Friday, October 01, 2004

Amitava Kumar interview

Met Amitava Kumar a few days ago for a profile for the magazine. I wasn’t too confident about the interview, having only had a chance to speed-read his new book. But it went off really well. He was a very nice, hearty sort and it was fun discussing even weighty matters with him -- because then he’d put on this pseudo-serious face and speak slowly and carefully: which was somehow every bit as amusing as his clowning around.

Here’s the piece:

The first thing that strikes one about Amitava Kumar’s Husband of a Fanatic (Penguin Books India, Rs 295) is how muted, how measured it is, given its subject -- which is nothing less than the very complex relationship between India and Pakistan, and how ordinary, well-meaning people are swept along by a fierce emotional tide. The author maintains an almost unreal calm as he chronicles his journey through Bhagalpur, Patna and Karachi, speaking to riot victims, trying to understand the nature of this hatred that has percolated down through the generations so that even little schoolchildren today express resentment towards "the enemy". The tone remains balanced even when he writes of his encounters with Hindu fanatics who denounce him for marrying a Pakistani (hence the book’s oblique, ironic title). And even when the fundamentalist Mr Barotia cheerfully tells him, "When you fuck your wife, you are fucking Islam."

But then, the first thing that strikes one on meeting Kumar at the India International Centre, Delhi is that he is exactly the sort of man who would avoid turning such a book into a preachy, indignant treatise. Kumar brings new shades to the term "self-effacing": though a professor of English at the Pennsylvania State University and a versatile author/essayist/scholar, he makes jovial references to his Bihari origins, lapses occasionally into a bucolic form of Hindi and clowns about with the photographer, doing a demented slo-mo version of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk when she asks him to walk alongside a flower bed. And when discussing his own favourite writers, he disarmingly says "(J M) Coetzee saab ki writing bahut sahi lagti hai". It’s a comment that might have brought a brief upward curl to the lips of the solemn South African.

I finally tie Kumar down. Is he really as laidback as his writing suggests? "I do get angry about some things," he says, "but when I’m writing I adopt a detached tone, in the interests of observation." Then, a tinge of critical self-awareness: "I was talking to a co-passenger on a train recently when he said ‘saale Mussalmaan...’. Opposed though I was to what he was saying, I somehow couldn’t bring myself to tell him my wife was a Muslim. It’s probably a weakness in me, but I also think it’s part of being a writer. My role is not to be denunciatory, it’s to observe, to understand."

Almost every page of Husband of a Fanatic is marked by this quest to understand the seemingly incomprehensible. Kumar manages a modicum of empathy even for his nemesis, the despicable Barotia, when he points out that such men have been marginalised by India’s English-speaking elite. The fanatic is not always the Other, insists Kumar; the sources of violent, venomous anger must be traced.

What of his own marriage? Has religion never been an issue in his home? "Our different customs have caused occasional friction," he says. "For instance, I touch my parents’ feet but Muslims believe in bowing only before Allah." An incongruous grin follows. "But whenever a fight threatens to get serious, one of us says. ‘Arre bhai, yeh Kashmir toh nahin hai’."

Kumar’s proclivity for bringing out the mundane side of Evil extends beyond religious fundamentalism. He recalls how, in his previous book Bombay-London-New York, he made an honest attempt not to depict Laloo Yadav as the caricatured buffoon so beloved of Indian writing in English. "I noted the little things he said to me, wrote about how he played with his dog...and then ended by referring to him as Bihar’s greatest criminal."

The Bihari motif will find lighter expression in his next novel, half complete, which will take a look at Biharis in Bollywood -- from established actors like Manoj Bajpai to, say, the guard outside Aamir Khan’s house. Kumar is also working on a screenplay for a Mahesh Bhatt film, about a single day in the life of a Muslim man.

As the interview concludes and he signs a copy of his book, Kumar shows that for all his clowning around, he is a very particular man: "David Davidar taught me that one signs not on the first page but on the page with the book title and the author’s name -- and only after crossing the latter out."

"Pleasure to meet you," he says, "bahut mast laga," and then this man who is so intrigued by our collective heart of darkness gambols back to his room like an oversized Bambi.

-- Jai Arjun Singh
September 2004

1 comment:

  1. What an enjoyable piece. I enjoyed reading "Bombay-London-New York" (it put me in a funny mood for days, funny peculiar), and I also read a long essay of Kumar's about his encounter with Barotia (I think the essay must be part of "Husband of a Fanatic"). Isn't the new book named for a Hanif Kureishi book? "My Son the Fanatic", or some such...

    Anyway, he's a cool guy, Kumar, and I wish him every success.

    And I'm pleased to see that he also likes Coetzee's astringent visions as I do.