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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

‘Correctional’: Tufts poet Ravi Shankar’s memoir explores forgiveness and hope behind bars

Dr. Ravi Shankar is pictured holding his memoir on the Academic Quad

“The impulse for writing this book came out of this time I spent in Hartford Correctional and the men I met,” Ravi Shankar, an English lecturer at Tufts and a Pushcart prize-winning poet, said. “I had filled probably seven or eight composition books, you know, full of everything.”

In his early 30s, Shankar, an Ivy League graduate, was offered a tenured faculty position for creative writing at Central Connecticut State University. His work later appeared in The New York Times, and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer commended his anthology project “Language for a New Century” as “a beautiful achievement for world literature.”Shankar has also published multiple books and scholarly articles, and won numerous teaching awards at various institutions.

Despite his remarkable credentials and accomplishments, Shankar was not immune from the New York Police Department’s notorious stop-and-frisk policy. In 2008, he was racially profiled and targeted by a New York City police officer, who arrested Shankar on a specious warrant for “a five-ten White male weighing 140 pounds.” The first time he found himself behind bars, though, Shankar shared his story with NPR and won a $15,000 settlement against the city and NYPD.

In 2013, Shankar found himself in jail again, this time in Hartford Correctional Center, “a level 4, high-security urban jail,” for violating his probation for DUI.

Shankar’s second incarceration coincided with his promotion to full professorship, and the local newspapers were quick to sensationalize the event, with provocative and dehumanizing headlines and overtones. Facing growing media pressure, Shankar was eventually compelled to resign from his academic position, and his marriage also ended from the fallout.

In many ways, Shankar shared that his memoir begins with a sense of puzzlement as to how his successful life — at least on the surface — could have taken such a nosedive.

“The book is very much about taking accountability, but [during] that period, there is a sense of … a black cloud that sweeps over you,” Shankar said. “Just when things couldn’t get any worse and something else would happen again to precipitate this. … There’s a wrecking ball to my career, my life, my family and my community, right in the middle of this very successful life. Why?”

In so asking, Shankar aims to weave together an intricate tapestry of his story and journey through his memoir, which bears on today’s broader social and political issues.

“[The memoir] is an introspective journey, but then in going inside, I find that the story that I'm telling is much larger. And it encompasses many things from immigration to mental health to the mass media,” he said. “I felt compelled to write my side of the story.”

For Shankar, it was important that his memoir uplift and amplify the voices of those whose words are often silenced in society.Indeed, he explained that other inmates in the Hartford Correctional Center motivated him to write and publish his memoir, with a goal of making invisible instances of injustices visible.

“The men that I met … said, ‘You have a voice, you can do something with this,’” Shankar recounted. “In the course of mining my own story, I … experienced something that many of us don’t acknowledge but that exists as the shadow of America, alongside of us all of this all the time. I knew about this all theoretically, but when I saw it firsthand, … I felt compelled to tell that story.”

Truthful to his promise, what emerges from the memoir is an illuminating account of the American criminal justice system and its dehumanizing elements.

“A true whistleblower from the NYPD said that there was, in fact, competition between the precincts at the end of the month to see who could get the most callers, and … stop-and-frisk, … what it did was over 800,000 innocent New Yorkers were stopped under various pretenses,” he said. “[In my memoir], I tried to include as much of the legalese and bureaucracy. … It seemed like the processes were meant to intentionally destabilize and dysregulate [the inmates].”

Shankar also highlighted the salience of the criminal justice system and reform for all Americans, across political affiliations and beliefs.

“When I think about the criminal justice system, it’s not a Republican or Democratic issue. [It’s about the fact that] … the taxpayer money is being spent on a system that is ineffective and has one of the highest rates of recidivism in most developed countries,” he said. “And that, to me, seems like [the system is] either really inefficient or intentional. And when you see who is being incarcerated, then it seems pretty insidious to me.”

He cited, for example, how the number of people in prison shot up from 250,000 in 1980 to 2.1 million in recent years. The upward trend, for Shankar, reflects the racialized aspects of the American prison system.

“I was looking at the roots of mass incarceration and, of course, jails as a punishment is a relatively new phenomenon,” he said. “I write about this [aspect]… in ‘Correctional,’ of the two great movements of explosion in the prisons: After the Civil War and the post-Reconstruction of the South and then … after the Civil Rights Movement. And I think that we are aware of that [racialized dynamic].”

Along these lines, he added that out of 60 people in the Hartford Correctional Center, roughly 55 of them were people of color.

Despite the gravity of the book’s central themes, his memoir interestingly unfolds in poetically evocative prose and a cascade of vignettes.In this regard, Shankar explained the philosophy behind his methodology in presenting his and others’ stories.

“I’ve been feeling more and more … that there needs to be a kind of a shift in public consciousness. … My hope is that the book is not a static artifact, but something that spurs people into some action,” Shankar said. “When I talk to my students about writing, [I tell them that] it's when you get too polemical [that] your writing becomes less effective and persuasive.”

On a more personal note, he shared how the memoir has helped him to see his many cultural identities as a strength, not as a hindrance to his literary expression. Along these lines, Shankar elaborated on the special place poetry has had in his life over the years.

“I think part of the reason I became a poet was that some of the moments I was most deeply moved as a child was when I went to Hindu temple,” he said. “There were these chants in Sanskrit, which is a language I couldn't understand. Yet, I still was deeply moved by the experience of hearing the language. And that, to me, that is what poetry can do — the language, it kind of enters your bloodstream.”

In that spirit, Shankar divides his memoir into six chapters, which reflects the six seasons in India.Each chapter also begins with his personal letters, which serve as the textual anchors and bridges for his work as a whole.

“There is this epistolary component. I have these six letters [at the beginning of each chapter]. In India, there are six seasons. So in addition to the four that we have here, there’s the monsoon season of heavy rain, and then the prevernal season that comes before spring,” he said. “And as I was writing this, it felt to me like my assimilation, because I was born here in America, and then moved back to South India, which I wrote about in the book.”

Shankar further elaborated on his personal journey through the metaphors of seasons.

“When I came back to America, all of these experiences, I couldn’t really communicate with my American friends. … I didn’t really have the language to describe the mysticism I felt in some of these temples [India] or being with my extended family, sleeping on the rooftop,” he said. “My assimilation was like trying to compress six seasons into four in some way. And so I have these letters … to people with whom I wanted to make amends, but then making that kind of more metaphoric."

In light of his memoir, Shankar also formulated and introduced his conception of forgiveness.

“I think the book is as much about self-forgiveness as it is about anything else. But, … is [forgiveness] conceivable? Absolutely,” Shankar said. “Revenge and hating someone [are] like drinking poison and expecting me to kill your enemy. … In Buddhism, bodhisattvas are those who are able to say: ‘Think of your enemy as if she were your child from another life.’”

Ultimately, he remarked that the memoir broadly represents his deep and ongoing engagement with his identities and issues of social justice over the years.

“I think that getting a fall from grace in a lot of ways allows you to rediscover who you are and see the shared humanity and those you may have otherwise dismissed and might not have even been aware of,” he said. “So now I do find that it's cracked me open in some way that when I'm more aware of the people I meet in [the streets].”

Going forward, Shankar is excited to be a part of Tufts’ new and emerging creative writing department, with more faculty readings and writing salons in the planning. As for his creative works and personal projects, he hopes to experiment with a wider range of literary mediums, including fiction.

“I think after this excruciating work that unpeeling happens; you're revealing things about yourself and [the] people around you. I’m quite tired of my own writing,” he confessed. “I'm always a poet. So I have another book of poems I’m working on. And I’ve now written essays and memoir and poetry, the one thing that remains is fiction. So maybe I’ll work on some fiction, as well.”