by Areeb Ahmad
Saikat Majumdar’s fourth novel, The Middle Finger, seeks to explore the ethical boundaries of friendship and familiarity between a teacher and their student. It follows academic and poet, Megha Mansukhani who might have been teaching at Rutgers at the start of the book but she was writing her dissertation in Princeton, comes from a moneyed family, and moves in social circles filled with fellow Ivy League grads. Her stalled PhD degree hampers her prospects in the States, but her contacts land her a job in India. It might seem ludicrous but it simply demonstrates the nepotistic close-knit upper-class upper-caste circles. Harappa University is a fictionalized Ashoka University where Majumdar heads the Creative Writing Department. Both these names reference a distant, presumably glorious pre-modern ur-India not tainted by Muslim presence.
While it provides Megha a break from the corporatized neoliberal universities in the US, Harappa also highlights the growing inaccessibility of education in India where “quality” institutions become playgrounds of the elite. We are supposed to be shocked at the display of wealth and entitlement alongside Megha whose blinkered vision has apparently hidden the fact of her own privilege from her. She exists in a bubble isolated from the harsher realities of life that mark the trio—Mr. Ajmal, the driver; Reynold, the procurer, and Poonam, a young woman who looks up to her—who help her acclimatize in India. Megha is the determining subject not only because she is the main protagonist and the story is focalized through her, but also because of her specific socio-cultural position which keeps in check any personal reflection or self-examination.
Hence, a distorted worldview surfaces in her indecisive but vaguely dismissive interaction with people. Her poems showcase exoticized and problematic caricatures of the “other.” Race relations turn into bestial clashes with racialized lizards and geckos: “Horns and tails and scales, the forked tongue.” In another chapter, Megha is at the New Brunswick train station and her observations of her fellow passengers develop into questionable verse that ultimately make it into her final book: “There were poems about body odours on the subway. Odours of different races and how they felt in the noses of differently coloured flesh.” Unsurprisingly, her similarly privileged audience, both in India and abroad, laps it up ecstatically without any qualms. After all, this rendering of painful events and systemic problems into blithe metaphor is not new to them.
A little ahead in this section, Megha goes on to describe these clashing ‘odours’: “Black flesh felt like sugar and cinnamon on brown nostrils. Spanish skin smelt like sour cream on yellow nostrils. Brown flesh was hot and sweaty, like moist chilli peppers, on black nostrils. Yellow skin smelt fibrous, sharp, and vinegary on Chicano noses.” Are we to suppose, then, that “Indian flesh” will smell like spicy curry? So she evinces a certain kind of gaze: sweeping, patronising, diminishing. Kaitlin Ruiz talks about “the kind of writer, nurtured by good schooling and upper-middle-class sensibility, who truly believes they are giving utterance to those without speech—and expects the objects of their curiosity to be grateful for this ventriloquism.” Megha definitely fits the bill. If the novel intends to expose her as such it succeeds and with enough dramatic irony.
Poonam is her protégé but only in the sense you could call Ekalavya a student of Drona. Megha refuses to take on Poonam despite her repeated insistence firmly stating many times that she needs to focus on her students at Harappa so she borrows books from her library and teaches herself without her help. Megha is overwhelmed by her proficiency but neither does she take undue credit for it nor does she ask for any “tuition.” When her students ask her, disillusioned after listening to Poonam’s sermon, whether something like that can be taught, she replies: “No, you can’t. It’s not for people like us. It’s power you can’t create.” While this is written as a profound moment, there are clear undertones of the noble savage trope, leaving a bad taste in the mouth.
The Arjuna figure in the novel, appropriately named Jishnu, is a teenage fan of Megha and her poetry. He comes from money and political power, the son of mutual friends. Instead of going abroad, he decides to join Harappa to be taught by Megha who runs Writing to Think, “an intimate seminar where people could be bruised naked.” A whole lot of obscenely self-absorbed hot air so completely characteristic of Megha, the university, and her students. He is perhaps the most visibly impressed student after the previously mentioned sermon. Jishnu thinks of Poonam as a rival but soon realizes he will never match up: “It’s pointless no matter how I try.” Moreover, there are signs that he feels betrayed by what he feels is Megha’s greater allegiance to Poonam. Thankfully, Majumdar does not recreate the Drona-Ekalavya dynamic from the Mahabharat.
Later, it is Poonam who points out the dehumanizing nature of Megha’s poetry: “… [T]hen the scales and the horns and the tails of the lizards and the geckos started to come alive because this is how you think of us, don’t you, people from the forests and mountains, people with horns and scales and tails on their skin?” As expected, Megha’s immediate reaction is denial. She claims that she has been misrepresented, that this is not how she thinks of her. The argument flares out as quickly as it had begun, leading to an unearned tender moment. This is their last meeting and at the end of the book Megha finds Poonam in Calcutta, setting up a domestic space with her. It is a watershed where differences are washed away and a new-found shared intimacy is established.
Unfortunately, it weakens the moment of truth and dulls Megha’s encounter with her privilege and figurative blindness. Poonam’s “rebellion” is subsumed within the larger narrative, a lovers’ spat in retrospect, glossed over and quickly resolved rather than a reckoning with class disparities. Megha comes off on the other side no better or worse for it and Poonam returns to being submissive. So it is regrettable that the novel’s central premise, the trap of intimacy within pedagogy, is also its least intriguing aspect. It crops up late in the narrative, remains underdeveloped and opaque, and is ultimately given a shaky resolution. It does not help that Megha and Poonam never share a proper teacher-student relationship, even informally. Majumdar also says that #metoo was a concern but it does not cast a shadow over the text, considering how it ends.
Poonam is limited by Megha’s gaze. Always inscrutably smiling, she has no ontological agency. In fact, ‘smiled’ is one of the most used dialogue tags in the book. It fits in the social circles where Megha moves: perfunctory and fake, a mask over jealousy and self-centeredness. In Poonam’s case, it pushes a character who is already significantly marginalized within the narrative further into the periphery. She is enigmatic and elusive, rendered an unknowable cipher, effaced even when she is present. She is the only other character to get viewpoint chapters but she never quite comes into her own. She is reduced to her job at the church and her brother’s death due to alcoholism.
Moreover, her deep regard for Megha is written as an obsessive infatuation. The narrative does not question the troubling perception of Megha as she repeatedly brings up Poonam’s “smell” or references her “dark body”. There is a scene where she mentions “the male odour [floating] all over her house” as Mr. Ajmal and Reynold set up furniture, calling it “a lazy, disagreeable smell”. It brings to mind the Parks in Parasite, scrunching up their noses at a mere whiff of the subaltern on coming in proximity with their servants. Her subway odour poems also uncritically reproduce the racial imaginary and Majumdar never really repudiates it. The reader knows there is something distinctly off-putting of course but nothing critically astute survives beyond the subtle black hole of Megha’s pendulum-turns between artificial self-doubt and natural self-assurance.
Coming to the prose itself, he seemingly aims for a sparse unaffected style but the careful construction of naturality and attempts at subtle lyricism backfire resulting in an uninspired carelessness. The Middle Finger showcases a language of banal observations and strange formulations, full of awkward and unsteady turns of phrase that highlight an unquestioned fetishtistic gaze. It is especially foregrounded in scenes where Megha is thinking of her poetry—the poems themselves as well as commentary around them are characterized by messy similes, clichés wriggling like worms. Truncated sentences, jerky dialogue, ineffectual images—it is an eccentric, hackneyed minimalism that fails to land. Whatever Majumdar’s intentions, they fail to come across clearly in the writing and the laboured style compounds the problems with the narrative and plot, drawing attention to their numerous deficiencies. In the end, the book is all a muddle.
While it is unable to cogently explore “the connection between the artistic, the intellectual, and the erotic”, which Majumdar identifies as the heart of the novel, I will not deny that it generates interesting epiphanies about artistic creation and compromise, appropriation and authority, meritocracy and capital, privilege and performativity. One cannot deny that the idea itself is quite intriguing but its execution as a narrative is less than decent and leaves much to be desired. The novel starts off well enough but quickly loses steam by the middle. It can also get very insufferable to read at times. The focus on exploring so-called transgressive sexualities is half-baked and goes nowhere. The novel’s claims of being disruptive and subversive are ultimately just empty claims in the end, without demonstrable proof. The reader is left frustrated and disappointed.
Just finished with a Master’s in English from the University of Hyderabad, AREEB AHMAD (he/him) likes to write about the intersections of gender and sexuality in literature. He also enjoys exploring how the personal and the political, form and content, interact in art. He remains certain that the author is never truly dead. Most of his regular writing can be found on his bookstagram. Areeb’s work—long-form reviews, bookish articles, and critical essays—has been featured in Mountain Ink, The Book Slut, SheReads, and is forthcoming in Gaysi, The Chakkar.