing their own oppression in light of other social factors.

Soniya Gokhale (37:44):
And so you go into the extruder by examining The day in shadows, and I really liked the character Simrit and what you put around that she is a divorcee. And I just want you to walk us through some of that and what you discuss as it pertains to gender.

Pranav Jani (38:03):
Yeah. Now, that’s great. I think that I end up writing about three novels in this book by Nayantara Sahgal because I find her so fascinating. In a way I’m saying, “What if she were the template for the Indian novel in English, then what idea would we get?” Because, and this is why I think we need to look closely at these things, once you talk about so Nayantara Sahgal is elite in terms of class, there’s no question. She’s Nehru’s niece, right?

Soniya Gokhale (38:38):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, yeah.

Pranav Jani (38:42):
She’s that yeah. She’s the cousin of Indira Gandhi. So she is definitely elite in terms of class and in terms of education. She even comes to the US for her undergraduate degree. So there’s no question about that. But because she’s talking about gender and she’s interested in women, there’s new ideas that emerged from her novels that you actually can’t get in Rushdie, because he’s really bad about writing and about gender and about women. He doesn’t have that at all. And sometimes it gets into a really kind of a sexist discourse.

Pranav Jani (39:15):
And so Nayantara Sahgal, Arundhati Roy later on, then I have Kamala Markandaya. All of these women writers are pretty significant. And one really strong reason why the Indian English novel should definitely not be dismissed as non-representative as some people do. You know what I mean? That’s a great point that you raised. So this character of Simran, I think she goes by Sim, she’s just called Sim in the book. Now I’m trying to think, is it Simran or not? It’s Simrit, it might be Simrit.

Soniya Gokhale (39:43):
Simrit, yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Pranav Jani (39:47):
Oh, she’s fascinating. And there’s a little bit of a biographical element in there in terms of Nayantara Sahgal as well. But the thing about her is that, and this is true, a lot of Sahgal’s are female protagonists. She’s really interested in politics. She’s not really interested in “women’s issues”. You know what I mean? And I’m using that in quotes. She’s not like some kind of stereotype like femininity and ideal womanhood or something like that. She’s interested in politics, she’s interested in reading, she’s interested in being independent. And she’s not interested in any man having a hold over her.

Pranav Jani (40:39):
And I published the book 10 years ago, I think I’d probably do some of it differently Now. One of the challenges I write about Sahgal is that you want to show that she’s important as a woman writer, she does raise these female protagonists to the fore, and at the same time, she’s not necessarily that interested in talking about gender. And to say that that’s the way in which she talks about gender, to say you can have female protagonists and they don’t have to talk about what “women are supposed to talk about”. And so that’s the kind of tension that you get there.

Pranav Jani (41:17):
There’s a line where she declares her love for one of the characters while they’re watching a parliamentary debate about oil contracts. And the guy, I think his name is Raj or something, he’s like, “Yeah, that’s just like you. That’s when you’re going to think about love in the middle of a debate about oil contracts.” And so Sahgal gives us a ton of these kinds of figures. I think there’s a good parallel here to Arundhati Roy and the character of Ammu in The God of Small Things, which even though she is described with conventional ideas of beauty and all that, she’s seen as someone who doesn’t fit the category of woman for her society and therefore marginalized as an outcast. It’s not as dramatic in The Day in Shadow, but there’s a parallel there that’s worth that came out.

Soniya Gokhale (42:19):
That’s what really struck me and I think it reverberates today. Her critical perspective growls out the way and which her very existence confound the excepted logic of what a woman is. Women are either married or on their way to be married. Married women are merely appendages of their husbands who don’t work or do anything. And writing is marked as frivolous. It’s not a career, but something women can do before they get married. And the irony is unfortunately this rings true in some respects today. I just want to get your thoughts on that.

Pranav Jani (43:01):
I mean as a cisgender straight man, like I can say some things about it, but what women have said, what feminists have said is really central here. So I’m just following that lead, which is that we’re still shackled with certain ideas about masculinity and femininity and who wants to do what in the home. And you go to some community events and people are just divided by gender. It’s very clear what their tasks are. You don’t even have to say anything, men do certain things, women do certain things. And you see our kids getting trained in that. And those are just things that we have to oppose. How can we talk about democracy and freedom and have such narrow views of what human beings are capable of?

Pranav Jani (43:53):
So I think those are things that there’s been so many struggles against and people are active writing, protesting, taking on atrocities, whether you’re talking about Asian-Americans or people within Asia, there’s definitely resistance and fight back. But that’s a long legacy that we’re dealing with. I’ll just add one thing to connect to some of the other points and also it goes back to the opening of the interview because I started talking about that Eurocentric idea of the west and the rest. Have you heard the imperialist feminism?

Soniya Gokhale (44:33):
Yes.

Pranav Jani (44:34):
Yeah. And so I just want to make sure. One of the things that happens is this kind of imperialist feminism where the fact of ongoing gender oppression and difference in, let’s just say broadly, our side of the world and where we come from, that fact is then taken as a sign of our backwardness and our endemic backwards. But then when we bring in the history of colonialism, I mean, bring in the history of subjugation from the outside who exploited us and took our wealth and used it to build these mighty empires, when we look at that and bring gender into that equation, what we see is that colonial subjugation actually helped enforce certain kinds of ideas about gender, certain ideas about tradition, etc.

Pranav Jani (45:27):
And so in the work I’m doing right now where I’m talking about anti-colonial struggle, I won’t go into detail, but I’ll just say this, which is when you’re talking about anti-colonial struggle, you see some of the first people who really rise up against the British are ultra conservative. And they do it on the name of defending their tradition. So there’s a widow remarriage bill that’s passed and the conservatives are like, “How dare you touch our tradition?” And they come out against British rule.

Soniya Gokhale (46:00):
Wow.

Pranav Jani (46:00):
And what I’m trying to say is colonialism itself shapes the kind of resistance it gets, and one part of that resistance is traditionalism. And so there’s ways in which colonialism reinforced those gender hierarchies in our parts of the world and we’re left with that legacy as well. But then that’s used against us as a sign of our backwardness and the superiority of the West. That’s the tangle we get into at times. So yeah, I think we should oppose gender hierarchy wherever it exists in our own lives and our own families and also in our own societies, whether in Asia or in Asian-America. But we should also oppose that rhetoric which says, “See, y’all are backward. You need us to save you,” coming from the Eurocentric perspective.

Soniya Gokhale (46:55):
Well, now, that makes absolute sense. And I do want to bring up a point that you outlined in the book that given Arundhati Roy stature within today’s international movement against corporate globalization and naked imperialism, it’s shocking to remember that her Booker Prize win in the novel, The God of Small Things from 1997 was initially met with ways of criticism and even hostility from prominent sections of the Indian left and especially those associated with the Communist Party of India. So I want to hear your thoughts on that, but it’s fascinating how things change.

Pranav Jani (47:32):
Yeah, things change. And to the credit of the Indian left, even if they criticize her novel, they immediately turned around when they saw what she was doing politically. But my point was, let’s not read literature in such a narrow way. That it’s only when someone comes out with saying, “This is my politics,” that you go, “Oh, I will support you.” But let’s actually read the literature, even when we read through that political lens, and for me, like through a Marxist lens, we have to actually look at what it’s doing.

Pranav Jani (48:07):
So I think some of her critiques of the Communist Party, I could see people saying they’re a bit unfair, etc, in The God of Small Things. But why is she making those critiques? And what they said was, “Oh, she wants favoritism from the West.” And I was like, “No, no, no, no. She’s actually talking about the problems of hierarchy and oppression.” The problems of talking about class, but not talking about caste, not talking about gender, trying to build with people by not challenging social oppression or specifically gender oppression or caste oppression. So that’s what she’s pointing to.

Pranav Jani (48:44):
So I feel like leftist at the time could have said, “We disagree with our critique of communism, but we totally agree with her understanding, her intersectional understanding that class and caste and gender should come together.” But that’s not what they did. They actually followed the path of something we were talking about before, which is that if she got famous in the West, well, she doesn’t really care about the country. She’s just looking for Western applause, when actually that’s not what Arundhati Roy has become at all.

Pranav Jani (49:17):
So some of us in the late ’90s, were actually arguing this position even before she came out with her political writing. So you feel justified in doing that. But I wanted to, if I could, just come back to the one… And I think there’s a link here.

Soniya Gokhale (49:39):
Yeah, I agree with you.

Pranav Jani (49:40):
Back to the critical race theory stuff, especially as it deals with Asian-Americans. Would that be something that works?

Soniya Gokhale (49:48):
Absolutely, I would love to hear your perspective on that.

Pranav Jani (49:51):
Okay, okay. Yeah. I think as Asian-Americans, first of all, the racial justice education that’s being pursued in K-12 and in colleges right now, part of that, along with the history of what happened to the enslaved people from Africa, all along with the history of what happened to native Americans, is a history of what happened to Latinx people, what happened to Asians as well. And I think we need to learn that history, because if we don’t… So I think there are conservative Asian groups, some are just conservative. They’re just not interested in any of this stuff. They’re not interested in Black Lives Matter. They’re not interested in any of that. They just want us to do well themselves and that’s it. So some are just conservative.

Pranav Jani (50:46):
But some are Asians who’ve been put in this position of model minority have seen high test scores and those achievements as being the out right, the way to survive in this country. And I think they’ve been used by the political right as a ways to go against affirmative action and racial justice and things like that. And I guess on that, I would say there’s a whole bunch of other Asians who actually put their souls on the side of the racial justice education.

Pranav Jani (51:17):
So number one is learning our own history. And so learning about the late 19th century folks, people like Bhagat Singh Thind who lost a bid for citizenship in the Supreme court in 1923 even though he fought in the World War I on behalf of the US but was stripped of his citizenship. Learning about the exclusion of Asians in this country leading up to the 1920s. And then the 1965 Act, which was only opened up to Asians because of the Civil Rights Movement, but also the US interest in getting scientifically trained folks from China who had developed their STEM programs after independence and said that that’s where we need to invest.

Pranav Jani (52:12):
And so understanding the model minority myth has a history, but it’s actually a myth and it’s being used to pit us against other people of color as has happened in South Africa, in so many other places, to Asians. And understanding that history, why are we also make room for ourselves to survive in whatever way we can?

Pranav Jani (52:36):
So I guess what I wanted to put out there is, yeah, there are divisions among Asians on this question, but I think they’re part of the same history that those divisions can be exposed by that longer history of Asians in America, which we all need to know in order to make sense of our place here.

Soniya Gokhale (52:56):
Yeah, that’s a great point.

Pranav Jani (52:59):
I was just thinking this morning of how glad I am that it’s being called Delta Variant not the India Virus. You know what I mean?

Soniya Gokhale (53:09):
Yes, yes.

Pranav Jani (53:10):
And what kind of just another level full of garbage that we don’t have to deal with in our day to day, the racism and everything that comes with that. But then we did have the China Virus and we saw what that’s done. We saw the kind of hate that’s come out of that. And in talking to Asian-Americans in the United States after April and the massacre in Atlanta of six Asian women, what I found is that we don’t even know our own history in this country. When racism comes against us, we think of it as being about religion or culture or something else, not about race. We don’t even see that we’re racialized. And so, yeah, I just wanted to end on now, which is like that demand for racial justice education is actually something that will immensely benefit us and give us a better sense of our place in this country and not simply getting a high test score or something like that.

Soniya Gokhale (54:09):
I agree with you more on by virtue of doing this podcast, I said, one of the fringe benefits is, I am learning. I am definitely a changed person since I launched this. People like yourself, Mrinalini Sinha, I cannot believe, first of all, what you just stated could not be more true. And so I really do hope to have you back again, because I think circling some of these things, bringing the loop around is so critical. And you’re right, we don’t have a history or knowledge of it. But I think that look, we work in silos. You’re right. We are encouraged to pursue STEM careers. History, and knowledge about our people and our country isn’t necessarily something that we’ve been exposed to. So really glad that you brought up that point. And any other comments before we close this out today?

Pranav Jani (55:02):
Well, no. Thank you so much for inviting me and for engaging with all of this, for your podcast, for connecting these different questions of the immediate front page news about CRT and racial justice education as well as the scholarly work around something that as obscure as Indian fiction in English. So yeah, I really appreciate you’re doing that, and I think the podcast can actually become one of the ways to break those silos and actually see if people have things they want to share across those different interests or careers or whatever it is because we have to figure out how to come together. It’s a tough journey.

Soniya Gokhale (55:56):
It’s a tough journey. And you described yourself as an activist, and so I would say that I will fully ascribe to the fact that I’ve been complacent enjoying democracy thus far. And what I realized when I launched this is, I need to do something to use my life, to be the change, as we know the quote from Gandhi. And this is the catalyst for that, but I couldn’t do it without thought leaders and amazing scholars and professionals like yourself agreeing to join me here. And I want to offer that, look, the biggest markets for this podcast right now are India, Mauritia, Sri Lanka. So what does that tell us? We are connected and there is a world out there that is interested in listening to what we think, what we do. And wow, couldn’t be more encouraging. And again, really thank you for joining me today.

Pranav Jani (56:46):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Thanks so much.

Soniya Gokhale (56:49):
Thank you.

 

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