Zack was slim and handsome, of mixed race, and from the Midwest. He had spoken early on to me of his “protestant work ethic,” and already in those first weeks, when everybody was drinking beer from plastic cups and enjoying the good weather, I would see him putting his words into action.
Every day he went directly from his classes to the sunless C-section of the Robert Frost Library. He remained there, in that gloomy basement, till four-thirty, surfacing only for a hurried cigarette. Dressed in stained khakis and a flimsy blue shirt, under which a white undershirt was visible, he could be seen pacing the library’s granite steps, tensely studying the reference cards he had filled, in an abrupt, jagged hand, with notes from his afternoon’s reading. If anyone approached him, he would look at the person for a moment or so with the terrifying aspect of the Nietzschean solitary, wild-faced and fresh out of the cave. Then this expression would give way to an unnatural smiling manner that would send the intruder faster on his way than the grimmer visage. At four-thirty he would break for dinner, which meant a short trip to the dining hall, where he packed himself two sandwiches in brown paper napkins. Then he would return to the library for the rest of the evening. At close to nine, if I was lucky, I would be summoned for a drink. This occasion, though it had the outward appearance of a festivity, was no less utilitarian. It was a ninety-minute session in which Zack smoked Black & Mild cigars while hastily drinking from a gallon bottle of Carlo Rossi’s red wine, spilling it here and there, further staining his khakis. Over the course of these ninety minutes, after which I would be ushered out of his room, he would speak, drink, and smoke with the force of a man wishing to relax his mind for sleep. And as it softened, the day’s reading poured out of him, bringing a variety of writers and musicians my way: Du Bois, Ellison, James Baldwin; Nina Simone and Coltrane.
Zack was absorbed with aesthetic questions that, though outwardly technical, were, in fact, about the aim of art. Questions of narrative, what you kept, what you left out; the function of economy; the importance of discovering one’s material, of looking inward to see which of the stories we contained were important and worth telling. At the beginning of our acquaintance, I had treated Zack’s concern with these questions as one of the many pretentious conversations I had routinely had in college. Part of the reason for this was that I myself had never thought to question the purpose of my education.
I had come blindly to college in America from India because it was the thing to do. It was an extension of other forms of entitlement, like summer holidays in the West, or the buying of a nice car. I don’t think I could have answered the question of why I was going to college; not, at least, on my own terms; in my heart, I would have known it was to impress those around me. It was like Tolstoy’s youthful fascination with the idea of being comme il faut. And this desire to impress others would have extended to what I hoped to learn at the college as well: fashionable French and Russian writers, whose names would serve me well at cocktail parties. The college, too, with its broad surveys of literature and performing professors, was complicit in the acquisition of this kind of learning.
But Zack was different. And, in our third year, still wishing to discover what gifts lay within him, what his responsibility to his talent was, he quit all his reading and writing classes to become a painter. Listening to him one night talk of “negative space” in his paintings, which he described as the equivalent of “what is left unsaid” in a story, I began to feel that Zack was crossing the line between education that was ornamental, and education that was real.
And inspiring though his self-improvement was, it gave me a feeling of shame at my own wasted years, at the books read fast and for no other reason than to say I had read them. I wanted to go back and to read again. I had, by then, acquired the aspiration to be a writer, but feared very much that it was no more profound than that initial desire to go to college in America. I wanted now to look again at its motivations and see if there was really anything there.
What I am working toward in this passage from my second novel, Noon, beyond a portrait of one of my most influential college friends, is my gradual discovery of American history. The history to which I refer is not the dates and events of history books, but rather a kind of historical tension that is often too combustible to be spoken, or written, of easily.
To give you a better sense of what I mean, I relate this story from Rebecca West’s book on the Nuremberg Trials, A Train of Powder:
It is clear from the vehemence with which the newspaperman in the story speaks of history that he cannot merely want to save America from knowing when the Battle of Hastings occurred, or when the Declaration of Independence was signed, or what the causes of the First World War were. So, what does he mean? My hunch is that he wants America to be free of a certain kind of intractable history that is the warp and woof of societies in the old world. This other kind of history arises usually from a painful episode—a historical wound—that is reenacted from generation to generation. The Shia-Sunni animus in the Middle East is one example, the Hindu-Muslim antagonism on the Indian subcontinent another; Europe, with its long history of religious, sectarian, and racial violence, has endured many such episodes. It takes a long time for history of this kind to go quiet. Only then, after what is too often an expiation in blood, does it come within the reach of historians. Until it does, it roils away under the surface of daily life, reasserting itself in new and surprising ways, like the mutations of a virus. These cycles of historical recurrence can be a drain on the energy of a society. There were places with promising futures that committed suicide, or lost out on whole centuries in their development, on account of this kind of history. Russia, with its long night of Stalinist terror, comes to mind, as does the mass hysteria of the Nazi period in Germany. The promise of the new world was in part the promise of being free of the miring past; and if there is a note of panic in the newspaperman’s voice, it comes no doubt from the fear that what James Baldwin describes as the “inter-racial drama” that played out on the American continent has given America the material for a primal historical nightmare from which it will try and fail to awake. The newspaperman is right to fear history of this kind, for it is violent by its very nature. The source of that violence is the anger that comes to people who find the world sees them differently from how they see themselves. It is “the sense,” as Du Bois writes, “of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” The tension at the core of Du Bois’s idea of “double consciousness,” the tortured two-ness of the black American experience, will find an echo in the words of V. S. Naipaul, writing a century later: “to awaken to history was to cease to live instinctively. It was to begin to see oneself and one’s group the way the outside world sees one; and it was to know a kind of rage.”
To arrive in America (at Amherst College) in the summer of 1999 was to be totally oblivious of the kind of history I have just described. Not only did I not know the deeper tensions of the society I was entering; I knew very little about my own. My background in India was colonial, overlaid by a more general experience of globalized culture, American television, and international schools. India had a continuous tradition of literacy that was over three thousand years old. But no connection existed between the education I received, which was the legacy of the British in India, and India’s older classical traditions of learning. An epistemological break had occurred around the time of my grandparents’ generation, severing us, English-speaking Indians, from the country at large. Beneath two centuries of British rule lay the centuries of Muslim rule; and, deeper down, for the great majority of India, the old Hindu past lived on into the present. The society was a classic example of what Ernst Bloch has called “the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous”: the survival in a single society of ancient culture, thought, and social organization alongside newer elements that are of a piece with global developments everywhere. But we, in English-speaking India, were blissfully unaware of the fractures that the outward placidity of postcolonial life concealed.
I quoted Naipaul earlier. As it happened, I had a chance meeting in London with the great (and now late) writer in the summer before college. We knew Naipaul through his wife, Nadira, who was a friend of my mother’s. Naipaul was of an Indian family who had been indentured to Trinidad after the abolition of slavery. Aged eighteen, he won a scholarship to Oxford and had spent most of his adult life in Britain. His background, as he would say in his Nobel lecture of 2001, was “at once exceedingly simple and exceedingly confused.” My mother, I imagine, thought it would be nice for me to meet an esteemed writer before embarking upon an intellectual journey of my own. But when Naipaul heard that I was on my way to college in America, and not studying the “exact sciences,” he told me not to go.
“Indians,” he said, “they go to these places; they get dazzled by the institution, and they come away having learnt nothing but the babble.”
“What should he do instead?” my mother asked.
“He should go boldly into the world,” Naipaul replied.
Naturally I ignored his advice, because I thought he was joking. The glamour and prestige of college in America were self-evident to us, in India. Nobody in their right mind would tell an Indian boy lucky enough to be on his way to college in America not to go. We went to America, as the generation before us had gone to Britain. One went if one could. It was as simple as that.
It is strange that the idea of education, which is to a large extent an expression of a society’s intellectual history—“the past of the mind”—should, in a place with as complicated a history as that of India, seem as simple to me as buying a car or going on holiday. Strange, too, that this phenomenon of boys and girls leaving in droves to go to college in an alien society half a world away should go unremarked upon. The simplest explanation I can give for the unthinking quality of my world in India was that, though the land around us had been scarred by history, we ourselves were ahistorical.
This journey out, to Amherst, was my first opportunity to see myself from the outside.
I have often thought of what I would have been had I gone somewhere other than America, somewhere like Britain, say, where the seeds of a historical antagonism between my society and the one I was coming into had already been sown. I feel certain that in Britain I would have had a ruder awakening to history. The two-ness that Du Bois speaks of—in my case, of colonizer and colonized—would have split my personality.
But I didn’t go to Britain; I came here to America; and, as such, I came at an oblique angle to a society with which I had no direct historical relationship. Baldwin says of the American in Paris: “Since he is himself without a tradition, he is ill equipped to deal with the traditions of any other people.” The same could be said of me: I was an ahistorical entity entering a society notoriously impatient with history. What that meant on a practical level was that nothing could have been easier, no landing softer, no relationship less complicated. To be an Indian boy coming to America at the end of the twentieth century was to feel that the wish of the newspaperman in the Rebecca West story had come to pass: that this truly was a society without history, or at least without those knots of intractable history that are so integral to identity in the old world.
There was no colonial baggage for me in America, as there would surely have been in Britain, no angst. To me, America was all surfaces—filled in, easy to take for granted. I could not imagine how it had come to be what it was, nor was I really able to read people deeper than their manners, and what seemed to me to be a highly mediated and controlled discourse. I had no sense of America’s “inner controversy.” Unlike the Indian palimpsest, where older patterns of life always showed through, America seemed complete to me. The college was beautiful. I moved among its pretty red–brick buildings, picked out in white, with their louvred windows—navigating chapels, greens, and quads as one proud of his fluency. I made friends easily, black and white, almost never Indian, with something of the vanity of a neutral third party, pleased at his easy mastery of the alien society, contemptuous of his countrymen who had more trouble. Among white friends, I represented an unthreatening novelty. India neither menaced America, nor was it one of the great mother countries, as far as population and culture were concerned. I encountered the odd polite question to do with India, now about caste and inequality, now about food and Bollywood and spirituality; but, most of all, my relationship with my white friends was marked by a degree of relief that here at last was a place Americans did not have to walk on eggshells around. When Richard Avedon photographed a fierce tribe of ascetics called the Naga Sadhus for The New Yorker, my friend Dan pinned a picture of one with bricks hanging from his penis to my door in James dormitory, and wrote in felt pen: “Indian for penile enlargement.” It was the kind of fun one could have when there was no bad blood, no history. My relationship with my black friends, though no less easy, was tinged with the suspicion that I was blind to the reality of race in America. I remember Jocelyn, a short, sassy African-American woman, pointedly handing me a tub of cocoa butter early on in our friendship, with the stern admonishment: “You’re not white; your skin gets dry too.” Zack, whom I wrote of earlier, thought I was denying my racial origins by not joining the Students of Mixed Heritage group, despite having an English grandmother. My position was that this was not my history; these were not my markers; it was by sheer accident that I found myself in a society where color mattered as much as it did. And, in those days before 9/11, my particular color excited no special scrutiny. I thought it was my right to enjoy the variety of American life without getting bogged down in its tensions. Besides, I was a man with a return ticket to India in his pocket.
I have often thought back to the blankness of those days. I was so easy, so neutral. The college, in turn, was cossetting; it encouraged one to act, to play the part, to hide one’s uncertainty with a casual knowledge of intellectual ornaments, such as Kant’s ding an sich, or Nabokov’s poshlost.
My notebooks from the time are full of the strain of self-improvement: the names of the German expressionists, gleaned from the pages of The New Yorker, mixed in with those of fashionable restaurants. I would not have thought of myself as acquiring “babble”; I was merely filling in gaps in my education. The trouble is that education is not culturally neutral. “Education,” writes Ruskin, “means finding out what people have tried to do, and helping them do it better.” Now, when the people who have tried to “do” things in the past happen to be your people, as well as those in whose image the college is molding you, the institution serves as a real guide. When an education is complete, each college-made man or woman is left to evaluate the distance they have traveled. Sometimes the distance is no more than what exists between you and your parents; sometimes the distance alone—“two universes, separated by only a few dozen yards”—can be excruciating. It can make you feel you have betrayed your own; it can leave you with a terrible fear of exposure.
Through the uncertainty of this time, the people I found, both then and now, who understood what I was going through, and who served as a mirror to my experience in America, were the African-American writers who came to me through Zack. Among other introductions, Zack brought me to a seminar taught by the now late Jeffrey Ferguson on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Ferguson, an extraordinary teacher, taken from us far too early (he died of cancer in 2018), used Ellison’s own influences, which ranged from Melville and Eliot to Richard Wright, to teach us his great novel. In doing so, he helped us to see the angle at which Ellison stood in relation to the Western canon, and how much it was an affront to him, as well as an essential part of his making. For me, emerging out of a history of colonization and coming to Western literature at an odd angle, the experience of a man like Ellison was the only thing I could find in America that reflected my own. Ferguson’s course, which reverse engineered Ellison, gave me an entry point into books that might otherwise have seemed too far away. In my small, musty apartment above the pizza shop on North Pleasant Street, I inhaled a roll call of African-American writers whose work represented a history of reading that ran parallel to the Western canon. The black writers I read acted almost like commentators. Their concerns validated my own; their nerves assuaged mine; their fears about fraudulence gave me courage to voice my own. Once the ground was prepared by Baldwin and Ellison, other writers, such as John Edgar Wideman, came my way. Consider this passage from Wideman’s wonderful memoir, Brothers and Keepers:
It was black American writing, and the black American experience more generally, that first alerted me to the presence of history in America. It made the TV-prepared reality I inhabited less flat; it was my first intimation of something tragic and complex at the heart of American life; and, far from turning me away from the society, it made the place more familiar. Soon after coming to Amherst and befriending Zack, I witnessed an episode that made me think, like the educationist in the Rebecca West story, “Ah, yes, you Americans have your problems like the rest of us.”
My world in Amherst was racially mixed, but every evening at dinner in Valentine, the dining hall, it resolved itself, as if subject to an invisible force, into clean racial lines. The white students sat in the large atrium at the far end, while black students and others sat nearer the entrance, in an annex of sorts that we and others openly called “the minority section.” No one meant any harm; it was just the way it was. I had, of course, known similar divisions in the other societies I was acquainted with—along caste and religious lines in India; along class lines in Britain—but nonetheless it surprised me that they should exist without comment in a place as progressive as Amherst. I was too new to America to know that the same division, seemingly enforced mutually, can mean different things to different people. I was too new to know that even naïveté, and what James Baldwin describes as that “winning generosity, at once good-natured and uneasy, which characterizes Americans,” can, if it is divorced from a sense of history, be suspect to those who have no choice but to be aware of the past.
One evening, the main black organization on campus staged a protest of sorts. They arrived before everybody else; and, contrary to the laws that had quietly reasserted themselves among us, they sat down with their steel trays in the white section of the dining hall. The protest had its effect. The white students—casual, suburban, athletic—strolled in some moments later, and their faces registered visible surprise, even shock, but mostly embarrassment. The protestors responded with knowing looks and laughter. The next day everything went back to how it had been, but for me, blind in my own country and culpably unaware in this one, the small scene was my first glimpse into how much the business of seeing and not seeing is at the heart of historical awakening. As ever, the African-American writers served as my guide. Here is Baldwin: “You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Here is Ellison: “It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then, too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist.” And here is Baldwin again, on my shoulder, almost as if he had been present that evening in Valentine Hall: “Since white men represent in the black man’s world so heavy a weight, white men have for black men a reality which is far from being reciprocal; and hence all black men have toward all white men an attitude which is designed, really, either to rob the white man of the jewel of his naïveté, or else to make it cost him dear.”
After Amherst, I spent almost ten years in India as a reporter and a novelist. Then, in 2015, I returned to the U.S., this time for good.
In India, before my return, I had been covering the general election of 2014. It brought a populist demagogue to power—a Hindu nationalist whose political genius lay in opening a culture war on two fronts: India’s 170 million Muslims and its colonized elite, both the legacy of foreign rule in India. Narendra Modi in fact used the anti-Muslim feeling that existed among the Hindu majority to attack the colonial elite—which I had grown up amongst, and which was represented by the Congress Party—accusing it of coddling minorities to the detriment of the majority.
I covered that election from the sacred city of Varanasi, which Modi had chosen as his constituency, repurposing its symbolic power to fit his politics of revival. I watched young men roam the riverside in the evenings wearing cardboard Modi masks, the eyes cut out in almond-shaped hollows. They represented a new class of person who coincided with what Rebecca West had described in the 1930s as “the mindless, traditionless, possessionless section of the urban proletariat.” Untouched by colonization, but not spared globalization, they awoke, as if out of a sleep, to a world they had had no hand in making—a world that had already formed all kinds of judgements about them, and one in which, if they were to succeed, they would have to forsake much of what was dear to them, from language and dress to culture and worship. They wanted to bring back what they imagined had been lost. But they themselves had been remade. They were only able to bring back an adulterated version of the past that contained, in far greater quantities than they knew, the alien present from which they were running. Their response to modernity had cut them from their own past. Outside, in one ever louder voice, they were yelling, “Victory to Mother India!”—but the more they stressed their victory, the more one suspected its absence. Historical awakening, as mentioned earlier, is people seeing themselves for the first time as others see them. It is this, but it can also come alongside a demand that the rules of seeing be changed, a demand that can turn violent if others don’t comply. Seeing is an imaginative exercise; it requires intelligence and sympathy; but those who fail to see, or see as they shouldn’t, are only too often made to see.
It was from Varanasi itself that I booked a flight to New York, not intending to meet my future husband, but just to get away from the heat and hysteria of the election. Somewhere I must have known that I couldn’t stay on in India—that in the country that was coming into being, regardless of who was in power, there would not be room for me as a gay man of Muslim parentage.
I returned to America not now as a student, but as someone who wanted to make a life here. It didn’t feel like immigration, but more like a desire to be done with the demands of belonging—to wait out my time in a neutral place. But I myself was no longer so neutral. I was bringing a new, suspect shade to the American color wheel, though it took some time for me to realize this. In the summer of 2016, I wrote an editorial for The Wall Street Journal about how welcome I felt in America. But by the end of that year, the policies of a new president had brought about a Muslim ban, and David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was using a defaced version of my green card—my face canceled out with a large red cross—to celebrate the new era. It felt as if insecurity had followed me to America from India. Even the lines of tension were the same, most notably the special anger that comes to a majority which both feels it has a special claim on authenticity and, in turn, believes its promise has been blighted by a coalition of deracinated urban elites and minorities.
It was at this time that I rediscovered my debt to the black writers and to black history more generally. In my little apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, not far from where Baldwin had once lived, I found myself gravitating toward the writers I had read in college. If, before, the black writers had revealed the tragedy of American life to me, they now, through their own reckoning with the past, validated my right to be here. “It is precisely this black-white experience,” writes Baldwin, “which may prove indispensable to us in the world we face today.” Returning to an America in the throes of an ugly new nativism, the “black–white experience” did prove indispensable, but in a very specific way: I was grateful to the creation of a society in America that was, at its germ, biracial. I’m not speaking of some exalted sense of celebrating diversity or multiculturalism. In these uncertain times, I do not wish to set the bar too high. What I mean by the achievement of a society where black and white were present at the beginning, locked into a foundational dichotomy, boils down to something very basic: here was a place where the most virulent racist might tell me to go back to where I came from; but it was also true that the same man, regardless of what else he may do or say, could not look a black man or woman in the face and tell them to go back to where they came from. And, oddly enough, this mutually acknowledged two-ness, no matter how fraught, was my greatest guarantee—the foundation of my own claim to belonging.
The theme of a society that is irreversibly biracial (in a way that Europe is not) comes up in that final incandescent essay in Notes of a Native Son. James Baldwin finds himself in a remote Swiss village, where he seems, almost as a thought experiment, to reenact the primal meeting of black and white that took place on the American continent. He is among people who may perhaps have never set eyes on a black man before. They touch his hair, half expecting to receive an electric shock; they feel his skin, astonished that the color does not rub off on their fingers. Baldwin marvels at the gulf that separates his experience of the Swiss village from what he has known at home, and, astonishingly, that gulf, for all the pain it contains, is the crucible of his belonging in America. “There is a dreadful abyss,” he writes, “between the streets of this village and the streets of the city in which I was born, between the children who shout Neger! today and those who shouted Nigger! yesterday—the abyss is experience, the American experience. The syllable hurled behind me today expresses, above all, wonder: I am a stranger here. But I am not a stranger in America and the same syllable riding on the American air expresses the war my presence has occasioned in the American soul.”
To return to America to live after ten years away was to feel myself a child of this war that had been fought on my behalf even before I got here. There is no greater security for me than this ballast of American experience, with all its pain and violence. I have often asked myself what it is about racial attitudes here that are infinitely preferable to me than the casual racism one encounters on a daily basis in Europe. In Baldwin, I found a compelling answer. “Europe’s black possessions,” he writes, “remained—and do remain—in Europe’s colonies, at which remove they represented no threat whatever to European identity … the black man, as a man, did not exist in Europe.”
What was true of the black man was true of the Asian, too. Britain went out into the world; Britain colonized; and then Britain went home. Britain, until the 1960s, hardly had to reckon with what it had wrought. That could never be the case here. “One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people,” writes Baldwin, “is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa.”
That involvement—the fact that there were always two, white and black, and that two-ness could never be undone—is the basis of my debt to history in America. Because in the beginning there were two, there can now be three, and four, and five. It doesn’t mean that the cries for a socio-ethnic state won’t kick up from time to time. But it does mean that, on some hard, practical level, they will always ring hollow—the fact that the illusion Baldwin says white men nourish “of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist” must in America remain an illusion is a profound security. It makes me feel that my advantage over those who would wish me gone is hard and practical. “The world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.” That those words still feel truer in America than in Europe—that is something to console oneself with when the spirit of goodwill underlying the wish for a multicultural society begins to evaporate.
It was here in college, through men like Baldwin, Ellison and Du Bois, that I first discovered what history meant. I learned that it was something that could not be made to matter if it didn’t already. At the same time, once history takes root, once there is that first shadow across the lung, it cannot be willed away either. Like grief, its cycles have to be endured till it has worked its way out of the system and one is strong again. The newspaperman in the Rebecca West story wants America to be a country without history because he wants not to be responsible for the past; he wants not to face the discomfort of being seen by eyes that know him better than he knows himself. It is true that the racial history of this country has given the society its first definite signs of age; America is now marked by experience. It is not just a failure of the imagination to crave a time of innocence; it is a moral failure. The world is richer in its hybrids, I once wrote, but it is also better and stronger. What makes utopias parasitical and sterile is that they derive their energy from wanting to undo the world as it exists, rather than from dreaming one into being. The only true way forward, like an architect confronted with the task of building a house on a plot of hard, uneven land, is to recognize the creative possibilities of what history has wrought. It was through America’s black writers that I was given my first glimpse of this country’s historical wound. And it is upon that scar tissue that I have been able to graft my own story.
This essay was originally a lecture delivered at Amherst College in October 2018.
Aatish Taseer was born in 1980. He is the author of the memoir Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands and the acclaimed novels: The Way Things Were, a finalist for the 2016 Jan Michalski Prize; The Temple-Goers, which was short-listed for the Costa First Novel Award; and Noon. His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. He is a contributing writer for The International New York Times and lives in New Delhi and New York. He is, most recently, the author of The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges.