Guruprasad Kaginele: Going beyond the veil

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on May 29, 2020

Man of his words: Guruprasad Kaginele is a physician by training and wrote his first novel in 2003   -  V SREENIVASA MURTHY

Kannada writer and physician Guruprasad Kaginele on the English translation of his book ‘Hijab’, and the unmaking and remaking of identity in immigrants

From Swedish doctor Axel Munthe, who wrote The Story of San Michele, to US-based physician-scientist Vikram Paralkar, author of The Afflictions, doctors have produced enchanting literature. Guruprasad Kaginele, a Minnesota-based physician specialising in internal medicine, is no exception. Kaginele has been a leading light of contemporary Kannada literature, having previously published three novels and numerous collections of short fiction and essays. His most recent novel Hijab, first published in 2017, won the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award the same year. Translated into English by Pavan N Rao, Hijab clinically analyses disturbing questions around identity and survival in the context of migration and exchange of cultures. The novel tracks three doctors from Karnataka, working at a hospital in the small town of Amoka in Minnesota. It probes events arising out of the refusal of an African-Muslim patient to undergo a caesarean section to deliver her baby. The incident triggers a chain reaction of challenges arising from prejudices and cultural conflict, forcing the doctors to question their own understanding of religion, identity and self. Hijab meticulously follows these transformations.

Kaginele speaks to BLink about the novel and the myriad anxieties it tries to address. Excerpts from an e-mail interview:

Not just fabric” Set in rural Minnesota, Kaginele’s book delves into questions of belonging, bias and cultural conict   -  ISTOCK.COM


Titling a book Hijab is a tricky proposition today.

I think every work needs a title that resonates with the theme of the book. This book is about immigrants and some of them happen to be black Muslims from Africa. Besides, the word hijab is not used in derogatory terms. When I look at a lady wearing a hijab, I feel that the veil reveals as much as it conceals. It depends on what you want to see. You really need to read the novel to get the significance of the title.

The novel is set in rural Minnesota. What made you choose this location?

The novel deals with various demographics of migration. Some migrants come to America even though they could have had a good life in their native country, such as doctors and IT professionals from India, Pakistan and so on. There is another group of migrants who don’t have such privileges, arriving on American shores fleeing political unrest, drug cartels, etc. Once they reach America, all the immigrants are exposed to this new challenge of becoming ‘Americans’. This challenge is experienced differently by different groups of immigrants.

When immigrants have their own biases and cultural beliefs that they are hesitant to give up (especially if these beliefs come in the way of integrating into mainstream American society), it might be perceived as a problem. As physicians, how do we respond if these biases deprive them of some of the life-saving treatments or procedures? Especially if we are also from a different culture and have our own biases. How does mainstream America react? These were some of the questions that I had when I started writing the novel. I could not conceptualise a setting other than the rural Midwest for this novel.

The book deals with, among others, deeply philosophical questions about identity.

As an immigrant, most of us have been confronted with the question of identity. All human beings are immigrants at one level, since we are constantly on the move. So, it is not just the place that we immigrate to but other factors such as the skin colour, food habits, place of work, religion and our own biases that shape our identity. Whenever multiple people belonging to different ethnicities live together in a society, some conflicts are bound to happen. This gets even more complicated when the State or the society expects all the citizens to live by the law of the land. It takes generations to adapt to a new culture. In addition to time, education is a big factor that will promote a positive change.

Is identity fluid, adaptable?

If by fluid and adaptable you mean can a person’s beliefs and biases be changed, I think the answer is yes. The world’s homeostasis — the tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium — is dependent on how adaptable an individual is in terms of how he/she would live in different times and spaces. We as individuals have different identities during our own life even if we don’t move to a different land. You might be a different person when you are at work than you are at home. The core identity may not change in one person if he/she is not exposed to conditions which challenge that. But one can rarely live a life like that, it is very boring. A Kannada poet had written, which can be loosely translated like this: “In America, I am an Indian. In India, I am a Kannadiga. In Karnataka, I am a Brahmi. In an Agraharam (Brahmin colony), I am a Madhwa (a sect).” I think this probably explains how fluid and adaptable one’s identity is.

Conflicts among migrants are more personal in Hijab than political. Is this true?

I believe that a person’s political beliefs are an extension of his personality. I don’t think you can be a liberal at home and conservative politically. Many Indians in the US are kind of confused with their identities and their political views. This is because most of the immigrants to the US from India are well educated and belong to the middle and upper middle classes. But they realise that their same political bias may get them into trouble in the US. For example, these people complain about the mushrooming of madrasas in India but want to build more and more temples in the US. Without realising that they are a minority in America, they complain about the infiltration of Rohingya into India. The problem here is not having a strong political conviction but just love or hate for a leader even when both of them are ruled by the same bigotry and demagoguery. I think this has been the same in Hijab, too. Even though the conflicts appear personal, it is affirmatively political. That becomes clearer in the second part, I think. This is a novel. The characters, even though fictional, have to feel real to the reader, and have to be human. That’s why they have the same biases as that of the Indian diaspora.

How did you become a novelist?

I started writing short stories about 20 years ago. Soon, I realised that I needed more space to express myself than the 3,000-word limit that the magazines would allow. So, I wrote my first novel,Biliya Chadara (The White Sheet) in 2003. I was a bit nervous about how this would be received in Karnataka, as this was set in an American hospital altogether. The protagonists were the only Indian-American characters in the novel and the rest were Americans. All of them spoke to each other in English. So, I had to find my own lingua franca. I had to bring my readers and characters into the same platform so that they could talk to each other. This was a challenge. Once I was able to overcome this, the rest was easy.

Why did you decide to write the novel in Kannada? The setting demands English.

I have lived in the US for over 20 years now and have been a writer for almost the same number of years. Choosing to write my fiction in Kannada was not difficult for me. To be honest, I could not even fathom writing in any other language. The only way I could get the story in my mind onto the laptop, or on paper, was in Kannada. It’s not that I can’t narrate a story in English but when I sit in front of my laptop to write, it is only Kannada that comes to my mind. Writing fiction is very different from narrating a story. It is a total of many things. The language is just a small piece. A work of fiction is both an extension of a writer’s personality and the multiple islands of his experiences. No two writers can create the same kind of fiction about the same subject even when all the confounding variables are accounted for. That is, after all, the magic of fiction. And, for this magic to happen, there has to be a free flow of thought. I cannot translate these thoughts into a language that is different from that of its origin.

Tell us about your association with Rao, the translator, and the process.

Pavan is an old friend of mine and he has translated a few Kannada works, including a couple of my short stories, in the past. I asked him to translate a few chapters and both of us enjoyed this process so much that we didn’t have any questions about what would be the outcome of this painstaking effort. Pavan used to translate a couple of chapters and send them to me. Both of us used Google Hangouts and went through each sentence and word several times. When we felt that the metaphors, idioms and phrases needed to be changed to reach a new set of readers, we didn’t hesitate to do that. Pavan is good at using appropriate vernacular when needed. He brought a Midwestern touch to the Kannada novel. Basically, this was a translation of a translation, which was effectively brought back to English, where it was originally conceived.

How much of your experiences has influenced the narrative? How was the writing process?

Experiences influencing the narrative are like dots in a rangoli (I wish this was my original metaphor: I owe this to one of my dear friends). The dots are already there or you pick them based on what you think forms a nice drawing. But connecting these dots to form a work of art is dependent on the person who draws the rangoli. I am astounded by the fact of how differently we respond to the same experience creatively. So, a profound experience for me might be mundane for another writer. So, it is hard to say which experience of mine was profound enough to drive me to write this novel. The writing process was longish (close to seven years). The facts and fiction have blurred. Without dodging the question, I can say that none of the incidents narrated in the novel are ‘real’ if you know what reality is. Because, for a fiction writer, everything is real because he believes them.

What are you working on now?

I am working on another novel right now. One of my short story collections, Lola, is in the press. We hope it will be ready next year.

Hijab; Guruprasad Kaginele; Pavan N Rao (tr); Simon & Schuster; Fiction; ₹499


Published on May 29, 2020

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