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Books In Conversation

Meera Nair

Meera Nair’s debut collection Video (Random House, 2003) is set in modern-day India, Bangladesh, and the United States. In these 10 stories, Nair’s characters are affected by Hindu-Muslim communal violence, politics, social reform, and above all, different forms of longing. In the collection’s title story, "Video," a middle-aged man has a chance viewing of a foreign porn movie. After seeing the movie, he’s inspired to solicit oral sex from his wife. However, his wife refuses to submit to his outlandish entreaties, and his stable, albeit stagnant domestic life is disrupted.

Nair, who was recently awarded the 2003 Asian American Literary Prize, lives in Fort Greene, where she is currently at work on a novel that takes place in the Indian state of Kerala in 1957. This past December, the Rail’s Hirsh Sawhney sat down with Nair at Tillie’s.

Hirsh Sawhney (Rail): You open up your collection with an excerpt from a poem by the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali, who also lived in Fort Greene before his death. Who are some of your other literary influences?

Meera Nair: Everybody. To go way back, of course Rushdie. He’s really opened up the world in some ways. He said it was okay to write whatever you wanted. You didn’t have to write in this particular way or in that particular way. You could enjoy your own language for what it was and bring it into your writing. And Márquez, of course. Everybody teaches you something. There are a lot of people I don’t like at all, though.

Rail: Like who, for example?

Nair: I don’t like a lot of Indian writers who exploit India in horrible ways—who make it very exotic, who talk about her long black hair, her long lashed-eyes, and the lake that was her navel. Some crap like this which makes India very exotic and mysterious. I take strong exception to that, because I think it does us a disservice really. We have enough to contend with, with this whole thing about India being this mystic land of the "never never." We don’t need to perpetuate it in our writing. I like people who take unflinching looks at it. I really admire Akhil Sharma for that. He lays it out to you, and you take it or leave it. The country has bad and good, and we should be talking about it as it is. Not exoticizing it and pandering really to the West. That’s not what I do. I don’t think it’s right.

Rail: What really struck me about your collection, was that it presents such a broad scope of India, both geographically and culturally. Is there one thing that can be called Indianness or India for you?

Nair: I think that variety itself is what is India for me. It’s not homogeneous in any way. This kind of constant carnival is what I really love about India. You can’t really go anywhere without meeting people of four different states or 10 different backgrounds, people who are from the village or from the city. This constant kaleidoscope is what I think India means to me really. It’s very hard to pin it down.

Rail: A reviewer in USA Today wrote: "While the characters in Video range greatly in age, gender, and occupation, most of them, in some way, are confronted with Western culture’s influence on Indian traditions." Would you agree with that?

Nair: I think they’re confronted with something new, and yes, sometimes Western culture in the form of the porn video, or the Indianized version of Valentine’s Day. But I always feel that the way I conceived of this book is very different. I never think of it as a confrontation. In India, we transform a Western cultural experience into our own Indianized version of it. Even MTV in India is nothing like MTV here. It has its own idiom and slang, which is Hindi-driven, but is really cool and different. I think there’s no big clash. I keep going back, and we’re very tradition-bound still. I love the craziness of India. We have HBO on my mother’s farm, but we don’t have a hospital. The closest post office is a mile trek up, but everybody’s so well-informed.

Rail: December 6 marked the 11-year anniversary of the day Hindu fundamentalists destroyed the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Gujarat. Your story "Sixteen Days in December" is set at the time of the riots that followed the destruction of this mosque. Right now, are you optimistic about Hindu-Muslim relationships in India?

Nair: What is interesting is that I think the people have spoken to some extent. Because in the latest election, the rhetoric was not about the Hindu-Muslim divide. They didn’t try and bring up that whole Hindutva nonsense. It’s been suppressed nowadays. Also, we have a ceasefire with Pakistan in Kashmir. Yes, I am optimistic at this given moment. God knows, the ceasefire may go, and they’re will be another riot. It was very media-created in Gujarat. That was very upsetting for me personally.

Rail: Let’s talk more about globalization. Factions of American and European youth, as well as the intellectual left, are very indignant about globalization’s effects on the developing world. How is India presently affected by globalization?

Nair: I can give you the facts as I know them. My mother said she thinks she might not be able to make money from her farm anymore, because China is going to dump rice at a lower rate than our farmers are making, according to her. This is what I know from the little village. She doesn’t know how this government allows it. But we’ve signed onto free trade, and that’s one of the effects of it. But with all the companies moving back, we’re also benefiting to a large extent. In the cities, they’re making a great amount of money. But I also know that we have farmer suicides in the villages, and it’s really bad. What globalization is doing there is what it does everywhere. It leaves the poor behind and makes the urban, educated professional really rich. I think that’s happening in India as we speak. We seem to be moving away from any socialist anything. What we had with Nehru—our tradition of the five-year plans and what not—all of that has fallen by the wayside as we try to keep up.

Rail: Is social mobility more prevalent today than it was when you were growing up in India?

Nair: My dad was a journalist, so we were middle-class I guess, or upper-middle class. We never went to a restaurant, until it was my birthday or some big thing—maybe once or twice a year. Now it’s just like here. We’ll eat out every single day and not think about it. It’s just like that in all the cities in India. It’s changed so much. I left India in ’97, and I’ve been back every year. But I’m still amazed at the amount of money people spend on a night out at the club. It seems that people are really spending and there’s no incentive to save. I do feel upward mobility is zooming. People are getting rich very fast. Everybody wants to have the best car, the best everything.

Rail: But it’s not spilling down to the lower classes?

Nair: I think it is to some extent. I can only talk about what I know. The whole atmosphere of Kerala is very communist, because from the beginning, we’ve had Communist-led governments. So people make pretty good wages, and they have days off and maternity leave, even if you’re a laborer in the field. And they all do really well. They have all kinds of loans from the government. They’re doing everything to put money into poor people’s hands. It’s an interesting balance in Kerala. I can see with my own eyes, that they’re better off than they were say five, six, or seven years ago. I don’t see that kind of grinding poverty, at least not in Kerala. But some states are incredibly, incredibly poor. I don’t know if they’re getting the benefit of all this.

Rail: Kerala had the first democratically elected communist government in the world in 1957. In your story "My grandfather Dreams of Fences," an elderly landowner is progressively stripped of his property by the Communist Party, maybe in an unfair way. Do you sympathize with this character?

Nair: I’m completely divided. I think incredible amounts of land shouldn’t be owned by just one person. At the same time, the way it was done, it left a huge wound in the psyche of a lot of people who did own the land. I also feel sympathetic towards the tiller. I think he should have his own little land. This is a very interesting subject for me, and the only way I know how to deal with it, is to continue to explore it in my writing. I don’t want to decide either way, and I just want to leave the reader with both viewpoints. Draw your own conclusions. Your sympathies can lie with both people. You’re caught in progress. History leaves you both in some way nostalgic and deprived. That’s the way it works. There doesn’t have to be one clear winner and one clear loser.

Rail: From the onset of the book, your stories deal with sexuality, sometimes overtly and sometimes more subtly. You really paint a broad picture of sexuality as something that’s very innocent, and something that has an extremely dark side. What are you saying about it?

Nair: I don’t say any one thing. I can’t, because it has so many guises. What does sex mean to you—do we have one answer? It’s not "la la land," nor is it horrible. I guess I just explore everything in various ways. It’s interesting to me how Indians seem to have this really conflicted relationship with it, which is highly exemplified in Bollywood I think. On the one hand, you don’t allow kissing in films, but everybody takes off their clothes and does the most unashamed gyrations. It’s just amazing to me that this goes on in front of all the kids. Many Indians think Western movies are really perverse and bad, though in some ways, they’re much more honest than this kind of "posturing" that goes on in Bollywood.

Rail: Is it significant for you to be living and writing in Fort Greene?

Nair: I love Fort Greene, but I’m very conflicted about gentrification. I don’t want people to be pushed out of the neighborhood, because I don’t think that’s right. And I actually don’t see that happening so much, even though people complain, because a lot of the businesses on Myrtle are still black-owned, and they’re doing well. I don’t know if I want something like a lot of little boutiques and pet spas. I would be against that kind of thing. What is particularly nice about this neighborhood is that it’s very mixed. There’s a lot of class mixing at the park, and obviously, it’s very diverse. I hope it remains that way.


Hirsh Sawhney


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2004

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