Ishmael Reed, Conjugating Hindi (Victoria, TX: Dalkey Archive Press), 197 pp.
Reviewed by Keith Gilyard
All little stories when they grow up want to be Ishmael Reed novels. They know that the nonpareil knowledge, freedom, and fun will be exhilarating. It’s the only place where in one paragraph you can bump into James Baldwin, John Waters, Chester Himes, Frank Zappa, Murphy Brown, Mary Richards, Beyoncé, Stephen King, Amiri Baraka, Edward Albee, Andy Warhol, and Snoop Dogg (11-12). You are privy to grappling with European and Indian mythology. You also get to visit art galleries and museums because plentiful graphic images are often part of the package. As Loop, a character in Reed’s 1969 Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, expresses it, “No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be (36).” In Conjuring Hindi, Reed’s eleventh offering, the author reinforces this statement and buckles everyone in for a wild ride.
The plot centers on Peter Bowman, nicknamed Boa because of his oversized sexual anatomy. He is hiding out in Oakland, California because he had been stalked back East by Brigitte, a deity who is the patron saint of sex workers. She and her crew aim to exhaust the generously endowed Boa to the cemetery. In exile, he lives in obscurity as a modestly talented and engaging history professor at Woodrow Wilson Community College. However, things change after he delivers a dramatic lecture in which he champions the virtues of civil-rights activist Monroe Trotter over those of segregationist Woodrow Wilson. Unexpectedly, a multi-ethnic assemblage of students protests to change the name of the school to Monroe Trotter Community College. The demonstrations gain widespread coverage, and Boa’s cover is blown. He becomes even more exposed when he leaves his job to go on the public intellectual circuit full-time. He accepts an offer from Columbia Speakers Bureau to become foil for Shashi Paramara, a conservative Indian who is a writer and darling of the Right. His latest project underway is the book for a Broadway musical about Robert E. Lee titled Robert E. Lee, The General Who Rocked. The two are to engage in a series of high-profile debates before mostly White audiences across the country on whether slavery was all that bad. Shashi would argue essentially that slavery was more advantageous for Black people than for White people.
Boa knows that he will be humiliated during these overly contrived contests, but he agrees to do them because he is being audited by the IRS and faces a possible $60,000 bill. He guesses that the outcome won’t be in his favor after he is treated disdainfully by the agent who interviews him. He blames Boa for stirring up the kind of ruckus that made the Raiders choose to leave Oakland for Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, international tension looms as barbs are traded between India and England after the Prime Minister of India supports a lawsuit against the Crown brought forward because of the predatory sexual habits of Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. As Boa and Shashi debate in San Francisco, the news breaks that India has downed an American commercial jet. Both the audience in the auditorium and the crowd beyond go into a frenzy of revenge, forcing Shashi and other Indians to flee for their safety amid cries of “Get that Indian nigger” (67). At best, they are headed for internment camps if they get caught.
Shashi, now hunted as Boa is, dons a disguise and takes refuge in Boa’s basement until he can arrange passage to Mexico. Thus begins the Huck-and-Jim phase of the novel. Shashi learns about the legacy of White supremacy in the United States and is pushed to consider the legacy of White supremacy in India as well. He begins to understand his role as a Gunga Din, model-minority style enemy of Black folk. He eventually grasps how wrongheaded his Robert E. Lee project is. Boa, after a conversation with Shashi’s sister, Kala, embarks on a quest to grasp more about Indian history and culture, which includes his learning Hindi online. As the author reveals, “Maybe he needed a vacation from English. Maybe it’s unhealthy for one language to have a patent on one’s brain” (69).
While this intellectual exchange is occurring, a man named Chappie Puttbutt, an associate of Boa’s and of a seventy-nine-year-old Ishmael Reed, is reported missing. Reed denies ever having seen him, though Reed was with him earlier in the story. And in the world beyond that one, Reed created the character Puttbutt a couple of novels ago in Japanese by Spring. (Looking for Reed isn’t like looking for Waldo or trying to spot Hitchcock’s cameos. He’s right out front.)
Of course, interspersed with the travails and awakenings of Boa and Shashi are the satirical portraits, some of people you will recognize, that you get in Reed’s novels. For example, as he discusses with Jack Sharkey the offer to debate Paramara, Boa conveys reservations. He thinks that to use slavery as entertainment is demeaning and would compromise his image with his students, especially if they found out about his handsome compensation. We get the following exchange:
“Be reasonable. Yes, you’d be making money but at the same time you will remind the world so that such a human catastrophe will never happen again.”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t seem right. Why didn’t you get Chuck Skippie to do it? Something like this is right up his alley. He could argue both pro and con if the price is right.”
“We couldn’t meet his price. Besides, he’s rolling in dough from that Trace Your Steps show he moderates. You know the one where he tells stars about their ancestry” (42).
On another occasion we are told that Ishmael Reed was called “’pathetic’” by a “Black slavery-minded rotund errand boy for the New York elite” (52). The critic is further described as “a big-butt literary bounty hunter who gets an ice-cream-filled-chocolate doughnut every time he brings in a Negro’s ear, figuratively” (52).
Predictably, but necessarily because the situation hasn’t changed much, Reed also provides commentary about the persecution of African-American males. This verbal strand links Peter Bowman directly to Ian Ball (Ball, Ball, Ball) in Reckless Eyeballing and to characters in the works of other authors such as Max (read the next two syllables slowly) Reddick in John A. Williams’s The Man Who Cried I Am.
Reed also continues his crusade against cultural chauvinism. Following the advice of Kala, Boa reads Pakistani and Indian writers because Kala says “they are creating new sheroes. New stories” (184). He discovers on Kindle works by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Rafia Zakaria, Samina Ali, Jamilah Hashmi, and Zaitoon Bano.
Most of the action in the novel unfolds against the advancing gentrification of Oakland. Poor residents have been run under expressway overpasses into latter-day Hoovervilles. They are called Jerry Towns after the former mayor and current governor, who played cozy with avaricious banks and real estate developers. The elites, the Übers and Digitalites, are gaining more and more control of the city, replacing long-standing local enterprises with imitations of Manhattan shops. This is called Manhattanization. This is also Baudrillard’s simulation gone berserk.
Conjugating Hindi is more than a reading; it is a reading assignment. It is an argument that knows that it is an argument. Because Reed develops his satire not only through wickedly humorous depiction but in carefully constructed logic, he includes numerous quotations taken from real sources. He has always been a stringer at heart. In this fashion, it resembles his previous novel, Juice! At one point, he even instructs readers to consult a website. I imagine that readers will quickly Google numerous sites to check up on this tale. What about Mountbatten? What about that 1914 meeting between Trotter and Wilson? Can I get some of these sources on Amazon?
The story for the most part surges forward. Although Conjugating Hindi can be seen as a novel of manners, it is more focused than that genre because it sticks to a tight plot line. Despite the many ruminations, the resolving actions are stitched firmly to the set up and are bundled neatly and feasibly. An international crisis is downgraded. Boa finds a practical solution to his personal problems. Shashi not so much. I might suggest streamlining the narrative a bit more. But, then again, I would have advised Muhammad Ali to stay off the ropes in Zaire, hinted that Aretha Franklin condense her delivery at the Lions-Vikings game, and exhorted Coltrane to trim a solo or two. Sometimes you just have to let masters be.
While conjugating Hindi is a specific set of activities in the novel, Reed also conjures up a story about Hindi with Hindi serving as a metaphor for a promising albeit seriously flawed and undeniably complex world. The uptake is broadly psychoanalytic, that is, the new questions are rooted in the old questions that have never been resolved. Because we never got shit right relative to historical formations like slavery in the United States, the caste system in India, and gender repression and rampant greed everywhere, modern existence is more convoluted than it should be, particularly harsh to many, and ultimately warps us all, though of course not all in the same way or to the same degree. Addressing the results in a positive way, as the journalist Trotter knew even in his down moments, is always worthwhile.