Conjugating Hindi, Ishmael Reed’s latest novel, is an unapologetically bold satire that tells the story of Boa, a teacher at Woodrow Wilson College in California. In the 2017 of the novel the politics are such that Blacks have been driven out of Oakland and Berkley except for those who “belonged to a class of Black professionals”. It is a setup that leads us to the narrative foundation of the novel: a series of debates that asks “Was Slavery All That Bad?” organised by the Columbia Speakers Bureau.
Boa, part of an “elite” because he was part of the “class of Black professionals”, is convinced by the promise of money and agrees to stop laying low and debate VIP opponent, Shashi. The power dynamic is set immediately. Anglicised Indian Shashi is always the winner despite Boa’s facts, and he stays at the better the hotels, gets the better treatment, is revered by the conservative White audiences. His nationalist jargon is eaten up by audiences and clashes with Boa’s references to history. Boa's gets booed off the stage, sneered at by Shashi, is told to not go so hard on his opponent by organisers.
But the tables turn when Si, the Prime Minister of India supports a case against England, and Shashi becomes an “Indian nigger”. He finds a saviour in Boa (who does not, however, fail to take what he thinks he deserves from the situation and makes sure he gets compensated). And there begins the through line of the narrative, the shifting power dynamic that points to the bigger questions underlying the narrative.
Immediately apparent is the critique of the right, of political rhetoric, of the morality of such a debate and whether all topics are fodder for entertainment. In fact, this book is a critique of a lot of things, including the novel form. We come across Reed as a character in his own novel, a playful touch, but also is the work itself reads less like novel and more like a series of arguments, critiques and opinions. It reads like a work that is meant to incite debate, poke holes in history and culture and right-wing politics. A novel can do this too, it’s true. But a more traditional novel makes us care for it’s characters, see them as real, even in satire they are a caricature of a non-caricature. Or if not the characters, we care for the plot. But here the characters are stand ins, vehicles to enunciate a debate. Pages fly by when we read the two sides of the debates, or learn what the local news I saying. And the plot is far-fetched, satirical of course, but we do not care for the actual plot (that isn’t to say it isn’t entertaining or that things don’t happen or escalate, they do -- after all, there is international outrage, Shashi must go into hiding with Boa, they both almost die when an army of women turn up and demand excessive sex, and Shashi’s sister, Kala, also enters the picture towards the tail end of the novel) but what it says about the world we live in.
And it says much about the world we live in. Boa gets sucked in multiple times due to the promise of money and here is where morality and capitalism butt heads, and then later Boa’s sizeable anatomy (which is the reason for the army of women showing up and demanding sex) asks us to consider masculinity and then ties it explicitly to race. And of course, the debate that is the underpinning narrative asks to question politics, what is entertainment and what is not, our biases and how change works, how tides can turn easily and what that might do to the order of things, how it might suggest present and past as one and the same, and how, at the centre of it all, is power.
It is a quick read, one which balances the overt criticism of the building blocks of society through ludicrousness with challenging and profound questions about whether this is really a satire at all given the current political climate.