'Members Only': Sameer Pandya’s Campus Novel Explores Racial Identity
In Sameer Pandya’s Members Only, Raj Bhatt is an immigrant now well immersed in his life in California. He has a wonderful wife and children, a good job as a professor at a large university and membership at an exclusive tennis club. Raj appears to have it all, but we quickly learn that while he might outwardly seem to live a charmed life, he’s plagued by instances of racism and discrimination and comes face to face with cultural insensitivity on a regular basis. One day, Raj himself utters something offensive and we see the tenuous nature of all the good things he has worked so hard for and the ways his worst fears are about to consume his life.
Yvette Benavides: How would you summarize it? Give the back-of-the-book summary for us.
Sameer Pandya: The novel, Members Only, is narrated by a 40-something Indian American narrator named Raj Bhatt, who is a lecturer of anthropology in the town that he lives with in his family. He also is a big tennis player and the novel opens on a Sunday evening at a membership meeting for his tennis club. He is there particularly because he would like to diversify what is otherwise a very un-diverse space. An African American couple comes in and a kind of conversation ensues. He's very excited about them being there and in the midst of this conversation makes a horrific mistake in saying something…something he says. And in essence, that becomes the inciting incident for a pretty horrible week that he has. The novel moves between his life and his social life within this club, and then also his life at university, which are very kind of related. A series of events occur which mirror in some similar and some very different ways what he is experiencing. The novel begins on a Sunday evening. It climaxes on a Friday evening, and then there is an epilogue. So, in some ways, the best way to describe it is one very bad week in the life of Raj Bhatt.
YB: We have the “TC” or the tennis club that you mentioned. Let's talk a little bit about a different club, this sort of…oh, the “unreliable narrator club” in literature. I think that Raj Bhatt will figure heavily in this world and join the ranks of some really memorable unreliable narrators. In literature, the first person point of view, when the main character is the narrator of the story, can be an unreliable narrator either for being deliberately malicious or a liar or something negative, or also perhaps just having a slightly less nefarious quality. And it's maybe just a hapless guy, right? So how do you see the character of Raj… but in this particular club, this unreliable—very memorable—unreliable narrator?
SP: Yeah, no, the first-person comes with its own perils. You know, there's no point of view outside of that first-person to kind of poke holes except the other characters that the first-person, in some ways, he introduces or comes into contact with. But to this question about his unreliableness. One of the things that I've thought very hard about was what discipline to give him, right? Meaning that, do I make him a historian? Do I make him a literary critic? Do I make him an anthropologist? And one of the reasons that I landed on kind of the anthropologist is because on one level, what he is doing is he is writing or kind of experiencing an ethnography of this life around him. The class differences, the ways in which race operates, the ways in which the modern university or one aspect of the modern university operates. So on that level, Raj is, you know, incredibly observant. And one of the things particularly about Raj is that the kind of observational acumen that he can bring to the world outside is oftentimes an observational acumen that he cannot bring to himself, right? And so that becomes one of the aspects of his unreliableness where, you know, one of the ways in which you could describe him is his inability to get out of his own way for him to recognize that he is often in his own way and that he is incapable of stepping aside. That was kind of a part of his unreliableness that I was interested in. A related thing I will say about a kind of unreliableness here is that what I also wanted to do, (and this is one of the reasons I chose the first-person) is that I wanted to give it character like Raj—an Indian American character, a Brown character—an opportunity on these pages to exist in all his inconsistencies, all his conflicts, all the ways in which he is kind of the individual, the human, he is on his page on this page. And so in order to kind of create that fullness, he had to be reliable and unreliable all at the same time.
YB: And this is a campus novel too. It’s an academic novel. You mentioned that before, there's this whole genre of literary fiction unto itself of these works. So as someone who's been in this world, most of my life, myself as a student, and then on the other side of the desk for far longer, for some 30 years as a teacher, I have a lot of strong feelings about campus novels. They can be really somber stories, but they can be really rather humorous too. And they put professors in situations that are dark and serious, or they’re kind of absurd and kind of crazy. But I appreciate sort of the happy medium of Raj’s situation, even though these supposed offenses of his are things that could happen to a lot of us, not just to an academic person, but to a lot of us. These kinds of situations move from this tennis club scene then to the campus. And that ramps up the seriousness for me, certainly, and the stress for him and the tension just grows. So you're a professor. How did you draw on your own experiences to create Raj’s world and also the struggles that we see in the novel?
SP: Yeah. So a couple of things about that. I think the first point that you make about the campus novel, right…which I am a huge fan of campus novels. I have been reading them for a long time. They are fun, you know, and I think you're right that in some ways they can… there's these two kinds of sides of it, which is they tend to be humorous and almost kind of satirical to the overly somber, right? Where it is this kind of this character living this kind of lone life within the pursuit. And usually it is academic pursuits. And so part of what I wanted to do was I wanted to kind of reshape that campus novel in two ways. First of all, I wanted to color the genre. Which is, I wanted to think about if so many of these novels are about certain kinds of midlife crises that occur. What happens when that midlife crisis in a certain way is a, kind of, is a racial crisis as well? Right. It is kind of that that becomes a central part of the moment he is having. So that is the one aspect of what I was trying to do there. In terms of my own experiences with it and kind of bringing my own experiences to all of this. I realize I spent most of my adult life on a university campus. So when I arrived at college, I went to college, I went to graduate school and I have been teaching. And so in many ways, the is the social space that I know the best as a place of my employment, but it's also an unusual place of employment, right? Because you are engaging with students, young people between the ages of roughly 17, 18 to 21, 22, right? There's these core moments in their lives. So part of what I wanted to do was, I wanted to convey some of the love I have of this profession. And I think Raj loves the job that he does. At one point he was talking to his colleague, Cliff and Cliff who's this very kind of brilliant writer. And he said, you know, I'd come to terms with the fact that Cliff produced work. And I was good at conveying that genius. And he kind of recognizes some of his own failures in producing work and feels very comfortable on one level with kind of what he is good at. I wanted to bring that particular, aspect of my experience there. The third point, or kind of the related point I wanted to make to this is that I also wanted to make it very clear that Raj Bhatt is a lecturer and in the very specific way in which there are types of hierarchies in the university. I wanted him to feel the kind of insecurity within that space, that he feels in different ways in other parts of his life. So that is also the departure I wanted to take with this in terms of the campus novel, that explore that particular reality of how our universities look in the current moment—in a way that they didn't look similar 40, 50 years ago, or even, you know, 20, 30 years ago.
YB: Yeah. I absolutely can see that it's a very singular type of campus novel because of the character of Raj. And so at the same time that he himself has had to endure his share of racism, the idea that when that one woman gets his name wrong, or with her paying attention to him, and saying that she somehow, as he says, as the character says, “loved all of the one billion people in India.” Maybe those are the more innocuous examples, but he is someone who has had his share of the same things that he's now under the microscope for. So he's just such a rich and complicated character to me, in that, you know, these inconsistencies that you talk about that he's trying to work out. He also talks about how he, quote, “didn't know how to manage a situation that everyone around him seemed to inhabit so effortlessly and how having a very small footprint was his key to survival.” My gosh, like that is so human and so resonant for just about anybody and has nothing to do with being a college professor. There's all of these very human rich human characteristics about Raj that I really appreciate as well.
SP: Part of the crisis that Roger's feeling, that line that you use, which is, you know, his sense constantly that everyone else around him felt so at ease, right? The shoes they were wearing fit so well, right? And in whatever small or big situation in kind of walking around with one group of people that he feels in some ways, the sense that he belongs, but there's a limit to how far that belonging occurs. But there is always a moment that the sense of tension, the sense of kind of insecurity that he feels is that belonging can be, or to kind of use the phrase of the novel that “membership can be revoked at any time.” Here in this novel, I particularly work through that in terms of a conversation around race and then also a conversation that's related to it kind of within the campus space. But I think part of what I'm hoping for when we readers engage with it, right, which is that belonging is a broad kind of a crisis that I think, as you said, different people feel in all sorts of different scenarios. You know, that is in some ways are, are feeling that we are in or outside of a tribe is a fairly kind of a universal one there as well.
YB: And this is why the first-person also works so well. I was struck by the idea of nostalgia and memory for him. All of his reveries about Bombay are tinged with nostalgia. You know, he looks at the bougainvillea in the garden and it makes him long for home—his memories about his father's business acumen or the gifts that his father has given him. Everything is just imbued with this nostalgia and Raj wonders what could be the German word for “a sadness at the heart of unrelenting beauty.” But it's also this other thing, right? We can understand him from our own vantage points, but then we see, as a campus novel, with this character who has his feet in two different worlds, is from two different places. That’s a whole other kind of campus novel that I'm not sure I've seen very much.
SP: I think it is one of the spaces I would love for this novel to occupy, kind of in the sense that I think that the college space is such an important place for this country, for societies in general. I teach at a very large public university, and it's this remarkable thing, the ways in which social life gets reflected within there. I think that's part of what I wanted to engage in—which is to show, of course, the ways in which Raj feels unsatisfied, feels like he has not achieved what he thought he would. And yet at the same time, what he is most interested in, and for those of us, I think who've spent our time, and as you were saying as well, with students is that, that those moments become moments of grace, right? Those become moments where real types of exchange occur, which is kind of in some ways, I think, why a lot of us do that kind of work, right? The sense of possibility in the sense of growth that is there. I appreciate that. Which is about what you were saying about his nostalgia about Bombay, right? Because it is this interesting thing, which is, you know, one of the autobiographical overlaps. I have Raj leaving Bombay when he was eight. I myself left Bombay when I was eight. When you leave a place at different ages, your relationship to that place is, I mean, in some ways this is obvious is very different, right? So I have older siblings and, you know, my sisters were older when they left. And so, on one hand, that they had a series of different experiences that they had as they were growing up, as compared to me. And so there's a way in which I have a snapshot in my head of seeing the bougainvillea as I was growing up. And to this day, whenever I see bougainvillea, it's lovely to see, but it never fails to produce that nostalgia. What I've been thinking about with this book, but also kind of more broadly is, you know, when you leave at that age, what are the kinds of things that are imprinted in you and what do you spend the rest of your adult life trying to do? How do you come to terms with that? I think Raj’s coming to terms with that—of course his father, but also there's this place that he's left, that he returns to as an older man to do research and finds, of course, that it is certainly not the place that he left behind that all sorts of different things, all sorts of political violence has engulfed this place that has always looked through, looked at with such a rose-colored glasses.
YB: I kept thinking about Raj also as part of—a member—of this other group of novels with these male protagonists and for no reason at all, really, I, I was thinking of, for instance, John Updike and his Rabbit character, and I mention him only as a way to compare Raj to a character bucking up against, in that case, the constraints of like late modernism, right. Yours is a contemporary character brushing up against some walls, some other kinds of walls we're all experiencing today…not around the pandemic necessarily. But we are experiencing now, a society that is woke or waking up to the reality of our, of our social ills and our will to try in ways good are flawed to fight for racial justice and [against] inequity. So the book lands, the book releases during the summer, it lands in a very special place this particular summer when we're all collectively globally challenged by pandemic waves, economic downturns, the protests, the nominating conventions of our two major political parties coming up. It’s time for books just like this. I find Raj has efforts to like pull himself out of this quicksand really refreshing. He's someone who can admit when he's wrong. He’s done something we've all done. He put his foot in his mouth. And I wonder how a book like this can be received in July of 2020 during times like these, when there are far too many people in positions of power and all around us who are just unapologetic or who are surrounded by the messages about how to move the needle of social equity. And still here we are. How, how have you considered bringing… you could not have predicted what was going to happen in July of 2020…but how have you been considering that now this novel is coming forth during these unprecedented times?
SP: It is something I have been thinking about a lot these past couple of months. Like on one hand, thinking just about this, this moment of this list that you were making, as you were making is remarkable. Right. If you wrote it down as a list in terms of something to happen in these months in 2020, right, novelistically it might seem too much. But of course, historically when we look at it now, and when we look back on it, the connections and the relationship between all of this stuff seems to make perfect sense. It seems to me the national conversation that we have been having, but now are explicitly having is such an important and profound one, right? Meaning that there are these conversations on the ways in which race has operated in this country, and particularly the ways in which kind of a particular relationship to African American history and what I kind of, how I would like to think about this novel in relationship to it. Which is that what we are engaged in a kind of very specific conversation about race, but then also a broader conversation about these relationships that we have been talking about. So that there is in many ways, these kinds of multi- racial narratives that are embedded within this, right? Because, you know, several months before, and I think continuing on, we were very rightfully talking about the kind of anti-Asian racism that was in the middle of COVID, right? Which is the ways in which that was operating. And so I think that what I'm hoping that this book kind of edges us towards is this kind of larger reckoning, right? That this book of course, is not about the kind of profound violence that we are seeing on those video tapes those phone recordings, right? That we saw in Minnesota of with the police and George Floyd. But what it is trying to do is show the ways in which race operates in some of these kinds of smaller moments and moments that feel small as they're occurring. But part of what the novelist is trying to show is that once they begin to accrue, once they begin to gather, once they begin to become a snowball, they become much kind of larger. And that is in some ways kind of--I'm not going to give it away… One of the ways in which kind of the climactic scene in this novel operates. Which is to say, this is what this collection of experiences that Raj has kind of leads him to—those are the kind of larger ways in which I thought that this would be in a very small, humble way, a way to add to this larger conversation and what that relationship looks like.
YB: Sameer Pandya, thank you so much for talking to us today.
SP: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.