“Even the Stars Are Broken”

Rajiv Mohabir, Antiman: A Hybrid Memoir (New York: Restless Books, 2021); 352 pages; ISBN 978-1632062802 (hardcover)

• June 2021

On one level, Rajiv Mohabir’s memoir Antiman offers a coming-of-age story. It begins in Central Florida, following the author as a queer Indo-Guyanese teenager whose fraught connection to his past and sexuality are strengthened by his relationship with his Aji, or grandmother. He records her childhood songs, translates them from Bhojpuri, and eventually journeys to India to understand his family’s history. The later sections, set mostly in Queens, New York, after his father, Pap, a Christian convert, rejects him, follow Mohabir as he builds a diasporic community of lovers and friends and turns to writing. The narration is broken up by original poems and with the author’s trilingual translations (Guyanese Bhojpuri / Guyanese Creole / Standard English) of Aji’s songs, which earn the book its subtitle: a hybrid memoir.

Antiman, however, also operates on a conceptual level. Two distinct and powerful ideas hover above the book, guiding its narration and imagery: coolitude, first introduced thirty years ago by the Indo-Mauritian poet, philosopher, and literary critic Khal Torabully; and perverse spectatorship, developed by the queer theorist Gayatri Gopinath.1 These devices allow Mohabir to bend time and space—as, for example, when he connects Varanasi, India, with Crabwood Creek, Guyana, through an old Bhojpuri song; or in his Sitaesque retelling of the sorrowful tale of Girlie, a real-life queer Guyanese man forced to marry.

The memoir carries forward themes from Mohabir’s previous poetry collections: The Taxidermist’s Cut (2016) explores double-displacement and the possibility of intimacy for a darker-skinned, queer teen in rural Florida, and the narrator in The Cowherd’s Son (2017) imagines himself as heir to the enchanter god Krishna, while battling a Christian, homophobic father. Both an early chapbook, Na Mash Me Bone (2011), and the recent collection I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara (2019), Mohabir’s translation of Lalbihari Sharma’s 1916 text, translate into English little-known Bhojpuri Indo-Guyanese songs. An even earlier chapbook, Na Bad-Eye Me (2010), explores sensuality and dislocation in South Asian and Caribbean enclaves of Queens.

Antiman, however, with its chronological telling and its recurring characters, presents the most systematic and direct account of both Mohabir’s life and the histories that inform his work. Even still, the experimental, montage style—prose shifting to poetry, translations with Devanagri script—deviates significantly from that of traditional memoir. While the jump cuts feel dizzying at times, the disruptions remind the reader of the palimpsest that is Caribbean history and mirror Mohabir’s process of self-discovery:

I sat at a crossroads: I did not understand myself but wanted to. I wanted to sit in the negative capability of my Aji’s songs; to learn them to piece my own broken self together. (4)

The book’s high stakes reveal themselves early on. A line of verse from the first pages—“of the father who pulled open my penis” (8)—describes a forced circumcision. When Pap, at a birthday party in Canada, disparages Aji and Hinduism, Mohabir writes, “The cake was white. White as refined sugar. White as snow. White as English.” As the family eats, laughs, and talks proper English—“a blizzard of ascendancy,” Mohabir calls it (22)—the narrator, now college-age, reflects on his upcoming trip to study in India:

The family would tease me, saying things like, . . . “People who go to India come back real simple.” . . . To return from a trip to India, would mean that I would come back less intelligent, having regressed. How was it that these people who I came from hated themselves so much that they would rather kiss a white person’s ass than call themselves Indians? (23)

When his aunt asks him to sing in the Hindi of Bollywood films, he sings in folk Bhojpuri instead. Aji, hearing a childhood song, enters the room and joins in, shocking the family (23–26).

In Benares, India, on the banks of the Ganges, Mohabir studies local versions of the Ramayana, meets other students from the South Asian diaspora, and learns from a mendicant-singer a secret about a song of Aji’s. When he ventures, guided by the autobiography of his grandfather, into the countryside in search of his ancestral village, his poetic eye renders the terrain: “Wildflowers with large fleshy petals that turned into wings—not wings like butterflies, but wings like flying foxes—thrashing about, webbed and black” (72). Mohabir finds no record of his family in India, yet he remains philosophical, optimistic, and playful, as reflected in one of the later poems:

I once moved to India to find the trace of my jaw in an Uttar Pradesh village but found only a random hand job on the train to Kanpur (325)

He returns to live in Queens, where he falls for Prahlad, a Tamil dancer and activist, while attending a conference for radical South Asians. A cousin betrays him, inaugurating cascades of family rejection:

“I told them you’re gay!” Jake screamed, pointing his finger in my face. . . .

We both stood in silence, wide eyed. Antiman. So foreign and so familiar—familial. I don’t think I’d ever heard anyone outside my family use this term. Ever. And now this term was me. . . . (133)

Later, Mohabir—“Mister Javier” to his Spanish-speaking students (192)—lives in Jackson Heights and teaches six-year-olds. “I was perfectly comfortable in my brown skin,” he writes (219). He connects romantically with Sef, the earnest, younger brother of a Pakistani friend, before becoming enmeshed with Zane, a charming but abusive Indo-Guyanese performer. When Zane eventually leaves, Mohabir plunges into despair: “I tried again to fill my bed with as many men as would stay. They filled the empty space in the bed and distracted me in my spiral into depression that would claim my last years spent in New York City” (304).

Queens, however, remains where he feels “most at home” (254), a place that provides a partial answer to the question posed in a mid-book poem:

// Diaspora is a queer country // How can you be at once two species from two places // (170; slashes in original)

In several books and essays, Khal Torabully discusses the paradigm of coolitude and the key symbols in writings about indentured workers and their descendants. One symbol, the voyage, is defined by Torabully and Marina Carter as “the experience of sea-crossing” in the “dual role of adventurer and victim.”2 The voyage is, Torabully explains in an interview with Carter, “one of the chief characteristics” of coolitude.3 Another is baroquism, which “expresses ‘surprising or extravagant’” language that combats the silence and sameness of the plantation.4 Coolitude, which Mohabir has also written about extensively (see the essays, reviews, and interviews of his Coolitude Project), suffuses Antiman.5 There are, for example, physical voyages, such as his journey to India and relocation to Queens, as well as his grandmother’s life story, which also encodes a history of labor migration:

Aji sat in the Florida room in my parents’ house in Chuluota—just outside Orlando—and sang a story that came beating into this world as an uncaged bird from Indian soil, which was nurtured on whole grain in the paddy fields of Guyana and now was lilting here against the tiled floor in a second, new diaspora. (3)

A recurring water-motif also gestures toward voyage. “Jackson Heights was a rush of water, a deluge” (224) and “a fat rain” (230) describe two romantic encounters.6 “Here, every ocean is the holiest river, because that is precisely where it flows,” Aji says, in another instance (12).

In the 2019 essay “Chutneyed Poetics,” Mohabir uses Gopinath’s idea of perverse spectatorship (or retrospectatorship) to analyze themes in vintage Indo-Trinidadian music:

[The] expectation of the audience is thwarted and homoerotic possibilities surface through this type of revision-while-watching. This grants spectatorial agency to queer folks who access these texts, allowing people in the present to see themselves represented by texts in the past.

. . . The reader [can] imagine a queer past and present . . . when looking back at the [texts] and the original intentions behind them without perpetrating violence against the speakers.7

In Antiman, Mohabir deploys a version of perverse spectatorship to reimagine his relationship to Aji. One of Aji’s old-time stories, that of a sister and brother separated by the sister’s wedding, is told early in the book, again in the middle, then twice at the end:

tohare dolar bahanoi janghiya par sowe ho
kaise ke kholo bhaiya, baja rakhe ho
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
a-you bahanoi de sleep pon me lap,
tell me how me go hopem a-doh.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Your spoiled brother-in-law sleeps on my lap,
how can I come open the door? (5–6)

These lines invite the reader to envision two kindred spirits—Mohabir as brother and Aji as sister, separated from each other by the closed door of history, unable to move under the weight of patriarchy. This vision defies age and distance; it imbues Mohabir’s struggles with an allegorical quality and situates Aji in a long line of Indian women thwarted by forces that stifle them. In the last section, Mohabir revisits his conversations with Aji, returning to the following couplet:

A brother and sister’s bond is backward,
even the stars are broken (331)

When Pap, against Aji’s wishes, buries her body instead of cremating it, Mohabir responds by writing Aji a poem, a dirge. “It was poetry,” he writes, “that connected us profoundly” (310).

The attention Antiman pays to the violence of Christian conversion recalls the fiction of Harold Sonny Ladoo (Yesterdays), Shiva Naipaul (A Hot Country), and Shani Mootoo (Cereus Blooms at Night). The escape from family and the city-to-city flight echoes the poetry of Kazim Ali (Bright Felon) and the prose of Bushra Rehman (Corona). The detailed documentation of village-return plays against the writing of the better-known Naipaul brother (Area of Darkness). Yet this memoir departs from other Indo-Caribbean and South Asian diasporic texts even as it dialogues with them. Taken alone, the translations of Aji’s songs are rich and invaluable documents. And in coupling the search for home with an embrace of sexuality, and in the determination for some form of cross-oceanic resolution—however partial—Mohabir charts his own course. 

 

Rishi Nath is a mathematician who lives in and writes about Jamaica, Queens.

 


[1] See Khal Torabully, Cale d’etoile—coolitude (Reunion: Azalee, 1992), translated into English by Nancy Naomi Carlson as Cargo Hold of Stars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021); and Gayatri Gopinath, Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).

[2] Marina Carter and Khal Torabully, Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora (London: Anthem, 2002), 17.

[3] Khal Torabully, quoted in Marina Carter, “Some Theoretical Premises of Coolitude,” interview, in Carter and Torabully, Coolitude, 195.

[4] Ibid., 172.

[5] See “Coolitude: Poetics of the Indian Labor Diaspora,” Rajiv Mohabir, www.rajivmohabir.com/coolitude-project (accessed 26 July 2021).

[6] Mohabir has long intertwined water symbols, (dis)location, and sensuality. In the poem “South Queens Monsoon,” the narrator describes drinking Kashmiri chai with a lover as they prepare for a festival: “trickles, street rivers / swell, we torrent.” Rajiv Mohabir, “South Queens Monsoon,” in Na Bad-Eye Me (Columbus, OH: Pudding House, 2010), 13.

[7] Rajiv Mohabir, “Chutneyed Poetics: Reading Diaspora and Sundar Popo’s Chutney Lyrics as Indo-Caribbean Postcolonial Literature,” Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal, vol. 15, no. 1, (2019), p.: article 4, http://doi.org/10.33596/anth.353; PDF, 13.

 

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