In Conversation With: Dr. Shernaz Cama

This week, Dr. Shernaz Cama tells us what she’s reading, and why.

SC: I’m reading The Gene by Dawkins*, I’m reading First Circle by Solzhenitsyn** and I’m reading a book right now on postcolonial literature by Nilufer Bharucha and Sridhar of Bombay University. So those are the three books I’m reading, and of course, when I want light reading, I read P.G. Wodehouse to try and relax or before going to sleep. Next question.

Team Jabberwock: Ma’am, um, that is kind of the entire – talk more about these books please.

SC: Okay, I got interested about reading The Gene because of the Mukherjee book, now I forget the name, which I read just now, the one about the cancer; there are two books by Mukherjee – haan, the Emperor of All Maladies by (Siddharth) Mukherjee and I wanted to read more about genetic studies and things because, basically my son is working at the very cutting edge of how to create – sounds like science fiction – how to create human organs out of embryonic stem cells. That is all I can understand about it, but it’s really cutting-edge medicine and it’s based in genetics and I go every year to see what’s happening at the Stem Cell institute. So, this and a lecture by Lord Rees at Cambridge just now about the future of science this July, I think the 12th of July or something, and I was simultaneously reading the Emperor of Maladies and the second book he’s written- a very personal book about schizophrenia and things in his own family, I can’t remember the name of the book again–

TJ: We’ll look it up. ***photoedited

SC: So I was reading those two books and A, I found it remarkable that despite how much we talk about a cure for cancer, the common man doesn’t realize that cancer is not one disease but it is a spectrum of diseases. It is genetic – because we Parsis suffer from the world’s highest rates of cancer, so from my Parzor point of view also, genetically it was important for me to understand, and thirdly, if we understand the gene and the double helix, of the DNA, which I find very interesting because it links up with Yeats and all my work in mysticism, all that has led me to reading all these serious medical and genetic books. So I think that is something that I’m reading very slowly and it’s very heavy going so I can’t read it continuously. I have finished those Mukherjee books and I’m reading Dawkins just now. Dawkins right now has gone in for some bad press because of some rubbish family-wife-breakup something-something, but I don’t look at that at all. I’m reading him as a scientist who is making science accessible to all of us. So I think that is very important for all of us, who’re living in an age with such dramatic changes happening, to understand the basis of life itself and what I find fascinating is what I’ve always told my third years, and my Blake students, is that science discovers what mysticism already knew. Now I have major quarrels with my son about this, because he says, yeah, mystics talk, but where’s the scientific, mathematical proof? So my argument is that you don’t need mathematics to prove a myth but myths can become true, just as you’re seeing in all these things, so it’s all part of a family argument which is across continents but I think it’s very, very interesting.

Solzhenitsyn, First Circle, is again about creating – the Russians have always fascinated me,
my favourite-est book on earth is Goncharov’s Oblomov and I wish I could revive the Russian literature course at DU for the MPhil, maybe someday after I retire I’ll do it – I think that taught me a lot about the difference between the Eastern mindset and the Western mindset. And I did not like Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn when I read it many, many years ago but I am much more interested in First Circle because I’m looking at a world which in many ways is actually coming true in the sense of using scientists by the imaginary world of the First Circle in Russia or by NASA or by CERN or by whatever, where you take a group of the brightest minds – and this links up with what I was telling you about Lord Rees – Martin Rees – who was Master of Trinity, he’s still the Royal Astronomer and the head of the Royal Society; it links up with the whole idea of the future, science, Artificial Intelligence and the creators of Artificial Intelligence. I think all of this – and it might sound very bizarre – but when you’re sitting at Cambridge and you’re seeing proof of how robotics is really taking over, in so many things, in medicine, in manufacture of dangerous weapons etc. and you’re using robotics like drones now to deliver Amazon packages, I think it’s time we stood back, read what has been said about it, read about the uses of science and then try to look, for me personally, at our place as people who teach literature, who study literature and who want to keep that part of one’s brain functioning, and find value in what we are doing. So this is the sort of place where I’m coming from in the books I’m reading right now.

Which is the third book I told you I was reading? Haan, Nilufer Bharucha, I’m reading that for, okay, I’m reading this for a seminar I’m speaking at in Bombay University next Tuesday. What I’m finding is that nobody – and I’ve been reading a lot this last year – nobody has talked about this. In 1925, a person called Stonequist, he propounded a concept called the Marginal Man, and I was reading it of course, for the book I wrote, Threads of continuity, which is supposed to be in your library, and if it’s not, please tell me, I’ll give a copy to your library- I was looking at it from the point of view, at that time, for a small chapter on Parsi literature, but the more I’ve been looking at a Rohinton Mistry or a Cyrus Mistry or Parsi comedy, or anything, the more I’ve been realizing, is that today, most of us – the theory of the marginal man is that in a multicultural setting such as we had in India when the British were ruling, the marginal man takes on a very important role because he wants to fit into the cultures which surround him. Today we’re all living surrounded by different cultures, we’re living surrounded by a Western culture, and we have at our roots Indian culture that we’ve all forgotten – no one can recite even one shloka from the Mahabharata among my first years, it is very tragic – we’re looking at sub-identities of religion, race, caste, class, etc. How does the marginal man fit in? The marginal man is not the marginalized man, big difference. The marginal man tries to fit into a multicultural context, and the Parsis were used as an example of Marginal Man by the Parsis themselves back in 1925, but it’s a concept which comes out of the struggle of the African Americans to fit in, the Jews to fit in, things like that. The writers talk about it – it’s a Chicago publication – the writers talk about it as either leading to a position of dominance, because your marginalized identity, your marginal identity, allows you to take the best from everywhere and use it, which they talk about in the context of the Jews, I talk about it in the context of the Parsis, but at the same time, there is also a certain ethnic anxiety all the time, as to where you belong and it’s an identity crisis, so in my paper at Bombay University, I’m going to talk about this – I forget the name of the title, but it’s about the marginal man – yes, Problems and Perceptions of the Marginal Man: A Study of Parsi Literature – so that is where I’m reading about marginality, and I’m also seeing in this whole study of colonial literature and postcolonial literature that’s been happening in India and abroad, that nobody has gone back to this marginal man crisis, which I think every one of us across the board, wherever we may be, we may be in Australia, Indians in Australia, or we may be in Antarctica or wherever, or we may be Americans working in India today, which we see more and more, expats working here, we are all in some way marginal men, so this is something we should look at more closely in English literature because we study
literatures in English but this is a point of view that we have so far not studied and uh, the modernism I teach right now is Yeats and Eliot, so it doesn’t really – Eliot yes, I would definitely call him a marginal man because he was an American who wasn’t an American and he studied in France but then ended up being an Anglo-Catholic in England, so I think a lot of Eliot’s power comes out of this, which has not been really – at least, I don’t know of any critic who’s talked about this. It was a paper that was published, then it became a dissertation, then a book, but I think it’s quite important in the context of India.

Now, what more do you need, that’s enough for your blog!


* The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

** In the First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

*** We did look it up; it’s The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Featured image by Sanna Jain


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