A university is a community of teachers, students, researchers and administrators together engaged in pursuing the goal of higher education: the creation and sharing of knowledge. But who is admitted into its fold? What does it take to learn in a world where social capital is protected by gatekeepers, and knowledge measured out in the form of credentials? “Education is big business in this country,” says a character in The Middle Finger . “A lecture here, a workshop there, it never ends. People bleeding profits out of people’s anxieties.”
Saikat Majumdar’s new novel, an exploration of the ethics of education, raises fundamental questions as it invokes the story of Eklavya from the Mahabharata . In the epic, Eklavya is the young tribal boy, a prince of the Nishada tribe, who offers his thumb as guru dakshina to his teacher, Dronacharya. In the version quoted in the epigraph to Majumdar’s novel, Arjuna urges Eklavya to give up his right thumb for his guru, but Drona blesses the Bhil boy to continue shooting arrows despite the thumb.
Strikes a chord
The other epigraph is from Plato’s Symposium . Socrates tells Agathon that it would be wonderful if knowledge could be attained simply by touching the wise: “If only wisdom were like water, which always flows from a full cup into an empty cup when we connect them with a piece of yarn — well, then, I would consider it the greatest prize to have the chance to lie down next to you.”
The protagonist is Megha, an Indian woman who has drifted out of the doctoral programme at Princeton, which, she felt, was absurd and suffocating. Like “Hogwarts for adults... where a white brilliance hung like a dull haze over the campus and after a while you longed to breathe.” She now teaches basic English writing to students at a U.S. State university. She also writes powerful poetry, which is performed in basement pubs, on YouTube and Instagram. “Poems happened. The bleak landscape outside her window, the old-fashioned steam heater in her studio apartment, the oddly high ceilings, the aching confinement. They pushed poetry out, fine and slimy.” She is awarded an arts fellowship, but remains uncertain about the future: “Nobody could make a life out of poetry.”
One evening as she drifts, she meets a group of well-connected Indians on the way to an event at Wellesley — the kind of people
who always know each other, are sure of themselves, and are comfortable on any continent. Their presence strikes a chord. At the urging of her professor, Megha returns to Delhi to help set up a new private university which caters to well-heeled Indian students. “This was a new kind of a college where students from all over India wandered in on their way to Oberlin, Yale or Williams... this new college, obscenely expensive for most Indians, was obscenely cheap for them, so what to do with the money?”
Megha decides that she will play the game. The new university is located in an old city with ancient hierarchies. It sets out to do bold new things with its teaching programmes, because, as a character remarks, “Literature sits uneasy in India. English is taught the way the British wanted it taught in the 19th century.”
But it is not that easy to shake free of old ways. “It was pretty amazing that this was a university where faculty members could call for coffee and a liveried pantry staff brought it to you on a tray. On the other hand, it was coffee made with instant coffee powder and tasted sad.”
Sealed off worlds
Megha happens to meet Poonam, a woman who helps her set up her house and arrange her bookshelves. They come from entirely different, almost hermetically sealed off worlds. “What would she and Poonam talk about?” wonders Megha. Poonam has the autodidact’s hunger for knowledge. She arranges and rearranges books on Megha’s bookshelves, touching the books as if to absorb their words and ideas: “She liked books in a way Megha did not quite understand.”
Poonam, too, is a teacher: she runs a study group at her church for women from Jharkhand who work in houses in Delhi but don’t know how to read or write. She herself has never been to college: “I can’t talk about it. It still hurts.” She wants Megha to teach her: “I want to say my own things.” But Megha does not know how, and says so: “I’m not very good at teaching the language. Teaching literature at the university is very different, Poonam.” But then she notices Poonam leafing through the pages of an A.K. Ramanujan volume. “Why did Poonam want to read poetry? Was there poetry for her?”
Is there poetry for those who have not been ‘taught’ to read it? Are there ways in which poetry can reach out and ‘touch’ a reader, as Socrates says to Agathon? This is the question at the heart of this novel. The answer, of course, is yes; because, as one of the characters realises, “There are different ways one can exist in the world.”
The Middle Finger; Saikat Majumdar, Simon & Schuster India, ₹599
The reviewer is in the IAS.