Amitava Kumar is the kind of writer you get to know a bit better with every book. Here is a person who engages deeply and fully with all that is around him, whether it is the rats of Patna or the taxi drivers of New York. The words of Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author, who passed away recently, come to mind when one reads Kumar: “I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal…” Lunch With a Bigot, Kumar’s most recent collection of essays — divided into Reading, Writing, Places and People — moves from literary criticism to the political, from memoir to reportage: a thinking man’s collection. While the genres might change, they are all characterised by a robust engagement with, and an examination of what is within and what is beyond. He writes with equal passion about a vast cast of characters, from Manoj Bajpai to Arundhati Roy to his own family. Even while he might delve into the political and ideological, the book ends with the most moving and acutely observed essay on the death of his mother.
With five non-fiction books and a novel behind him, the professor of English at Vassar College in New York spends a night answering questions sent by email. Here he reveals the times he gasps, ‘yeh sahi cheez hai (this is the right thing), the role of writers and reporters and the Booker wins that he finds laughable. Excerpts from the interview.
The relationship of Indians with the English language is of special interest to you. In which ways do Indians use it best and in which ways do we mangle it?
I have often seen signs in Bihar, but also elsewhere in India, saying ‘Child Beer Sold Here’. I was delighted when Siddhartha Chowdhury used that in a novel. There is no pleasure in being prescriptive about language. I enjoy the inventive ways in which language is manipulated to make meaning. But even as I say this, I have to acknowledge that I often get mails from people in India who want advice about writing. And while reading their letters, my first impulse, quite often, is to ask them to read George Orwell.
If I could I would assume the lotus position, left hand resting in my lap, right hand held upright with the index finger resting upon the thumb and the other fingers fanning out in a pleasing way. If anyone came to me I would offer the mantra: ‘Write simply. Be direct’. Or quote from the Vedas of Strunk and White: ‘Omit needless words’.
You write in Lunch With a Bigot: “A novel’s primary task is to produce a map of the contemporary moment.” If realism has become your religion, what has fiction become for you?
The essay from which you are quoting, ‘Bad News’, begins with a description of the murder of Aarushi Talwar. So, let me try to answer your question by using that example. I don’t think a novel about that killing or, for that matter, about the infamous Delhi rape case of December 2012 would have worked. You’d have to use an iron prod on me to make me pick up a novel about those deaths. I say this because, among other reasons, those tragedies demand better and more meticulously reported non-fiction. I’ve read the reviews of the new Avirook Sen book on the Talwar case. One must welcome such books. I had liked Patrick French’s sober account of the murder. Such an antidote to the sensationalistic, if not criminal, sort of reporting practised in the mainstream press.
But you asked me about fiction! When I made the remark about realism being my religion, I was commenting, not without some critical distance, on my desire to have a journalist as the protagonist of my first novel, Home Products (2007). Why this desire for observational integrity? I think it sprang from an anxiety about authenticity. I’ve moved away from the kind of fetishism of the real. Now, in the space of fiction, I want to play with what is recognisably real or historical. So that what is imagined is a disturbance, a stone thrown into the waters of what actually happened.
You wrote Home Products in 2007, and you mention that you wished that when people read it they would imagine it were written in Hindi. Why did you wish that?
I find it quite ridiculous that in Delhi, for example, you’ll find rich people speaking in English to working people who might have come to do menial jobs from places like Darbhanga. It isn’t as if the rich person doesn’t know another language, in this case, Hindi. But they’ll speak only in English. You are giving a command or demanding something (‘Excuse me, excuse me…’) but your psychological intent is to erect an insurmountable wall. It is a class thing.
Now, to link it to my novel, I didn’t want to use language to build a bloody wall. Instead, I wanted to use language quietly, but quite militantly, as an instrument of communication. This has to have been a motivation at the back of my mind.
In a more obvious way, however, I feel it had to do with place. I was writing about Patna and Bihar. How the hell could I write about those places in an English that seemed utterly removed from the milieu?
Tell me, how much does ‘diasporic’ literature bother you? When you see another angsty NRI novel winning an award, what are your thoughts?
It doesn’t bother me any more than desi literature. No one land or location has sole claims on producing crap.
I want good books to get awards. Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss won the Booker, and this result was extremely pleasing. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger won the same prize a year or two later. I thought that was laughable. A case of the goras clapping themselves on the back for rewarding what they believed was a report from the interior.
Now and then I’ll hear someone say that surely by now the NRI novel has exhausted our interest. But the thing about good art is that it makes you look at things in a new way. I think that happened recently with Akhil Sharma’s Family Life.
As a “citizen of a world created by Bollywood,” which recent movie do you feel an allegiance to?
Undoubtedly, Maqbool. As I say in one of my essays in Lunch With a Bigot, on watching Maqbool I thought, ‘Such glory!’ Bollywood had long borrowed from Hollywood, but this wasn’t like that at all. Neither was it like a writer explaining the Indian joint-family system or caste to someone in London or New York. Shakespeare strutted across the screen as a vernacular bard in Mumbai, giving life to Macbeth as an underworld don.
In the essay on Satya and Manoj Bajpai, you mention that you are unsure whether he understood the difference between a writer and a journalist. What is the key difference?
To my mind, a journalist needs to espouse objectivity and distance while a writer practises an art that is more free. A writer can be subjective, even digressive, or introspective, and certainly judgemental. This is a simplification, of course, but as a general rule, it holds true. There is value in both, but only the writer is of interest to me. Partly because objectivity is a myth, but partly also because it is wonderful to hear an engaging voice manoeuvring across a wide, and diverse, emotional terrain.
Your big fear is being inauthentic. You mention that many times. But these days, aren’t we (as writers and journalists) in danger of exoticising the small town? I feel that the new Orientalism is a fetishising of the ‘small town’. What would you say?
Did I ever say that authenticity can only be found in the small town? What you are critiquing might indeed be true of some recent Hindi films, although, come to think of it, several of them are so good that I’m willing to go some length to forgive their sins of fetishism. What you are really saying is whether the idea of the authentic isn’t a red herring. And it is. But — what can I say? I love the sudden feeling when you encounter a voice or a description that feels so true, so real, so alive that you say something like ‘Yeh sahi cheez hai!’
Toni Morrison in an interview said: “There is this feeling that artists have — photographers, more than other people, and writers — that they are acting like a succubus . . . this process of taking from something that’s alive and using it for one’s own purposes. You can do it with trees, butterflies, or human beings. Making a little life for oneself by scavenging other people’s lives is a big question, and it does have moral and ethical implications.
“In fiction, I feel the most intelligent, and the most free, and the most excited, when my characters are fully invented people. That’s part of the excitement. If they’re based on somebody else, in a funny way it’s an infringement of a copyright. That person owns his life, has a patent on it. It shouldn’t be available for fiction.”
As writers and journalists aren’t we all guilty of acting like a succubus? How do you deal with that?
That’s a lovely quote. More lyrical, but also less attractive than the famous opening lines from a Janet Malcolm book: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” I teach Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer. I don’t want my students hobbled by this realisation that they are in such a parasitic relationship with their subject. No. I want a mindful acknowledgment of this fact to pierce any complacency they might have. What distinguishes Malcolm’s writing is that her intelligence and her honesty act as spurs to a more incisive reporting. I prefer Malcolm to Morrison. The latter seems to suggest in what you have quoted that there is a way to avoid the problem. In contrast, Malcolm says the only way to address the problem is to embrace it.
How does being a parent change how you read and write? You can no longer write at leisure, as a parent, you write in intervals. Does that change the content and rhythm of your work?
The year before my first child was born, I was gone away from home for months. I was in Gujarat, after the riots, and then in other places, like Bhagalpur and Jammu, interviewing people displaced by violence. Some of this work later became a part of Husband of a Fanatic (2005). I think that kind of inquiry would be impossible for me now. I can’t be gone for too long. Not at least while the children still need to be taken to the bus-stop in the morning and picked up and fed afterwards. It wasn’t surprising that I turned away from the kind of writing that required long periods of travel and, instead, wrote a novel.
Your research is in India. Your desk in Poughkeepsie. How does that geographic distance allow you to unpack your material?
I wrote about terror trials in New York City and New Jersey in A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb (2010). This book has been published by Picador India. But yes, by and large, my subject has been India. You know, I didn’t even get a driver’s licence here in America for the longest time. I was certain I was going back. Who the hell needed a driver’s licence? Does a man standing on a platform waiting for his journey to resume worry about renting a flat? For long, perhaps far too long, I only thought of myself as an Indian writer whose material was in India. And maybe it helped during these decades going back again and again to look at what had once been familiar. But to do so with an outsider’s eye. So that one sees more, or differently, because nothing is a given or simply natural any more.
I’ve often believed that a strength of a writer like VS Naipaul in India was that he was an outsider but not entirely. He carried a sense of belonging and also alienation. It is a difficult balance, but when it works it is marvellous.
You are Hindu, your wife Muslim. She was born in Pakistan. You married in the year of the Kargil war. You write of this in detail. As a writer, is the personal always political?
No, or at least not in a simple way. But the personal is enormously useful to me as a writer. It provides me a point of entry into the world. I’m surprised that writers are often asked to comment on everything from the policy on drugs to electoral politics and even cheating during exams. I speak from experience. But what about things that are less related to policy and are matters that I actually am intimate with? For instance, my love for my children? Or the death of one’s parents? I have been writing about these because I want to remember. And in the process of writing I want to sort out my feelings. I want to see more clearly.