The Post-pandemic World and the Virus of the Mind: Review of Tabish Khair’s The Body by the Shore
Om Prakash Dwivedi
The Body By The Shore. Tabish Khair. Interlink Publishing, June 7, 2022.
What happens when bodies are used as a commodity for medical experiments – controlled, dominated and pained, fuelled with drugs, disliked for being unrooted in the form of modern refugees? What happens when the territory of water is also colonized by the government-corporate-military nexus? What happens when hatred overrules love, when the very act of seeing gets coded with specific colours and material values; when the boundaries of science and religion get blurred, even intersect? And what happens when governments go to bed with oligarchs?
The answer is not so simple, yet Tabish Khair’s new novel, The Body by the Shore, explores these complicated issues. Set in post-pandemic life in Denmark around 2030, combining elements of sci-fi and cli-fi, the novel moves back and forth in time and space to represent everyday ugliness and the horrors of human existence in the wake of an increasingly capitalised life and the White nations’ attempts to create a pure world. It explores gender and racial discrimination, the organ trade, surveilled life, the refugee crisis, human beings and microbes, and climate change.
By 2031, people have forgotten about the COVID-19 virus. However, its aftereffects had persisted, largely “confined to those sections of society, the poor and the marginalized, and those parts of the world, the poor and the marginalized, whose plights had been habitually ignored for decades”. While labour unrest has increased, Walmarts have continued to grow, aided and abetted by the resources meant for public welfare. Thus, social care has been replaced by rampant digitalization, where humans are replaced by robots at public offices, such as the robotic dog to be found in the police offices in Copenhagen.
The social vulnerability and digitalization of life are linked to create a chilling mystery that the novel generates over the dead body of a young black man, with his organs removed, found on the shore of the North Sea in Denmark. As the plot moves, this dead body draws all characters towards it, albeit for different reasons. Jens Erik, a racist retired police officer in Aarhus, with a hardcore belief that people should stay in their countries, ignores this dead body. However, to reconcile his relationship with his daughter, Pernille, who breaks with him after she sees his “face so full of hate”, he starts approaching his friends to solve the mystery of the dead body. He may be considered the protagonist of the novel. Likewise, triggered by the instances of Islamic fundamentalism, we are informed how a group of academics gathered for a seminar, “Mind, Body and Soul: The Cognitive Sciences and Religion” at Aarhus University in 2012, provided a springboard for further research into controlling human beings rationally and emotionally. Harris Maloub, a former private military contractor, now living as a disguised academician in Denmark, is contacted to examine the mystery that shrouds the seminar, since two of the speakers have died mysteriously, three are untraceable, and one is confined to the psychiatric ward.
It is during this furtive operation that Harris comes across Vyachislav Mikhailov, the person in charge of the oil rig ship where we witness scientific attempts to alter and control human behaviour, leading to extracting of healthy human organs and disposing them at the sea beach. Of course, it is all funded by the state-corporate nexus; as Harris puts it, “[O]nly massive destruction carries so much money. Only millions of deaths interest governments and corporations”. Interestingly, the most vulnerable characters that we encounter in this novel are Michelle, a young Caribbean woman, and her mother, Maman. Michelle has been tricked by her boyfriend, Kurt, into taking a job on an oil rig, anchored in the North Sea, only to realize that the rig is an operation theatre for performing experiments on captured people, mostly refugees from poor nations. Maman’s vulnerability is exposed by way of her innocence in believing too soon in several men she meets throughout her life. Both these characters are driven by love and hence lack the reason needed to see through the intentions and exigencies of fake love. The innocence and love displayed by both these characters are trampled by calculating men and yet, Maman registers their presence in her life by “giving her children the surnames of their fathers.” By placing such characters in the 2030s, Khair suggests that the world continues to be driven by racial thoughts, unable to love, nor to understand the language of symbiotic relationships.
Khair suggests that these issues of racial prejudices have led to a situation where ideologies matter more than humanity, placing man against man in a continuous struggle. Subsequently, Khair argues that the thread of inter-species relationship, central to create and sustain life on the earth, has also been damaged. Through this juxtaposition of relationship – human vs human and human vs more-than-human – Khair questions human nature from a range of angles—wordly and planetary—without assigning culpability to any particular religion or culture, even questioning the approach of science. Perhaps, he suggests, we are all to be blamed for this mess. Khair’s philosophical insight into the history of human civilization makes us see life anew. Accepting the fact that even the smallest of microbes has a purpose, to sustain life on the planet, Khair suggests that “[I]f microbes were to be eliminated from the earth, […] much of life would disappear too. […] Humans would survive a bit longer. Maybe even for a few years”. From the vantage point of microbes preparing life on the planet, the novel mocks the idea of purity, which drives the human world, religion, and politics, indicating that “multicellular organisms are neither pure, nor singular, nor exclusive.”
Khair’s use of the inter-species relationship in the novel is an attempt to question racism and cultural prejudices. In many ways, this brave novel also makes us “cognizant” of ongoing climate change—to use Amitav Ghosh’s term from The Great Derangement (2016). Ghosh’s concerns about the limitations of literary novels to capture climate change is remarkably addressed by Khair’s new novel. It is intriguing to see a refreshing literary novel by an Indian writer that looks at human actions and their impact on racism and climate change.
Om Prakash Dwivedi is Associate Professor of English Literature, Head, School of Liberal Arts at Bennett University, India. His research interests lie in the field of postcolonial theory and literature, Indian Writing in English, and Environmental Humanities. His latest publication is a special issue on “Fractured Identities in postcolonial and postapocalyptic settings: Framing the post-Corona World”.
This review was commissioned by an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Adam McLain. The author and editors had no prior relationship. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Interlink Publishing.