Review: Linda Jaivinon Ravi Shankar

Prison and the Poet

Correctional is a migrant family story, prison memoir, record of a spiritual journey, love story, and morality tale. It is also an examination of race and policing in America and a critique of class on two continents. It is the record of an imperfect life closely and critically examined. Although personal revelations abound, author Ravi Shankar insists this book is not a ‘confessional’ but a ‘correctional’. Most simply, it is, he tells us, ‘the true story of how, in the middle of a seemingly successful life, I suddenly ended up in jail.’

Clearly, this is not that Ravi Shankar, he of the transcendent ragas and international fame. This Ravi Shankar, a poet, was born in Virginia in 1975, one year after that Ravi Shankar toured the US with George Harrison. This Ravi Shankar has had to put up with Beatles jokes and ‘air sitar solos’ his whole life thanks to the fact his parents had never heard of that Ravi Shankar when they named him. This Ravi Shankar once performed at a poetry festival in North Carolina only to have an elderly gentleman bellow ‘That’s not Ravi Shankar!’ before leading the rest of the mobility-challenged audience of tut-tutting senior citizens in an ‘agonizing slow motion’ walkout. This Ravi Shankar may not be nearly as famous as that Ravi Shankar. But this Ravi Shankar has a story that is by turns moving, horrifying, funny, and provocative. It also has resonances and lessons for Australia: the US is not the only country with a problem with race and policing. The story even has a connection with Australia, for it was a multi-year fellowship at University of Sydney that allowed Shankar the space and time to write this book. I met Ravi as a fellow member of Asia Pacific Writers and Translators and we became friends when he was in Sydney.

The anti-hero’s journey

This story begins in the American south in the 1970s and 80s. Or perhaps south India in the 1940s. Maybe it begins in a car in New York City one night in the summer of 2008. Let’s go with the car.

The author, a young professor at a state university in Connecticut, has just launched his literary magazine, Drunken Boat, at a Manhattan art gallery. His (now ex-) wife, ‘Parker’, isn’t with him. She dislikes literary events, he tells us with rueful honesty, ‘finding most writers, yours truly included and probably most indicatively, pompous and self-involved’. So Shankar will drive his cousin, who did come, back to New Jersey before heading home to Connecticut. He’s still in the city, when following a perfectly legal turn, he gets pulled over by the cops.

‘Out boozing, were we?’ To the obvious disappointment of Officer Murphy, Shankar passes the sobriety tests and blows clean on the breathalyser. By now, three other police cruisers and a police van have pulled up and a crowd of onlookers have gathered despite the midnight hour. To Shankar’s confusion and shock, Officer Murphy suddenly jerks one of his hands behind his back and announces they’ve got a warrant for his arrest, before pushing his face into a metal grate and handcuffing him. Murphy then proclaims to his partner: ‘It’s always a good day when you can bag a sand nigger!’

Nothing happens the way it does on TV: no reading of the rights, no phone call. When, after hours in a precinct cell, he is finally able to ask what’s going on, an officer says, ‘You Sobolewski, right?’ Sobolewski is apparently a man with speeding tickets and a suspended license. Judging from the printout Shankar glimpses on the officer’s desk, he’s also a thin White man. Whoever he is, he’s not Ravi Shankar, a heavy Brown man. The cop doesn’t care. ‘Tough luck,’ he says. ‘Tell it to the judge.’

Before he can tell it to the judge, Shankar will spend many more sleepless hours in the dungeon-like holding cells of New York’s Central Booking. The cells are packed, but unlike the streets of the Financial District above them, there are hardly any White faces here. Many of the men are veterans of the system, like the one who regales the others with the story of how, at the exact moment the cops raided his meth lab, he was banging his girlfriend’s mother on the kitchen table. There are vomit-stained junkies and poor immigrants caught up in a crackdown on street vendors. America’s ‘secret problems’, Shankar reflects, ‘are spread out before me tonight, and somehow I’ve become one of them’.

A Dominican with a blackened tooth and a face like a ‘coiled jack-in-the-box’ asks Shankar what he’s in for. ‘Warrant wasn’t for me,’ he explains indignantly. The Dominican spits back: ‘Warrant wasn’t for you? You think the warrant was for any of us? Like you something special?… If your skin darker than a grocery bag, you’re screwed. It’s a city sweep. A little game the precincts play in the five boroughs.’

Later, the city would have to settle multiple class action lawsuits for unlawful racial profiling in police and judicial practices. A police whistle-blower would confirm that cops had monthly ‘productivity’ quotas for summonses, arrests and stop-and-frisks.

Forty hours into the misadventure, Shankar finally gets to ‘tell it to the judge’. She acknowledges it’s a case of mistaken identity and is about to dismiss the case when she realises he was assigned a public defender. ‘Hold on. It says here he’s a professor?’ She tells him to hire an attorney and come back. While waiting for his court date, he writes and speaks everywhere he can about race and justice in America: ‘I felt triumphant,’ he reflects, ‘almost as if my minor brush with the law had turned me into an inadvertent civil rights activist.’

So far, so righteous. But ‘this short stint would foretell a greater intimacy’ with the American prison system – and next time, he would be the author of his own disgrace. The first of two crimes he commits arises from an attempt to deal with an accidental purchase – frozen screen, refresh, tap, tap, tap, repeat – of $25,000 worth of tickets to a soccer match. The second involves the not entirely by-the-board return of a tool that didn’t come with all its bits. Ill-judged, sneaky, indefensible – whatever you want to say about these, he says it first.

By the time Shankar is done with the correctional system and it with him, he has lost his job, his marriage, reputation, friendships and, for a period, his mental health. The shame that washed over him, he says, ‘was tidal’. He confronts uncomfortable aspects of his personality and the consequences of the bifurcated identity he’d cultivated as a child: on the one hand, the nerdy spelling bee champion son of Indian migrants; on the other, the desperate-to-be cool American bad boy who shoplifted and acted out for cred. Correctional, he tells us is about how he ‘learned to process a generation’s worth of racism, sexism, shame, and redemption while at the same time coming to grips,’ with ‘the dark inner mechanisms of my own heart.’

Magic Junior

Little Ravi Shankar wears ‘a baby-blue mini tux and a turban with a garish fake ruby at the top.’ He is ‘Magic Junior’, assistant to ‘Sam the Super’, an ebullient weekend magician-entertainer who, perplexingly, morphs back the rest of the week into the stern and disapproving K.H. Shankar, aka Appa, Ravi’s dad. Appa and Amma are Tamil Hindu migrants whose pursuit of the American dream won them a three-bedroom house in Dale City, Virginia but not assimilation into American society. People gawk at Amma’s saris and abuse the educated Brahmin Appa as a ‘dirty towel head’. Little Ravi is embarrassed by both the racist cliché that Indians ‘are cheap and a little sneaky’ and the fact that Appa only takes the family to restaurants if they have a discount coupon and then squirrels away mints and packets of ketchup to take home. But if he feels too Indian for America, a brief stint as a child back in India causes him to realise he’s also too American for India.

Acceptance into a creative writing degree at Columbia University offers liberation from the torment of this split identity – here, this becomes an asset. Columbia facilitates his entry into what seems like an almost magically blessed life in New York as an up-and-coming poet and editor in a vibrant and supportive literary scene. He is finally genuinely one of the cool kids. In New York, he mixes with the likes of George Plimpton and the Paris Review crowd, attending crazy parties where he rubs elbows with supermodels and Pulitzer Prize winners. He makes a Faustian bargain with his ‘inner hustler’ to succeed in this WASP-y dreamworld of privilege and affluence, whatever it takes.

He gets a job working for the literary agent John Brockman, ‘part impresario, part visionary, and part crocodile’. The job is high-prestige but low pay. When he gets a second job teaching in Queens College’s Labor Education & Advancement Project, ‘some of the most interesting students’ he’d ever teach also give him an important lesson: his well-meaning assumption of ‘tacit kinship’ with Black and Hispanic Americans is not necessarily shared. ‘You may be colored, but you not Black,’ one tells him. Demands another: ‘You ever call someone massah?’

Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, New York City ceases to be a place of possibility and ease for a Brown man. ‘As if being stereotyped as a Slurpee salesman or computer programmer wasn’t bad enough, now suddenly I was being lumped in with jihadists.’ He had adored and romanticised New York, but it was now leaving ‘a rotten taste’ in his mouth. When Parker gets a job at a liberal arts university in Connecticut, they decamp to start a new life there.

Connecticut, Shankar notes, is one of the ‘richest states per capita in the country (which means the galaxy)’. Its western flank is full of bedroom suburbs for wealthy New York commuters. Yet more than half the people in Connecticut’s largest cities live in poverty. They are, he tells us, ‘Black, Hispanic, and unmentionable over bowls of lobster bisque and Red Sox box scores.’ He and Parker live in the less posh south-eastern corner of the state, close to my own hometown of New London. Shankar describes New London, one of those towns littered with ‘statues of Puritan tosspots’, as ‘forsaken by time’. At the local pub, where Shankar goes to write poetry, ‘swamp Yankees’ – Boston Bruin caps perched atop their mullets – clink beers every time ‘She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy’ booms out of the jukebox. ‘Two hours from New York City, and where the hell was I?’ When people next ask why I left as soon as I was able, I will point them to this section of the book.

The cascading series of events described above eventually lead to an intimate acquaintance with those of the state’s ‘unmentionables’ who, like him, are collected within the walls of the Hartford Correctional Centre (HCC). The system, he comes to realise, sucks in society’s most disadvantaged members and never quite spits them out. It offers almost nothing in the way of rehabilitation or reintegration into society: it is, in the most literal sense, doing time. As one fellow prisoner tells him: ‘You sleep away your bid, you golden.’ There are more Black men in the US correctional system than there were slaves at the time of the Civil War.

Shankar absorbs these lessons while processing his own profound shame, the collapse of his marriage and learning how to survive in a place where violence and abuse are endemic, much talk is shit-talk, soup packets and ‘coffee balls’ serve as informal currency, and – a fascinating detail – chess masters rule.

He credits jail as ‘one of the few places on earth where there is still a thriving oral tradition’. Shankar is conscious of the voyeuristic and aesthetic pleasure he derives from relating the stories of the men he meets and of playing chess with gangsters. He is profoundly moved by the journal shown to him by another frequent flyer in the correctional system, Jay. In it, Jay describes himself as ‘a creep show carnival ride. Damaged goods. Stagnant pond scum praying to God I can puncture through scar tissue to hit that hidden vein.’ He appeals to the woman he loves: ‘I hunger for more than what I have ever known, I’m sick of standing in the human centipede of a medicine line. Let’s do this together, hand in hand, through bridges and shadows, your ice cream thighs, your lollipop eyes.’ Shankar tells Jay that his writing is phenomenal, but before Jay can entrust his notebooks to him, he’s transferred. Shankar never sees him again, mourning the fact that Jay’s words will be ‘entombed forever’.

Shankar has a poet’s ear and a journalist’s eye. Just as Sam the Super once conjured playing cards out of thin air, he magics personalities, places and events onto the page with such vividness that this story compels from the first page to the last.

Real Talk

One of his fellow prisoners, aptly nicknamed Chaos, comments on Shankar’s hustles in chess and the coffee ball trade: ‘You smooth, Professor… You gonna do all right in here. But you don’t belong with us garbage. Real Talk.’ Shankar appreciates the thought, but he’s not so sure about either assertion. Despite being ‘Ivy League-educated, a college professor, a homeowner’, each day he wakes up in jail, ‘I find myself moved by some aspect of humanity I share with these men.’

Transplants, transitions, transfers – in this kinetic and confusing world, Shankar seeks solace and sustenance in spirituality and love. Each section of the book begins with a letter: to his daughters, his parents, ‘Parker’, Julie (his current partner), and so on. Each corresponds to one of the six ritu, or seasons, in Sanskrit. Although raised Hindu, he is open and curious about other ways to understand life and its meanings, and each time he goes back to jail, he tells them he belongs to a different religion, giving himself time to consider the lessons of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, for example. He draws on Buddhism’s understanding that suffering is caused by the ‘three poisons’ of delusion, greed and hatred to examine how his own actions and beliefs – including in Brahmin supremacy – have led him down the path to shame and suffering. In the end, he forgives himself and, as hard as this is, forgives those he felt had wronged him too. But he describes his ‘most important takeaway’ as ‘the conviction that the raw, unvarnished truth of the American carceral system can no longer be a dirty secret.’

In Australia, he sees that we too have a problem with race and policing. Yet he finds himself enraptured by Australian culture. He likes how so many of the Australians he meets manage to be diffident and cosmopolitan even as they enjoy their sports and their beer. In Australia, Shankar regains his ‘voice’. And so, ‘in the end,’ he writes, with the writing of this book, ‘the worst years of my life became my greatest blessing.’