History is Contemporary: Ishmael Reed’s “Conjugating Hindi”

Ishmael Reed’s new novel Conjugating Hindi (published by Dalkey Archives) is provocatively historical and inspirationally contemporary.

Set in Oakland, California, 2017, the story dramatizes how the old sin of slavery returns under a new president “who pretended to be champion of the Middle Class,” but whose “heart was with the rich”. Under such a circumstance, artists and Blacks are driven out of cities across the nation by real estate poachers (Conjugating 10). With this deplorable scene, the novel sets forth its satirical narration revolving about a commercial debating program on “Was Slavery All That Bad?”

Organized by Columbia Speakers Bureau in New York, the debate is carefully designed to make money from “a human holocaust” (Conjugating 23). For Reed readers, this subject is hardly new. From Freelance Pallbearers to Juice!, Ishmael Reed, with unfailing courage and unique narrative art, has been telling us how stories about human misery, especially those of Black slaves, are stolen and staged by the moneyed and the privileged for profit. Conjugating Hindi probes deeper into this subject by introducing into the story world a right-wing Indian-American, who is used not only against his fellow countrymen, but Afro-Americans. Shashi Paramara and Peter Bowman participate in a series of debates before White conservative audiences. The novel signals Reed’s brisk stepping into the cultural and literary history of India. In various ways, this remarkable story reverberates with Reed’s persistent concern with American social reality as well as his imaginative construction of multicultural poetics which talks back to racism in American culture and literature.

Early in 1977 when interviewed by John Domini concerning the relationship between history and literature, Reed remarked that “the past is contemporary”, explaining his narrative “anachronism” (as is described by the postmodernists) as related to an African Vodun conception of time[1]. Such a statement should not be understood in a simplistic way. As Reed makes it clear in the same interview, “I see writing as a fine art, not just a medium for telling a story”. In another interview of the same year, he picked up the same issue with the following observation:

“I think slavery is contemporary; the same institutions that existed in the plantation situation of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century South exist now” (Conversations, 120).

What is made clear here is a historical sense that is forcefully directed to the contemporary moment when this great novelist is writing. In other words, Reed is almost always addressing a public which seems to be forgetting about the past. Conjugating Hindi is surely about a present when “[E]very vote for Donald Trump was a vote for vulgarity. His supporters got exactly what they paid for” (July 28, 2017 NYTIMES). Very much like the situation described in The Terrible Twos where we see the Reagan administration was satisfied and sanguine while millions in the United States were starving, Conjugating Hindi presents us with similar social scenes, where even the White progressives are protesting against “income inequality”. In circumstances like these, the Black elite has to struggle for a modest existence.

In this story, Bowman (nicknamed “Boa”) is a history teacher at Woodrow Wilson Community College. Hard pressed for money to pay his taxes, Boa agrees to participate in a touring debate on slavery. Despite the careful design which places Bowman and his opponent Shashi in the debate as team players, both express their views sincerely. While Shashi views slavery as “a benevolent institution” which “contributed to the growth of the South” under “the guidance of merciful slave masters” (31), Boa strikes back with solid historical facts that expose the atrocity of slavery trade. When Boa calls Shashi “an assimilated Anglicized Indian”, he is booed by the conservative audience. Characteristic of Reed’s story art, the debate is used as a powerful strategy for a two-fold purpose. Described by the agent Jack Sharkey, the point of having such a debate is to make big money disguised as a way to remind the world that “such a human catastrophe will never happen again.” (Conjugating, 23). This blatant remark is a cutting satire at those various forms of cultural products which use slavery for profit. On the other hand, representing Boa and Shashi as sincere spokesmen who speak for their different views towards slavery, the novel dramatizes how Indian-Americans are used against Blacks.

Like a Jazz musician, Reed often improvises in his story worlds with quick hands. In Conjugating Hindi, when news comes that an American passenger plane has been shot down by India, the debate is stopped and Shashi is considered an “Indian nigger” (37). The Anglicized Indian suddenly becomes a Fugitive Indian who seeks protection with his opponent Boa. When a Fugitive Indian Law is implemented, Shashi literally lives a fugitive’s life in the basement of Boa’s house. With this plot twist, the novel continues with another session of the debate between Boa and Shashi.

In Flight to Canada, Raven Quickskill seeks protection in a schoolhouse before he is tracked down and “repossessed” by the slave owner Swille. In a different way, Shashi undergoes some similar experience of a fugitive life in Boa’s house. To avoid being tracked down, Shashi spends all his time in the basement, abandoning himself to depend upon Boa for help of various sorts. Different from Raven, who believes that “words built the world and words can destroy the world” (Flight, 81), taking advantage of the fugitive period, has Shashi start writing the book for a musical “Robert E. Lee, The General Who Rocked”, which infuriates Boa. When challenged to justify his participating in the glorification of a rebel who fought to defend slavery, Shashi “rattled off some names of historians who wrote books lionizing Lee and defending the South and casting the war as the war of Northern aggression.” (53); stung by Boa’s implicit criticism of his racist scientific viewpoint, Shashi blurts out: “You are skating on thin ice when you challenge these experts. These men have PhDs in history.”

Given Shashi’s racist profiling of African-Americans, such a mentality is dramatized throughout the novel, especially in his conversations with Boa, as a mental illness of American society which has been there since the colonial time. As Boa observes, Shashi is ignorant of American history, and “probably not even familiar with Indian history” (31). Cutting himself off from Hindi and the history of India in Hindi, Shashi considers the Indian Prime Minister, Si, a “hothead” for his nationalistic stance. In his view, for decades Indian people have been educated in English, worn English clothes, celebrated Christmas (65). Not surprisingly, he believes that the Mountbattens represented the Empire at its best (65), that Churchill “rescued” India from “barbarity and brought India from being a backward country ”(76).

To a large extent, Shashi’s conversations with Boa in the basement might be understood as an educational process which presents to the former the “information about the peculiar institution” (76). As an ironic mirroring of Shashi’s self-imposed identity as an Indian- American, he is described as a “hidden African-American” in a report on NextDoor. com (77). NextDoor is an Oakland network that has been accused of spying on Black Oaklanders. It is headed by an Indian-American.

Different from their previous role as team players, Shashi and Boa conduct serious dialogues about slavery. This part of the narrative, taking place in the basement, is richly symbolic in that it shows a history shared by the Asiatic Indians and their American counterparts as slaves in British America, which in turn, consolidates Boa’s conviction in the importance of conjugating the Indian and the African as members of theBlack diaspora. After all, Boa points to the African origin of Indians and infuriates Shashi when he describes the Lord Krishna as black. After all Krishna is Sanskrit for black.

As an assimilated Indian-American, Shashi is blind to the history of his own nation; nor is he aware of the imperialism implicit in the British educational system as practiced in colonial India. The colonialists in his view helped India enter the twenty-first century (65). Subscribing to the imperialist notion of modernity, Shashi obviously places India in the waiting room of history and the Indians, as well as the Blacks, as “the white man’s burden”. Shashi, as an assimilated Anglicized Indian, recalls our memory of Bukka Doopeyduk in The Freelance Pallbearers. Similar to Bukka’s effort at becoming White, Shashi regards Indian literature and culture as “dark superstitions”. Equally alike in the tragic consequence of being a mimetic, Shashi is shot dead when he tries to revolt. This thematic significance through the trans-textual relationship between Conjugating Hindi and The Freelance Pallbearers is further complicated by the novel’s textual reference to another marvelous novel of Reed, Japanese by Spring.

In Japanese by Spring, Reed portrays its protagonist Chappie Puttbutt as an assimilated African-American intellectual whose opportunistic appropriation of various political flags (both the Left-and Right-wings) turns against him. But when Jack London College is bought by the Japanese, he takes the chance for revenge on his enemies through an alliance with the Japanese power. Departing from his razor-sharp criticism of Black opportunists riding the political tides, Conjugating Hindi impresses us with a promising vision of multi-ethnic America through its depiction of Boa as an organic intellectual.

Fundamentally different from Chappie, Boa starts learning Hindi because he knows that “Asia, Africa and India had literary and oral traditions in storytelling reaching back thousands of years” (39). Extending a helping hand to Shashi while criticizing the latter’s assimilated viewpoints, Boa embodies the legacy of the generation of Black leaders who believed that there should be solidarity between American Blacks and the Asiatic Blackman (49). However, while trying his best to consolidate such an ideal among the ethnic groups for an all-out fight against racism, Boa has to be alert to what is happening among Black intellectuals. Things are different when money talks louder than words. This point is made explicit in the novel when we are introduced into a series of scenes where Chappie Puttbutt returns from Japanese by Spring to air his views on “post-racial” America.

Represented from the perspective of Boa, Chappie Puttbutt’s reappears in Conjugating Hindi as a “post-racial” hero, who is privileged with financial power and intellectual authority. Instead of writing books, Chappie invests in the stock market and finances those writers with little knowledge of Black literature (26). As a contrast, Ishmael Reed, who has “received more grants and royalties than at least 75 percent of American writers”, is still “kvetching” (26).

These transtextual narrative properties are thematically important to the novel in that they call our attention to Reed’s observation of a historical difference between the 1990s and the “post-racial” present. Chappie’s reappearance in Conjugating Hindi as a member of the Black elite endowed with big money and cultural capital signals not only social transformation under globalization on a global scale but also of local changes among Black writers. More importantly, by juxtaposing Chappie’s assimilation with that of Shashi, Reed alerts us to the repeated pattern of using one ethnic group against another, a cultural pathology deeply rooted in slavery.

Nowhere is this more manifest in the novel than the moment when Shashi endorses the racist stereotype of viewing African-Americans as animalistic: “Your people spend all of your time eating bad food, chiseling the welfare state, and having sex with your children. It’s all in that movie Precious.” (55). When Boa refutes him with historical records that distort Black civilizations, Shasi resorts to a nationalist rhetoric which discriminates against Blacks in comparison to his fellow countrymen: “Indians and Black people have nothing in common. We are hard-working”. By dramatizing Shashi as an Anglicized Indian whose subscription to the racist stereotype is used against Blacks, Reed levels his biting satire towards the Right-wing think tanks which promote the false idea of a “post-racial” America.

Conjugating Hindi signals Ishmael Reed’s intellectual journey into India and its history. As we know from his foreword to the novel, he spent one year learning Hindi and the admirable fruit manifests itself in the story with some of the characters’ dialogues and monologues in Hindi, which contributes to the thematic significance. Nevertheless, the novel repeats, with a different story and different ways of telling, Reed’s persistent concern with the contemporary American society. Concentrating on the issue of racism through the metaphor of slavery, Conjugating Hindi brings into sharpened focus some of the most urgent social problems innate within imperialism and capitalism. In its detailed description of California as “the world’s biggest hideout” in Chapter One and Two, the novel describes a series of natural disasters. Juxtaposing ecological pollution with American racial pathology rooted in colonialism, the novel is resonant with Reed’s sharp observation of the historical dimension in ecological issues. Reflecting on the public view which regards eucalyptus trees as a factor that causes fires, the narrator traces their history in California as an introduced plant from Australia in the nineteenth century—“classified as pariah trees”, they are to be destroyed. In an implicit way, this description is deeply associated with our memory of the “Middle Passage” through which millions of Black slaves were transported to work in the plantations. Given the novel’s “Indian” subject, we may easily associate the eucalyptus tree with sugarcane’s appearance in the plantation farms. Transplanted from India, this “cash crop” became a bondage which linked the African and the Indian as transferred “things” in the New World. Shifting this perspective to the story’s present in 2017, the Indian, the Black and other ethnic groups in California are described in the rhetoric of the Right-wing think tanks as “dysfunctionals”, hence unwelcome and disposable. As a contrast, those who practice an ecologically ethical way of life are followers of “Alice Waters”, who promotes programs to advise where to eat, what to eat, “unaware of the forty million who had little or nothing at all to eat” (17).

Conjugating Hindi is a terrific story. On a story level, it does link the Indian-American with the African-American; but when we read the novel and make pauses between those moments when one theme crisscrosses that of another, through the novel’s trans-textual references to Reed’s other stories and what is really happening in reality, we will be nodding to Ishmael Reed (the character in the novel and the real person): Conjugating Hindi points beyond Hindu–and African-American.

Liya Wang is professor of English literature of Beijing Foreign Studies University, China. She teaches American novel and English Postcolonial literature, and has published scores of articles on storytelling, gender and ethnicity. She is the author oftwo books on the subject.  Her forthcoming book is Ishmael Reed and Multicultural America(Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 2018).