Book Review: Saikat Majumdar’s The Middle Finger

Saikat Majumdar’s recent fiction, “The Middle Finger,” is a campus novel that uses ancient myths to examine the complexity of the teacher-student relationship. It tells the tale of a poet who struggles with the issues of mentorship and belonging while challenging social norms and educational hierarchies. This novel reminds the readers of the book Dangerous Friends by Rig’dzin Dorje, where the complex social bonding between teacher-student is brought to the fore. It also accentuates the struggle and disquietude of an emerging writer like Megha to attain a moderate level of popularity.

As Megha relocates from the United States to India, the dynamics of race, class, and colour have been taken into consideration meticulously by Saikat Majumdar. The protagonist, Megha, is a writing instructor who has always had a privileged background and education. Since Megha is disgruntled and bored with her research in Princeton, she after quitting her PhD work in midway, comes back to India to embark on his teaching job at a glittering private institution Harappa University that is set up recently on the American model somewhere in New Delhi. Harappa University is purported to meet the educational needs of the affluent and is funded by venture investors with Indian ancestry and Stanford pedigree. “This was a new kind of college where students from all over India wandered in on their way to Oberlin, Yale, or Williams… this new college, which was obscenely expensive for most Indians, was obscenely cheap for them, so what to do with the money?” It can be observed that Megha first comes across Poonam in Delhi, who shows her around Old Delhi’s lanes so she may purchase furniture, drapes, and other necessary items. They belong to a completely different world. Megha reflects on “What would she and Poonam talk about?” Once Megha is settled at her home, Poonam arranges the book on the shelves and proposes to cook for her. In return, Poonam wishes to be taught by Megha, which she turns down, stating, “I’m not very good at teaching the language.” Poonam appears to be thirsty for acquiring knowledge: “She liked books in a way Megha did not quite understand.” She does not know how to read and write; despite of that she is found to flip through the poetry volume of A.K.Ramanujan. “Why did Poonam want to read poetry? “Was there poetry for her?” This novel raises a thought-provoking question: Is there poetry for those who are not taught to read?

Sometimes, Poonam feels envy for not having a privileged life like Megha. Poonam, who is honest and sensible, gradually works her way into Megha’s mind, and Megha welcomes her presence while continuously questioning her feelings. Their bonding is sensual rather than sexual. The intricate relationship between Megha and Poonam is woven with a thread of desire that never completely reduces itself to the desire of the body for the other. Infact, a different kind of friendship has evolved between them within the peripheries of their social strata.

Shame and disgust are frequently entwined with caste, status, and lineage. Class and its intangible restrictions inhibit Poonam from receiving a college education or personal guidance from the woman she declares to be her teacher. In America, Megha’s white friends are agog to visit places where Asian immigrants like her live, but the smells from people and the stains of daily existence that they might notice, make Megha feel exasperated since they represent otherness. In Delhi, she is conscious of a “male odour (that) floated all over her flat”, a “lazy, disagreeable smell” when her driver and helpers set to place her furniture. Megha is dismayed about the dirt from Poonam that stains the new rug in Megha’s living room, which the guests might notice. In her Hiding from Humanity, Martha Nussbaum explicates about disgust Disgust embodies a shrinking from contamination that is associated with the human desire to be nonanimal. (…) The discomfort people feel over the fact that they have an animal body is projected outwards onto vulnerable people and groups.” “These reactions are irrational, in the normative sense, both because they embody an aspiration to be a kind of being that one is not, and because, in the process of pursuing that aspiration, they target others for gross harm.”

Megha’s interest and writing on poetry has been covered remarkably in the novel. Her poetry is performed in basement pubs, “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.” Megha reckons that poetry is meant to be read and recited rather than performed. Megha was flustered to see the performance of her poetry. Although Megha’s poetry is performed for the audiences, there is a dismay lingered in Megha’s mind. She does not commend the transference of her poetry from the visual to the aural: “There was something savage about their sound that she couldn’t bear. The thought that she had written them was a slap in her face. They sounded alien. They claimed she did not possess slimy muscles. Suffering she had not suffered.” Poetry has always been intended to be recited and heard, even in its earliest forms as an epic poem, a song, etc. A renaissance of oral recitations transpired in the 1990s in American cities such as New York and Chicago.

This novel entails some notable characters, such as Rory, who has an expertise in dance at Kalakshetra and decides to investigate Megha’s poetry through movement. It touches upon the issues incorporating classroom politics and the fragile situation of what education is all about these days. The novel sometimes flummoxes you and makes you feel like going through page after page while pondering over some grave questions on privilege.

Saikat Majumdar has interwoven some striking and upsetting passages between Megha and Poonam. Readers observe Megha and Poonam’s affection for one another on the one hand and, on the other hand, the distress and hurt that Poonam felt by Megha’s occasional unfair treatment. It was distressing to see Poonam’s teary eyes when Megha chastised her for smirching the splendiferous carpet with her murky feet. There was a raw nerve that the author was able to touch.

The novelist appears to be writing in a sporadic and unaffected style, but his attempts at refined lyricism and the deliberate elaboration of naturalness end up sounding uninspired and careless. The middle finger exhibits a language of namby-pamby observation, clichés, jerky conversation, inefficacious images, and weird phrases. The novel begins smoothly enough but loses its grip in the middle, which may frustrate the readers at times.

 

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Dr. Md. Firoj Ahmmed is currently working as an Assistant Professor of English at Malla Reddy College of Engineering and Technology, Hyderabad. He has earned his Doctorate degree in English from Aligarh Muslim University, India. His areas of interests lie in Contemporary Indian Writing in English, South Asian Literature, Postcolonial literature and Gender Studies. He has been published in SARJANA journal – University of Malaya, Indonesian Journal of Cultural and Community development, Café Dissensus, and The Atlantic Literary Review, among others.

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