Parashar Kulkarni on debut novel Cow and Company, fiction writing as therapeutic, and the language inequality in India
Author Parashar Kulkarni talks to Firstpost about his debut novel Cow and Company, his approach to fiction writing, and the language inequality prevalent in India.
After winning the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for his short fiction Cow and Company, author and academic Parashar Kulkarni published his debut novel of the same name earlier this year.
Cow and Company tells the story of the British Chewing Gum Company which is trying to reduce consumption of paan by replacing them with gum.
While humour is often understood to be an excellent socio-political tool, Kulkarni had no prior intention to employ it so.
If you think the recently published book Cow and Company has an intriguing title, you will only be intrigued more by its plot: Set in India's colonial period, it tells the story of the British Chewing Gum Company, which is trying to reduce the consumption of paan by Indians, by replacing them with gum. The Company decides to use a cow as its mascot and soon, religious sentiments are hurt.
The highly satiric narrative is filled with passages like this one: "Armed with new convictions, Thompson decided to pursue the kids. They can chew gum, they can blow bubbles, they can take off, poof! just like that, from the grey cliffs, from the tree tops, from their second-storey windows. Thousands of kids in the air, a garden of floating children."
Before it was turned into a book by author and academic Parashar Kulkarni, it was a short fiction text which he won the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for. "Cow and Company was a longer project. I sent an excerpt that looked like short fiction to me,” Kulkarni says of his debut novel.
While humour is often understood to be an excellent socio-political tool, Kulkarni had no prior intention to employ it so. “Usually, I am trying to keep the writing process interesting for me,” he explains, and with a touch of that same humour, adds, “Living is hard as it is. I am looking for lightness, it’s a personal quest that long-distance running can’t resolve.” However, his use of humour as a narrative device emerges as a more nuanced decision when talking about writers who’ve influenced him. “PuLa (PL Deshpande) is often regarded as apolitical in his work...
I find Pula's desire to retain pleasure and humour more subversive. It has the added advantage of longevity. Anger burns fast and gives ulcers."
Besides being mindful of the qualities of humour, Kulkarni’s approach to fiction also seems informed by the one thing strictly separate from academia – emotion. “For me, fiction is more personal, more therapeutic, and more embodied. Fiction helps me speculate, it’s a zone where academic writing hesitates,” he says.
As Assistant Professor of Political Science at Singapore’s Yale-NUS College, Kulkarni's research while writing Cow and Company sat snugly "at the intersection of gender, property and religious norms in colonial India". He elaborates about the findings of his research: “Men framing women as property; men framing women as sacred. Men framing animals as property; men framing animals as sacred. There are some well-documented religious riots, cow riots." The research is heavily reflected in his fiction, and as he explains, “I was neck-deep in archival material. Working on a novel allowed me to retain my visual and emotional attention.”
While in the past Kulkarni strongly differentiated between fiction and academia, he now realises that "in interdisciplinary and innovative environments, there is more openness to experimenting with form."
He adds that some of academia’s most exciting recent work is a more genre-hybrid output, which should be encouraged, especially given its social functionality. “Cross-genre and interdisciplinary work can be used to fight systemic inequalities in the production of knowledge in academia – who is read, who is published, who is acknowledged, who is allowed to be ignorant,” explains Kulkarni.
While being rooted in archival research gives the social set-up of Cow and Company a ring of factual authority, one also notices striking commentary — especially driven home through similarities to present-day politicians using religion as a simultaneously unifying and divisive tool. “Politicians [today] are definitely playing with our attention, it’s either cows or extreme income inequality. We have to take control of our attention, it requires practice,” he says. Kulkarni also thinks it’s important for artists to be rooted within and deeply aware of the society they are commenting on. “Artists, like others, should be active citizens. Be aware of your own place in the politics you criticise... Many artists have managed to extract more freedom within the system, they generally have access to a microphone in some form. But a microphone is not a bone.
Sometimes, where one speaks is as important as what one speaks. Don't overwhelm strategy with idealism, it's too self-centred and will not help the cause,” are his firm beliefs.
That Kulkarni thinks artists have social responsibility resonates with his act of highlighting social divides, especially along lines of language, with the novel at one point stating that “The bard represented all that was great about Bengali culture” while presenting a thorough sketch of the representative Banerjee family. “Your question reminds me of a dream that has stayed with me – my grandmother walks over to me, or she is hovering in the air I think. ‘Write in Marathi,' she scolds. I have been reading, writing and translating in Marathi for pleasure, but to have someone else read my work… my writing voice sounds like Dada Kondke, I am serious,” Kulkarni quips. However, he agrees that since the colonial period, the English language has been institutionalised as one of “upward mobility” and that in today’s disconnected world, language inequalities are only rising. Kulkarni adds that English “has become a marker and creator of urban-rural divides, class divides, knowledge divides, and also a divided self.”
And while the debate around language has no simple answers, Kulkarni believes that “there are many models of how to work with two or three languages” and that social experiments are possible. For instance, school subjects can be taught in multiple languages. “Why not teach History in Marathi or Civics in Hindi or texts in multiple languages?” questions Kulkarni. He says we also need more experimental practices in higher education. “Where is the Department of Tamil Studies at Mumbai University?” is Kulkarni’s next contention.
He believes that exchange programs between universities within the country are a start to establishing language equality and sensitivity. “We have to encourage writing, reading, and performing across all regional languages,” he adds, stressing the need for creating an ecosystem that doesn’t encourage language hierarchies, while (almost flippantly) concluding: “For the economic utilitarian, I'd like to add that linguistic/cultural diversity is beneficial for welfare/growth. It encourages variety in consumption of goods and services.”
Kulkarni’s decision to write in English then — coupled with the Commonwealth Prize win – takes on stunning nuances, given the social critique in his work and his target: English-language readers. The way he stumbled upon the idea for Cow and Company is also as doubly commentative and humorous as the novel itself: “At that time, I was in New York thinking a lot about dogs in the city. A psychologist had mentioned a suicidal dog. I had written a short text... In one scene, a dog says, 'I have no rights, look at the cows in India.' An immigrant dog responds, 'all animal rights are instrumental.' He begins to narrate Cow and Company.” And while currently working on non-fiction projects, Kulkarni adds that he is also “completing a text that takes off from where Cow and Company stops.”
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