Hope Is the Last Bastion: Talking with Suchitra Vijayan

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In the popular depictions of India circulating in the US, we rarely see the stories that the nation’s jingoistic governments have shoved under the carpet. These are stories of massive human rights violations committed by the Indian state in the country’s margins. Suchitra Vijayan’s new book, Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India, takes a deep look at such stories by prioritizing the experiences of the silenced victims as well as lesser-known accounts from victims of state violence. Vijayan creates a constellation of micro-histories of people who have lived through the violence that India has committed in its borderlands—injustice that has irrigated the glamour and prosperity we witness in what some of us in those borderlands call “mainland India.” Vijayan, a barrister by profession, is a founding director of Polis Project, a hybrid research and journalism organization in New York. She is actively involved in circulating urgent and underrepresented news from the world through her online platform.

Midnight’s Borders perhaps also critiques the widely read body of work available as Indian English Writing (IWE), a literary canon that has so far told the story of India but seldom demonstrated social responsibility by acknowledging the atrocities India has committed silently within its borders. IWE is a body of work where the voices of India’s marginalized are still kept on the fringes; Midnight’s Borders is a narrative nonfiction book depicting a world that novels from “mainland India” have failed to depict.

I think this book will change the global conversation about India and shape what gets written in the future about India. There are so many nonfiction books about India published yearly but few are so important and subversive. Suchitra Vijayan complicates and expands our understanding of the South Asian American experience, urging readers to consider stories that cast dark eyes at India, a strategic ally of many Western nations. India has consistently warred against its own citizens; this book is about some of these wars. We need more such books. We need more writers from India’s Northeast, Kashmir, Indigenous, Dalit, and Muslim communities to tell stories that help complete the canvas of narratives about India.

I spoke with Suchitra by email in July about Midnight’s Borders, the power of literary nonfiction, new possibilities of Indian American literature, neoliberal politics, and the importance of supporting underrepresented stories.

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The Rumpus: It is shocking how unaware the world is about the violence the Indian government has committed since independence on its border citizens. Why do you think India has gotten away with this so far?

Suchitra Vijayan: The Indian state has always used excessive and extrajudicial violence on communities that resist, whether it’s the borderlands, peripheries, or mainland… Now the international view—for instance while the Gujarat riots of 2002 brought critical international media attention and criticism, and [current Prime Minister] Modi was banned from entering the US, India was able to effectively manage global public opinion. The argument put forward was simple: India, like most countries, had its human rights violations, but these were characterized as the “growing pains” and “maturation” of the world’s largest democracy. I can see small cracks beginning to appear. But the inclination to still treat India as a democracy remains.

Rumpus: Why do you think the ever-growing canon of Indian American literature has barely tried to engage with these conversations through their stories? It is necessary to speak truth to power through our art.

Vijayan: Most Indian American writers, especially many of them who occupy the broad spectrum of literary to punditry, come from immense privilege of caste and class. And, in many cases, they are children of the literary, cultural, or political elite who have long been the beneficiaries of the Indian state. They all have very specific and carefully curated origin/immigrant stories that cleverly exploit the model minority trope. You will see very little critical commentary or public positions on Hindutva, its corrosive role in India, or how RSS works here in the US—funding and now interfering in US elections.

There are also those who have previously been tacit, if not active, supporters of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Indian state. Even those who now write about Modi’s India, will never write about Brahmanism or be critical of how caste works in the diaspora. It is truly the treason of the “intellectuals.” We could have attributed this to ignorance even a few years back; now it’s just silence that’s deeply complicit in the Hindutva project.

Even the diasporic experience is often told through this limited lens, without taking into account how diverse the immigrant experience in this country is. There are some brilliant writers writing on these issues—the problem is always that these voices don’t make it to the mainstream. None of this helps in telling richer, more textured stories. It definitely doesn’t help when trying to hold a powerful state accountable.

Rumpus: Toni Morrison said that she writes from a place of delight, not disappointment. I find that profoundly inspiring. In an early chapter of the book, you talk about how “new worlds” are created by the people at India’s borders. Your prose is hopeful there.

Vijayan: I would say I am hopeful. But for me hope is radical; hope is the last bastion of our defense. It’s when we lose hope that we believe that we have lost everything. Also, hope is a discipline. It’s a practice. Like you train for a marathon, you train to be hopeful everyday. That’s part of the political imagination that I believe we need for political movements or any sustained acts of resistance. These new worlds are already here—they are maps of survival, maps of resistance. These may not be perfect worlds or even equal worlds, but they strive to be. This might not seem like much, but it is absolutely essential.

Rumpus: The book utilizes more than one medium: photography, narrative nonfiction, journalism. How do you think this inspiration from a variety of genres allowed you to tell underrepresented stories?

Vijayan: The photographs were the heart of this project. The writing grew around the images and the visual memory of the encounters. I kept detailed audio notes that I recorded each night when I traveled. Those notes were raw and immediate. I wanted to make sure that I was writing in a way that was honest and true to my initial reactions, and capture that without centering myself.

Rumpus: Were you trying to write a hybrid-genre book?

Vijayan: I wasn’t trying to write a hybrid book; I was trying to tell the stories I encountered as a way to think about the moral and political realities of our lives. I was also trying to tell these stories from a repertoire of skills I had, and some I acquired. The original vision of the book also has newspaper cuttings, and found maps. I had to cut those out, as my editor felt this might not work.

Rumpus: What do you think is the value of well-crafted literary nonfiction in sustaining conversations about equality and justice?

Vijayan: Let me start here—good writing is powerful and political. We live in a profoundly unequal society, where every day brings news of new devastation. There is something deeply flawed in the way we live today. We are consuming subjects in a surveillance economy, not citizens. We perform rituals of freedom in a right-less society—we don’t ask if the rules, laws, and policies that are put in place are fair, just, right or equitable. We no longer ask if this will lead to a better society, if it will benefit the vast majority of those farthest away from power. We once asked these questions, even if there were no clear answers or consensus.

This is where I believe literary nonfiction becomes a powerful tool. I believe it can teach us to ask these questions again. Good, honest and non-polemical writing has always forced us to confront the lies we tell ourselves.

Rumpus: The book derives its emotional strength and narrative energy from the stories of people you encounter at the borders. Sometimes they are no more, but your storytelling is so invigorating that the reader doesn’t forget them. How did you arrive at this stylistic juncture where you manage to tell the stories of these people who are radically less privileged than you without appropriating them? This is a tightrope that you walk so well.

Vijayan: There is an elusive distance between the photographer and the photographed that can’t be bridged. The acts of writing, documenting, photographing, and archiving carry privileges of caste and class. Who gets to travel, tell stories, and, more importantly, publish them are all deeply connected to questions of access, resources, and privilege. Early on, I was very careful to acknowledge this. But also, to be clear in terms of what I wanted to accomplish: as I say in the book, I wasn’t “bearing witness” or “giving voice to the voiceless”—the people in this book are eloquent and political voices of their lives and realities. My job was to make sure that their voices were centered. Not mine. The stories were a way to understand how people struggled and survived. Sometimes lost. Perhaps there are lessons to learn from that.

A lot of travel writing is still written by a particular group of people with immense privilege, and they all tend to center themselves. Invariably it’s the writer who is the protagonist. The travel, the people they encounter, and the political events they record quickly become cameos. At worst, it’s navel gazing peppered with white guilt, but always politically vacuous. The taxi driver who describes the Egyptian revolution in five minutes to an American columnist (who speaks no Arabic) is sadly where the genre is today. One feedback I often got was that I had to put more of myself in this book. This was something I had to resist from the get-go.

Rumpus: I believe your book contributes to an important conversation about India we must have right now in the United States, for its own sake. I can see how religious Hindu fanaticism has started to spread its tentacles in both the Democratic and the Republican parties, and this is primarily because of an absence of balanced stories about India. It is always Bollywood, the ascent of Priyanka Chopra, or the diasporic loneliness. How do you think your book contributes to the larger conversation about India?

Vijayan: It’s a very generous reading, and thanks for that. The book arrived in the middle of a pandemic and a devastating second wave [of COVID-19] in India. The book is a prelude to what was coming, and is also a impassioned plea to my readers to ask some fundamental questions of what it means to live in a country like India—what is the function of a state when its primary preoccupation is no longer the citizen but a performance of an ideology? What do words like “democracy,” “freedom,” and “citizenship” mean? But, more importantly, I wanted my readers to walk away with a sense of empathy.

Rumpus: Can we please talk about Priyanka Chopra, and how her rise is seen as a marker of brown achievement?

Vijayan: Chopra and others like her are a reflection of how popular culture and virality inform discourse and shape it. You don’t need a Leni Riefenstahl today. Propaganda and poison work in far more sophisticated ways. You can claim to be patriotic but not political, you can claim to support the troops but ignore the ongoing civilian casualty. You can carefully craft a narrative of immigrant success but act tone-deaf about the ongoing refugee crisis. You can speak of confidence and body positivity and defend selling skin-lightening creams. These are no longer contradictory; instead, even criticism can be converted to views. To repurpose an old saying—all infamy is now good virality.

Chopra cleverly uses women’s empowerment, diversity, and the immigrant story as a facade to parrot and promote deeply problematic ideologies, takes, and stances. If she wasn’t real she would be a marriage between a meme and parody. Chopra has long been neoliberalism’s reluctant feminist, hawking “giving a voice” and “sisterhood” while silencing those who question her. She is not alone. She also embodies the upwardly mobile, privileged sections of the diaspora. Chopra is popular because she satisfies a certain need for validation—the trope of brown representation where the mere act of being represented is seen as a singular virtue worth applauding. There is no denying that the American media landscape is deeply racist, and while the past few years have seen more “brown” people take center stage, it’s nowhere close to where we need to be. But who gets to speak for so many of us? Yes, Chopra does take a huge share of attention, but the real danger is how people like her whitewash Hindutva, and now increasingly co-opt the language of Hinduphobia to counter any critique of Hindutva.

Rumpus: In such a climate, what do you think is the responsibility of the diasporic Indian writer?

Vijayan: A writer’s responsibility above all is to speak the truth and make sense of our social worlds. Respond to our political present. We play an ever more important role in these times when there is a fascist authoritarian regime in India and a deeply racist police state in the US. It’s easy for Indian Americans and diaspora Desis to become tokens who speak of diversity but not equity or representation, talk of caste as culture and whitewash Hindutva. Even those among us who will speak of BLM will not openly challenge Hindutva or the RSS. There is also a lot of deep-seated misogyny, casteism, and anti-Black racism in our communities that need to be addressed. But eventually we need all kinds of stories and arguments to emerge from what is now considered Indian American writing.

Rumpus: How hard was it to write nonfiction about such a violent contemporary history? What is the emotional and artistic cost that one pays as a writer while crafting these narratives? This is a challenging task for the writer.

Vijayan: As we have this conversation, Dr. Stan Swamy, the eighty-four-year-old Jesuit priest, India’s oldest political prisoner, was murdered by the Indian state with the complicity of the judiciary. He was arrested based on fabricated evidence in the middle of a global pandemic, and he was denied bail and medical help.

History and memory is local—which means it’s almost impossible to write about India. What we can do is attempt micro-histories of events, timelines, or local communities. But it’s also important to constantly take account of who is writing about this “India” to an Indian and global audience. Who gets to shape these stories, what stories are chosen, what stories then are exiled? The emotional cost is something else altogether. I feel very uncomfortable talking about this, or rather I don’t know how to discuss this without centering myself. I wrote the book, but those who have lived through this hell continue to live and navigate this hell.

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Photograph of Suchitra Vijayan courtesy of Suchitra Vijayan.


Aruni Kashyap writes in English, and his native language Assamese. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Georgia and is the author of The House With a Thousand Stories, His Father’s Disease, and There Is No Good Time for Bad News. Find him on Twitter at @AruniKashyap. More from this author →