Celebrate differences, don’t eliminate them: Writer Tabish Khair

By Mohd Asim Khan

New Delhi : The moment we try to erase differences instead of accepting them, it creates problems. This is because human beings are programmed to differ and no two persons can be the same, said noted Denmark-based Indian writer Tabish Khair, whose latest book, “The New Xenophobia”, has just been released.

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An associate professor in the English department at Denmark’s University of Aarhus, Khair has penned several books in the fiction and non-fiction categories, including “Babu Fictions: Alienation in Indian English Novels”, “The Bus Stopped” and “Filming: A Love Story”.

“The New Xenophobia” dwells on how people constantly create “the stranger” to gain more power over them. “The construction and reception of the stranger of xenophobia, old or new, is always a matter of power, a relationship of power,” Khair observed in an interview with IANS while on a visit here to promote his new book.

Hailing from Gaya in Bihar, Khair, an alumnus of Magadh Univesity, worked as a reporter with The Times of India in Delhi before leaving for Copenhagen, Denmark. After a couple of years in “immigrant jobs” (hotel cleaner, house painter, census taker and the like, he enrolled for a doctorate in Copenhagen University, and completed his thesis in 2000. It was published as “Babu Fictions” by Oxford University Press in 2001.

As a first generation migrant, Khair said he is concerned that his children may also face the “otherness” if these issues are not addressed.

“Part of the reason I came up with this study is that being an immigrant myself in Denmark, I am concerned about my children’s future,” he said.

Did he himself face any discrimination due to his skin colour or a Muslim sounding name?

“Well, I did face some discrimination, but it is not something major or worth mentioning. Why I am largely insulated is perhaps because I come from the so-called privileged background in the way that I am educated and my circle largely consists of educated and well-informed people,” said Khair.

To return to his book, Khair said that with the rise of trade and money, and of early and classical capitalism, we find a gradual abstraction of the avenues of power and consequently the justification and operation of xenophobia, most clearly reflected in our definitions of violence.

“My book is an attempt to make people face this problem and also think of fair solutions,” Khair explained.

But we can’t fall back on religion – even though religions, more particularly Islam, tend to unite people and discourage xenophobia – to find solutions. Because, according to Khair, this would spawn more problems than would be addressed.

“There has been bloodshed in the Middle East as they try to unite people under Wahhabism… And the Islamists’ view of the West is no less xenophobic than the West’s xenophobia about Muslims,” said the author of “How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position”.

Will the recent influx of migrants into Europe give rise to more xenophobia?

“Well, it will depend on how politicians treat it. Germany has opened its gates to migrants largely for economic reasons, knowing well that most of the migrants coming to Europe now are educated and skilled. They would bring value addition to the economy.

“But my question is: Is an economic reason a justification for treating people badly or warmly? I mean, in most cases, migrants are welcome if they are skilled or educated, but not if they are not,” said the author.
Khair is however not short of praise for the European society. “Let me tell you Europeans are among the least xenophobic people. But I am not generalising,” he said.

How can we counter xenophobia? “Well, we should attempt to create individual awareness about these issues. Let’s get people talking about it, and perhaps some solutions may evolve,” he said.

Khair’s honours and prizes include the All India Poetry Prize (awarded by the Poetry Society and the British Council) and an honorary fellowship (for creative writing) of Hong Kong’s Baptist University.

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 several languages.