Correctional: Ravi Shankar
Correctional is a memoir by the Indian-American poet, Ravi Shankar (not to be confused with the famous Indian musician of the same name). Poet Ravi Shankar is an accomplished writer in his own right who has published thirteen books. He is also the only known academic in American history to be promoted to full professor while incarcerated. “A decision,” Shankar writes that “inflamed the local media and caused controversy among peers and colleagues.”
Shakar was born in the United States in 1975 to Indian immigrants. This memoir is a chronicle of the poet’s life as he moved back and forth between India and America with his family as a child and how that hyphenated identity not only made him the successful writer and academic that he became but ultimately contributed to his first arrest and incarceration.
How did a widely published poet and a distinguished academic end up in prison? This memoir illustrates that if you have dark skin it is not difficult to end up on the wrong side of the law even when you are innocent. His first arrest was in New York City during the years of the stop-and-frisk policy under Mayor Michael Bloomburg and was a result of a misidentification by the police. After arbitrarily stopping him and giving Shankar a Breathalyzer test, the arresting officer stated that he had passed the test but that there was a warrant out for his arrest. The officer also used a racial slur when speaking to a fellow officer about Shankar. After two harrowing days in a New York City jail Shankar was released. The warrant on which he was arrested was actually for a white man who in no way fit the description of Shankar. Ravi Shankar later filed suit.
Did this humiliating experience change Ravi Shankar into committing the actual crimes he was convicted of in the future or was Shankar predisposed to violate the law? This is one of the many questions that is raised as Shankar bravely and candidly reveals his life story in this complex and fascinating memoir of crime and punishment.
Following his initial unjustified, false, and most likely racially-motivated arrest, Shankar, within the next several years was arrested a number of times for actual infractions of which he admitted he was guilty.
Of course the memoir also raises questions, aside from guilt and innocence, of the legitimacy of the justice system itself and the brutality of incarceration. There are no easy answers in this memoir, nor are there intended to be. This book is not a polemic. It is a complex examination of a life of admirable achievement (successful writer and distinguished academic) to one of public humiliation and an all-out assault from the media mob.
The most admirable quality of this memoir is its unvarnished honesty. Shankar openly admits that he was a difficult and mischievous child. He even admits to the sense of entitlement his family instilled in him, as a result of their adherence to the Indian caste system, which he compares to Jim Crow, in which he and his family were considered Brahmins. He writes: “My own reflexive, thoughtless behavior over the years might have derived initially from the pathology of these Brahmin supremacy constructs, from the sense of…entitlement they evoked.” Quoting from Atul Ketkar, a spokesperson for the Chitpawan Brahmins, Shankar writes that Ketkar “insists in the documentary film Jai Bhim Comrade, his caste—my caste—is superior because of the ‘uniqueness of [our] genes.’” Shankar adds, “When you feel that way, you feel you can get away with anything because everything is due to you.”
Quite an unflinching confession to make in an autobiography. How many white people still refuse to admit to our own sense of privilege in a society clearly titled in our favor?
Correctional by poet Ravi Shankar is a challenging, thought provoking, and profound examination of both the poet himself as well as the criminal justice system. Few writers would have the courage to expose themselves in such a nakedly honest way as Shankar does. Ravi Shankar makes no excuses for his own human weaknesses while also exposing the defects imbedded within the American criminal justice and incarceration systems and the overt racism rooted within these institutions.
Correctional by poet Ravi Shankar is an important and highly recommended book.
Correctional: Ravi Shankar
The University of Wisconsin Press
Madison, Wisconsin, 2021
Jonathan Harrington has published twenty books including poetry, novels, essays and translations. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop he has lived in Mexico for over twenty years. His latest book of poems is called Lift Up the Stone: The Gospel According to Jonathan (bilingual English/Spanish).
Pushcart prize winning poet, editor, translator and professor Ravi Shankar has published, edited or has forthcoming over 15 books, including the Muse India award-winning translations of 9th century Tamil poet/saint, Andal, The Autobiography of a Goddess'(Zubaan/University of Chicago), The Golden Shovel: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks' (University of Arkansas), 'The Many Uses of Mint: New and Selected Poems 1997-2017 (Recent Works Press) and W.W. Norton's 'Language for a New Century' called "a beautiful achievement for world literature" by Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer. He currently holds an international research fellowship from the University of Sydney and his memoir 'Correctional' is forthcoming in 2021 with University of Wisconsin Press.