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The tussle over women’s bodies

Kannada writer Guruprasad Kaginele’s novel ‘Hijab’ is an incisive take on identity politics in Trump’s America

Women praying in New York during the annual Muslim Day parade.
Women praying in New York during the annual Muslim Day parade. (Photo: Alamy)

Kannada writer Guruprasad Kaginele’s novel, Hijab (fluidly translated into English by Pavan N. Rao), begins with a proviso. Guru, the narrator, informs the reader that Guru isn’t his given name but a moniker he goes by in the US, where he is an emergency physician at a hospital in a small town near Minneapolis. Amoka, where he lives, doesn’t exist in reality, nor does the war-torn African nation of Sanghaala, struggling against poverty and misrule, which plays a pivotal role in his story.

When I meet Kaginele on his recent visit to Bengaluru, he affirms these disclaimers. “I have put none of myself in the story," says the emergency physician employed with a hospital in the American Midwest. “I don’t think the incidents I describe happened. There may have been some flashes, which I drew on."

Hijab: By Guruprasad Kaginele, translated by Pavan N. Rao, Simon & Schuster India, 292 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499.
Hijab: By Guruprasad Kaginele, translated by Pavan N. Rao, Simon & Schuster India, 292 pages, 499.

The author of three novels and as many collections of stories, Kaginele immigrated to the US in 1995. He has lived there since, sustaining close ties with the Kannada literary community, thanks to the blessing of the internet and the good offices of writer friends like Vivek Shanbhag and Vasudhendra.

Hijab tells the story of a controversy in which three doctors from the subcontinent, two from India and one from Pakistan, get embroiled for conducting emergency Caesarean section surgeries on women of the Sanghaali community. The Sanghaalis are Muslim immigrants who believe that such a procedure is inimical to their women having more children. Their community leader, who is a doctor himself, is infuriated by what he calls the “cultural imperialism" of American healthcare. “It’s not just the current pregnancy that is important to the Sanghaalis…they care for their next ten pregnancies," he yells at the doctors at a meeting at the hospital. “They value the land more than its harvest."

Shortly after this shockingly sexist outburst, some of the Sanghaali mothers who gave birth by C-section begin to kill themselves. Rumours about the men coercing them fly around, heightening the mystery. But Radhika, the doctor responsible for the deliveries, sticks to her guns. The issue soon escalates into a debate on national media, opening an ugly Pandora’s box.

White Americans are outraged by the perceived backwardness of the Sanghaalis—a response tainted by their overarching Islamophobia and xenophobia. A section of feminists becomes incensed with the state for allegedly robbing Sanghaali women of agency over their bodies. A group of free-spirited Sanghaali women oppose this “liberal" outcry, which turns a blind eye to the practice of female genital mutilation in the community. As the din reaches a crescendo, two Sanghaali women volunteer to have C-sections done live on a national television channel—for the sake of assuring other women from their community about the safety of the procedure and to send out a positive message about Sanghaalis in the US.

Kaginele steers the plot with tight control, not letting the reader align their sympathies with any one party. As the illogical superstitions of the Sanghaalis begin to irk, he writes a grisly scene where a white American Catholic doctor performs a C-section on his minor daughter, instead of carrying out an abortion. Although the foetus is stillborn, the family’s faith demands it be brought into the world.

The impulse to write Hijab, Kaginele says, germinated in his mind for nearly a decade. But in post-Trump America, with the daily ugliness of identity politics unfolding around him, the resolve grew stronger. He realized, over the years, that as a doctor straddling several worlds, his position in the pecking order of immigrants is complicated. “When I care for an immigrant who needs a translator to speak to me and my English-speaking team, I am part of one team," he says. “But when I go out and socialize, I slip into being another kind of immigrant."

Bristling with moral, ethical and psychological questions, Hijab is a vehicle to negotiate such slippages of identity. “I wanted to understand where I am situated," Kaginele says. He remembers attending to a 22-year-old Caucasian patient with a ruptured appendix and telling him he would need surgery. Although he was in agony, the man demanded to see an “American doctor"—not the kind of “American" Kaginele is. Ironically, there was no white American doctor at the hospital to see him.

“The front-desk manager was Sudanese American, the nurse who attended him was Chinese-American, and the surgeon turned out to be a Tanzanian-American," says Kaginele. As the patient signed himself out and left the hospital to look for a suitable doctor elsewhere, the security guard at the gate turned out to be Somali. “’Don’t you have an American at least to kick me out?’ Those were his parting words," Kaginele remembers.

Hopefully Kaginele’s novel will find its way to his adopted homeland (as the 2015 English translation of Shanbhag’s novel Ghachar Ghochar did). Hijab is required reading for the melting pot that is contemporary American society, especially at a fractious time when “the pot itself may be melting", as Kaginele puts it.

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