Review: The Middle Finger by Saikat Majumdar
The Middle Finger is a subtle mélange of myth and campus novel that has its genesis in the story of Eklavya but transcends the original
Who came first - the poet or the teacher? Megha’s poetry gives her wings. It “called her in a different language.” But when those same privately created words are expressed by others in sound and physically visceral outpourings, through Instagrammed videos, performances and dances, they assume a certain tangibility which she dislikes vehemently. She feels shameful about how her words sound. “They sounded like savage, violent, slippery beasts that had no care nor grace for anyone. How could she speak of such pain? Pain she hadn’t felt herself. What right did she have to dig them out of cold print and fan flames with them?” She can find no pleasure in garnering fame as an underground poet.
A constant flow of thought, and snatches of the quotidian in the life of Megha Mansukhani, poet, teacher, dissertation-deserter, fill up the pages of Saikat Majumdar’s The Middle Finger as she navigates her chosen world of academia, poetry, esoteric friendships and the odd run-in with an ex-classmate, brown like her, but flush with Wall Street success. Ditching the hallowed white corridors of Princeton for a gig teaching writing to a hearty heterogeneous mix of first-year students at Rutgers, Megha finds a modicum of satisfaction with her existence. Yet, the decision of abandoning her project that sought “hidden stories of magic, myth and opium in the literature of the long 18th century” due to her disenchantment with it, is an uneasy one; it gnaws at her from time to time.
In The Middle Finger, Majumdar, virtuoso writer and incisive academician himself, pens a subtle mélange of myth and campus novel. It has its genesis in the myth of Eklavya, but it transcends the original, and so, characters and the plot leap beyond it. In various interviews, Majumdar has articulated his keen interest in the conventions of the gurukul tradition, its glorification of subservience and the power equations therein. In the opening pages of the book, one of two epigraphs, excerpted from Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History succinctly outlines the power dynamics between Drona, the teacher, Arjuna, the star pupil and Eklavya, the lowly Bhil who forfeits his thumb, and yet wins the usage of his forefinger and the middle one – which gives the novel its title. The broad themes that Majumdar cleverly handles include the exploration of the concept of mentorship in academia; its threshold, the imbalances and inequities that play out here just as they do in life beyond the walls. He examines their intersections and the cracks between those spaces. Education in its purest form is meant to be empowering and carries the halo of nobility; it is a virtue. But it has its dark spaces, its scope for abuse.
When Megha comes to India to join a new age university deemed to impart a liberal arts education, there are discoveries to be made, of how privilege works or does not depending on a person’s socioeconomic strata. “This was a new kind of a college where students from all over India wandered in on their way to Oberline, Yale or Williams, losing their way a bit, perhaps their families had put the tuition money away for a Stanford MBA later on, because this new college obscenely expensive for most Indians, was obscenely cheap for them, so what to do with the money?” Worlds collide and meld. New Delhi is at once familiar and revelatory. Class differences are stark and invisible lines spring up to pose barriers. Megha does not think twice before sitting next to the driver, the obliging Mr Ajmal who takes her around Delhi helping her to procure things for her new home but who will deferentially not share her table at a kabab shop in Old Delhi. Seen through an American prism, Megha is jarred by it. Through him, she encounters Poonam, the young Christian church-going girl from a modest background, eager to help set up her new home. Poonam is also ravenous to learn. She looks up to Megha, her Dronacharya. Megha is the reluctant teacher who refuses because she isn’t sure she can. “Why did Poonam want to read poetry? Was there poetry for her?” The acuteness of hierarchies makes its presence felt in each of these interactions, even if the lines blur at times. Poonam leaves her fading pink chappals at Megha’s door. Her mud-stained feet stain Megha’s apartment in a manner that scalds them both. On the other hand, her student Jishnu, her social equal, comes from a physical place of privilege. And so Arjuna will gain from the teachings. His debates with Megha on the creative process are another interesting aspect of the novel.
In the larger narrative, Majumdar delicately weaves in other subtexts. The complexities of Megha include the smell of failure: rejections. “The year of her failed job search felt like a sad joke.” The sense of what constitutes home is another. “Empty apartments comforted her. They did not try to be a home. Nicely done homes made her restless, they had a way of leaving her out, of drawing a boundary around them.” Her childhood home in Calcutta was made of “red stuffed toys that groaned in pain, a beautiful house that seemed to cry all the time” fraught with the lovelessness between her parents, a “gray smokiness where there was no one around but quietly malicious servants.” She grows up to prefer empty apartments, the bareness helping her to write better.
Majumdar’s prose is a mix of delicate wisps, bold statements, percipient reflections and lyrical interludes. Just like his protagonist’s yearning for authenticity, as the auteur, he imbues his other characters with the same quality. There are no false notes. The scenes between Megha and Poonam also carry poignancy; despite the boundaries between them, theirs is a relationship wrapped in ambiguities.
A special mention needs to be made of the artfully designed cover. Pinaki De’s dust jacket illustration is based on a portrait of model Katryn Kruger, and is a work of joyous art in itself.
The Middle Finger is a stimulating read. After all the intellectual discourses are done and dusted, will disruptions change things, people, life irrevocably? And can wisdom flow from one to the other just by being in each other’s company? Plato’s aphorism in the foreword seems to suggest so.
Sonali Mujumdar is an independent journalist. She lives in Mumbai.