Born and educated in a small town of Bihar, India, Tabish Khair is the author of various books, including the poetry collections, Where Parallel Lines Meet (Penguin, 2000) and Man of Glass (HarperCollins, 2010), the studies, Babu Fictions: Alienation in Indian English Novels (Oxford UP, 2001) and The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness (Palgrave, 2010) and the novels, The Bus Stopped (Picador, 2004), Filming (Picador, 2007), The Thing About Thugs (Harpercollins, 2010; Houghton Mifflin, 2012) and How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (Forthcoming). His honours and prizes include the All India Poetry Prize (awarded by the Poetry Society and the British Council) and honorary fellowship (for creative writing) of the Baptist University of Hong Kong. His novels have been shortlisted for nine prestigious prizes in five countries, including the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Encore Award, and translated into six languages. Other Routes, an anthology of pre-modern travel texts by Africans and Asians, co-edited and introduced by Khair (with a foreword by Amitav Ghosh) was published by Signal Books and Indiana University Press in 2005 and 2006 respectively; he has also edited or co-edited other scholarly works. His writing has appeared in various anthologies of poetry and fiction, including The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry, City Improbable: Writings on Delhi, The New Anthem, Fear Factor: Terror Incognito, Delhi Noir and Penguin's 60 Indian Poets. Academic papers, reviews, essays, fiction and poems by Khair have appeared in Indian (Hindu, Times of India, Biblio: A Review of Books, Indian Book Review, Economic Times, PEN, DNA, Telegraph, Outlook etc), British (Guardian, New Left Review, Wasafiri, Third Text, Independent, New Statesman, First Post, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, London Magazine, P.N. Review, Salt, Metre, Thumbscrew, Stand etc), Danish (Information, Politiken, Weekendavisen etc), American, German, Italian, South African, Chinese and other publications.
Khair now mostly lives in a village off the town of Aarhus, Denmark.
FURTHER (EARLY) BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS:
Khair was born in 1966 in Ranchi (then part of Bihar, now the capital of Jharkhand) and grew up in his hometown, Gaya. Gaya is a small but historically-significant town in Bihar: it is the most holy of all towns (after Benaras) for many Hindus and it is also the place where Gautama, founder of Buddhism, had attained enlightenment. As such, while situated in one of the most backward and neglected parts of India, it is surprisingly international -- at least during the tourism season.
Khair finished secondary school from the local Nazareth Academy and, after dropping out of medical studies, went on to do a BA in History, Sociology and English from Gaya College and a Masters in English from the local Magadh University. While a college student, he also worked as the district reporter for the Patna Edition of the Times of India. Later, following some trouble with local fundamentalists, he left for Delhi, where he worked as a Staff Reporter for the Times of India.
Khair had his first collection of poems, 'My World', accepted for publication by a major national house (Rupa & Co., Delhi) before he left his hometown. It was favourably reviewed by senior poets and critics like Keki N. Daruwalla, Adil Jussawalla, Vilas Sarang and Shiv K. Kumar. While in Delhi, Khair brought out two other collections and started working on his first novel, 'An Angel in Pyjamas', which was later published by Harper Collins and described by India Today as "the calling card of a writer with the power to fascinate."
After about four years as a staff reporter, Khair left for Copenhagen, Denmark, to do a PhD, which he completed in 2000. It was published as 'Babu Fictions' by Oxford University Press in 2001 (a paperback edition came out in 2005) and has since become one of the important secondary texts on Indian English fiction.
In 2000, Khair also published a collection of poems, 'Where Parallel Lines Meet' (Penguin), which is considered to be "one of the most significant collections in recent years by an Indian writing in English." It included poems for which he had won the prestigious All India Poetry Prize. Since then, barring his PhD years in Copenhagen, Khair has taught in Aarhus, and currently lives in a village outside the provincial Jutland city. He describes himself as part of a long, complex and obscured history of 'small town cosmopolitanism', and has questioned the "privileged" discourses of "metropolitan globalisation" and the "literatures of metropolitan capital" in his critical work and, more obliquely, in his creative writings.
Photo by Lars Kruse, reproduced by the courtesy of CAMPUS.
A BLESSING FOR MY CHILDREN
(Excerpt from a talk given in 2005 at the Florence Poetry Festival by Tabish Khair, later also published in The Hindu, Chennai, on 1st January 2006.)
To be born into a minority is a blessing and a curse. I was born into a Muslim family in Bihar: Muslims are the biggest religious minority of India. But within the community of Indian Muslims, my family again belonged to a large minority: that of middle class, professional Muslims. My father was a doctor. His father had been a doctor, and his father’s father had been a doctor too. Before that my father’s ancestors had been impoverished but independent and proudly literate farmers. My mother had a college degree in political science and, for some time, ran her own business. Her father had been a police officer and his father had owned a small tea plantation in Assam.
When you are born into a minority that is a minority within a minority, you learn to belong in different ways. I grew up as Indian and as Muslim. I grew up speaking three languages and writing two scripts. I was told or I read stories and poems from the West (especially Russian and British) as well as the East (especially Hindi/Urdu and from the Sanskrit and Persian-Arabic traditions). I was brought up on a concept of civilisation and modernity that was not spelled E-U-R-O-P-E or W-E-S-T, for while my family members spoke English, they also spoke other languages; while they had imbibed Western education, they often also had a sense of other sources of rational thinking and possible modernities.
It is this that often makes me frustrated even with much of acclaimed post-colonial literature, for very often this literature is only concerned about the bridge of West-and-the-Rest. In my family, over centuries, we had crossed many other bridges. It is also this that made me feel - when I grew older - that the India I had grown up in was a fragile entity: it was threatened by various kinds of fundamentalisms (Muslim, Hindu and Western); it was always in the minority. There were other kinds of threat too. There were Hindu-Muslim riots, which were more threatening to secular Muslims like me and my family members than to religious Muslims living in ghetto-like colonies. There were constant attempts to bracket our identity. Are you Muslim or Indian, we were asked - as if one could be only the one or the other. So, when the time came, it was not too hard for me to leave the geographical space of India - for the India that mattered to me was there in my mind and my memories.
Not that the questions got better. I was, after all, again part of a minority: the minority of coloured people in Denmark, the minority of immigrants, the minority of Indians, of Muslims. I was complimented on being taller than ‘most Indians’; I was praised for more liberal habits than ‘most Muslims’. And again and again I had to - I have to - read largely ignorant articles in newspapers denigrating Asians or coloured immigrants or Muslims. That is the curse of being part of a minority.
The blessing is that one belongs in different ways, one learns to see different perspectives, one speaks many languages, one is aware of many histories, one is both this and that. If you only stop to listen, you are blessed with so many stories. If you only shut out the screaming of those who will not listen, you recognise the blessing of a coherent identity: for the identity of a person from a minority does not depend on a piece of cloth or a ritual; it is part of his own lived being. It is not external; it is internal. And with it comes the blessing of having cause to write.
And so, in spite of the curses and the threats, in spite of the screaming and the swearing, this is what I wish for my son and daughter: may you always belong to a multiple minority, to the minority of minorities. For then you may learn to see - and feel.