Restless Books, 352 pages, $27
The stakes of Indo-Guyanese poet Rajiv Mohabir’s passionate memoir Antiman are high from the start. The title of the book is a Caribbean Hindustani slur for gay men. Mohabir is queer and keeps it a secret as he’s growing up, explaining: “I had heard my aunts and uncles laugh around the table enough to know antiman meant pariah. To be an antiman was to be laughable, it was a secret that could cost me my family if they found out.”
The English word “pariah” is from the Tamil word “paraiyan,” which referred to a group of laborers who were shunned and abused by higher castes in India. While the memoir richly explores an awakening to anti-colonial politics and a queer coming-of-age, its emotional core is the anguish of repeatedly being made to stand apart. Mohabir is disowned by his father as an “abomination” because of his sexual orientation and outed by a cousin to his extended family. A poem early in the book exquisitely, minimally unfolds this painful experience: “This disavowal of the son is a home / is the reason for the Diaspora / every little boy grows into poetry and feathers and how.”
Feathers are a repeated motif in the book. Mohabir describes his paternal grandmother’s hair with a concrete beauty that turns into metaphor: “It was so white, it sparkled blue and gold. She oiled her white tresses before twisting them into a bun that she piled on her head. Aji never wore it down; it was a wild Guyanese bird.”
In his early 20s, Mohabir is struck by his father’s distaste for his grandmother’s preference to speak in Guyanese Bhojpuri and her intimate, free engagement with Hindu myth. Guyanese Bhojpuri is a dying language, an amalgamation of various North Indian languages that developed on plantations. When Mohabir translates his grandmother’s Bhojpuri songs about “The Ramayan,” a Hindu epic, his father says, “The Ramaya — is for Hindus — not us.” Mohabir responds: “This is your own mother singing a song that her own mother taught her. How is this not us?” His father answers furiously in Creole, “You wan’ go a pandit an’ ask ‘am to open de book an’ give you answer?” A “pandit” is a learned scholar; these words carry subtext about the way caste discrimination was wielded to bar lower-caste people from education. But his father’s contempt for the epic becomes an extension of the cruel rejection of Mohabir and his beloved grandmother.
As he delves into his deep-past ancestors’ history, he encounters resistance to his complicated heritage in every corner. Tenderness like his grandmother’s is hard to find. In college, feeling like a “fake South Asian,” he wishes he would “fit in to the community that was a swirl of rainbowed silk.” At a six-week Hindi language intensive, his friends are hippies thrilled to be acquainted with a “real” Indian. Later, when his Hindi teacher finds out his family had never known Hindi, he says, “Oh, so you’re not a real Indian.” Mohabir’s exploration of his family’s past takes him to Varanasi, India, for a year to study Bhojpuri.
He acknowledges dissonances between his hopes and the more complicated reality on the ground in India. For instance, a trip to investigate his grandfather’s life reveals the tense complexity of casteism. Mohabir must pretend to be Brahman, the highest, priestly caste, to enter the home of Brahman villagers. If he reveals the secret of his true mixed-caste identity, he won’t be allowed inside. (Kweli Journal previously published this scene as an essay entitled “Neech,” meaning wretched or lowly.)
With scenes like this, the author nods toward contemporary literary conventions in which prose is clouded by doubt about the author’s perceptions. However, Mohabir is not starting from a posture of self-assurance, as are some other memoirists. He writes into emotional and political clarity to wrest himself from pain inflicted by his father. Accordingly, he renders caste discrimination with curious bafflement, while his critiques of white supremacy and colonialism are infused with fire.
The memoir refuses genre. Instead, it invents its own radical, striking, fragmented form, which reflects Mohabir’s efforts to mend himself. “I wanted to sit in the negative capability of my Aji’s songs; to learn them to piece my own broken self together.” His stunning original poetry flies abreast of translated Bhojpuri songs. Anti-colonial polemic enlivens prose about his quest for a place his fluid self might move within rigid lines of identity.
Antiman makes its own way in American letters. Transfused with what Mohabir calls in his Author’s Note, “the queerest magic” of his Aji’s songs, it’s an incomparable, hybrid account of self and family that defies expectations. Singular, fierce: That’s the gorgeous sound of a bird taking flight.