Literature Lit for Life

In conversation with Jonathan Gil Harris

Finding home: ‘I am doomed to always speak Hindi in a New Zealand accent’.   | Photo Credit: Rajneesh Londhe

Jonathan Gil Harris, Professor of English at Ashoka University, has been writing and lecturing about foreigners in India from the time he settled in this country in 2013. The title of his 2015 book, The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans & Other Foreigners Who Became Indian, is self-explanatory. In his new book, he talks about yet another foreigner who has become ‘local’ — Shakespeare. Excerpts from an email interview:

In the The First Firangis you talked of European settlers who came to India and made it their home. You have been living in India for some six years now. Going by your own experience, at what point does the firangi feel he has been naturalised, if at all.

I’m not sure he — or she — ever feels fully naturalised. One can’t magically erase all the habits and conditioning of one’s pre-Indian life. For example, I am doomed to always speak Hindi (or murder it) in a New Zealand accent, painfully impervious to the differences between the various kinds of “t” that North Indian palettes have been trained to produce since childhood. But there are also days when I realise I have adapted to elements of the local ecology in ways I hadn’t realised.

My Indian partner likes to remind me I have become more of a Delhi driver than she is: rude, aggressive, happy to swerve suddenly across lanes for craven self-advantage. To which I reply: hum toh aise hain, ji. With the ‘t’ of ‘toh’ mispronounced, naturally.

What sparked off your interest in Malik Ambar, the Ethiopian slave who led the resistance against the Mughals in the Deccan and founded Khadki in the 17th century?

Two things interested me. First, Malik Ambar was a larger-than-life figure, a brilliant military tactician who repeatedly foiled Jahangir — to the point where the frustrated Mughal emperor commissioned a painting of him shooting arrows into Ambar’s head because he dreamed so much of doing it for real. But Ambar was also a fantastic case study of a larger phenomenon: the successful integration of Ethiopian migrants into the culture and terrain of the Deccan.

His (very Indian) skill as a civil engineer — Ambar designed a water supply system in Khadki, now Aurangabad, that still functions 400 years later — struck me as deriving in part from his childhood experiences of the flow of water in the Ethiopian highlands where he was born. Somehow he built on those early experiences to create a brilliant water delivery system adapted to the specific challenges of the rugged Deccan landscape. To an Ethiopian, the dry and hilly Deccan was more familiar terrain than it was to a North Indian like Jahangir.

How different is your experience of India from that of New Zealand, where you grew up? What are/were the things that you find totally alien and what, if any, seems familiar?

Completely different. Yet strangely similar. New Zealand is so very, very small. Just 3 million people lived in the whole country when I was a kid. That’s less than the population of Gurgaon. 3 million people — and 60 million sheep. People are more polite, and less pushy, because they aren’t competing for space and resources (or sheep) the way Indians do. Yet thanks to the shared experience of the British Empire, many aspects of India were familiar. Horlicks, Maggi noodles — I grew up with those too. And I grew up with similar place names.

When I was a kid in Auckland, we would drive down Khyber Pass Rd and Gilgit St to the Bombay Hills and the Coromandel coast; and when we visited Wellington, we’d bathe at Miramar, which was next to Khandallah and Brahmpur. I thought those were New Zealand names. I gradually learned that Bombay and Khyber Pass were in South Asia, but I realised only after moving to India that New Zealand also stole the name of Coromandel from here, thanks to nostalgic British Raj officials who were posted to the southern colony after their time in India.

You are teaching Shakespeare to Indian students. How do you make Shakespeare more relatable to them?

The first thing I tell them is that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, not read. I know that seems obvious, but it’s scandalously liberating too — especially for students who have been encouraged to regard Shakespeare’s works as sacred scripture that shouldn’t be questioned or treated with irreverence.

The second thing I tell them is that Shakespeare’s plays weren’t high art — they were masala entertainments, written for mixed audiences from different classes, religious communities, and linguistic backgrounds. Just like masala Hindi films, in other words.

Which is why I say, if Shakespeare were alive today, he would be writing for cinema rather than theatre — and he would be writing for Bollywood rather than Hollywood.

In this relation, tell us something about your new book, Masala Shakespeare, please.

The book is a celebration of Shakespeare’s marvellously rich afterlife in the Indian subcontinent. It is a love letter to the rich masala mixes of Shakespeare and India alike.

But it is also a tear-stained love-letter to a genre of movie that is dying with the demise of the single-screen cinema hall; for an ideal of syncretism and pluralism that is under siege in a time of militant shuddhta [purity]; and for an idea of India that is ebbing with the rise of majoritarianism and religious fundamentalism.

Indian adaptations of Shakespeare are a masala bulwark against these trends.

anusua.m@thehindu.co.in

Jonathan Gil Harris will be speaking at The Hindu Lit for Life 2019. To be held on January 12, 13 & 14 at Lady Andal School premises, Harrington Road, Chennai.Visit www.thehindul .com to register


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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 9:15:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/lit-for-life/in-conversation-with-jonathan-gil-harris/article25909641.ece

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