Inspired by a Bihari Babu, Tabish Khair

Indian writer, Tabish Khair, made a visit to Hong Kong, as a guest speaker for the Hong Kong Book Fair on the 24th July 2011. Playing on the use of the ‘B’ alliteration, and taking the term ‘Babu’ (Westernized, English-speaking Indian) from the context of the colonial backdrop in which Tabish often writes, I jokingly refer to Tabish Khair as Bihari Babu. One of his most famous studies, Babu Fictions: Alienation in Indian English Novels, critically analyses works by writers such as Amitav Ghosh and Salman Rushdie, in light of the growing popularity of Indian English-language authors. Its underlying tone highlights the class-specificity of Indian English novels, a consequence of the class divisions generated by British rule. Regardless of the dozen or so successful books that he has under his belt, including works such as Filming, The Bus Stopped, and Muslim Modernities, novelist and poet Tabish Khair is incredibly down to earth.

At times he has been known for upsetting various groups of people. His new book How to find Islamist Terrorism from the missionary position is bound to create tension in Denmark at least. But that’s what is admirable about Tabish Khair, is his unwillingness to say what he ‘should’. He will tackle the elephant in the room head on as he finally addresses some of the controversial issues associated with Islam and Denmark, where he resides. In his article The colour of our passports in The Hindu, he writes about the moral issues behind changing one’s nationality faced by foreign residents of the UK/US, and other predominantly white, developed countries. The benefits of “convenience and cash” aside, as he puts it, one should keep one’s nationality not merely for sentimental value, but also to retain one’s ‘common difference’ as non-white people. He goes on to explain that the fear of foreigners in the UK/US has existed long before terrorism came into the headlines, and is based on the fear of “those who have little cash and cannot be conveniently ignored.” In relation to his book The Thing About Thugs, drawing a parallel between the cultural differences of the British and Indians during Victorian and contemporary times, he commented, “I engage with the past, but don’t cater to stereotypes.”

The issue of racism came up a few times throughout the session, though not enough in relation to Hong Kong local people’s prejudices towards foreigners, and especially South Asians. Chip Tsao, who was mediating the session, did mention that local people in Hong Kong don’t know enough about their Indian neighbours, and remarked that “they think that Sikhs are the only type of Indian.” But even that is wishful thinking, as most locals I have spoken to don’t even know what Sikhism is, apart from giving Sikh children ignorant nicknames because of the topknot on their heads. Chip went on to say that few locals know that “the Sikh temple (Gurdwara) in Wanchai serves free food (langar) every Friday (actually every day of the week).” However it is exactly this “I try your food, you try mine” approach, that is an ineffective form of superficial multiculturalism, according to Tabish. He explains how we need to acknowledge the history of how other cultures influence our own, in order to be truly multicultural.

“I’m glad you asked that,” he remarked in response to my asking how growing up in Bihar, or being a Bihari, had influenced his work. He went on to explain how he feels it is important for him to be identified as a Bihari, as well as an Indian, and he has incorporated aspects of Bihari culture and life into his novels. Many people label him as being a member of the Indian diaspora, but he considers himself as a Bihari, and an Indian, who lives in Denmark. “We are going through an age in which we’re losing memory,” he said as he told that consciously or subconsciously, people in India are becoming very business-minded, resulting in a decline in literature.

Whether I agree with them or not, the words and views of Tabish Khair have been refreshing to hear and read. Please leave direct comments here, leaving name and email is optional but not required, and let me know what you think.