Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Lunch with (and thoughts on) Amitava Kumar

[Warning: schizophrenic post, probably confused and varying in tone – which can happen if you’re meeting a friend for lunch and a chat but also end up writing it out as an interview for a newspaper, and then blogging it at even greater length. I first met Amitava Kumar in 2004 when his book Husband of a Fanatic was published. In the last couple of years we’ve corresponded regularly on email and through our blogs, and would have caught up anyway when he visited Delhi a few days ago for the launch of Home Products. But Business Standard’s “Lunch with BS” section provided the opportunity to mix work with pleasure. This is a longer, more casual version of the piece that appeared in the paper today.]

“Let’s go to Karim’s,” Amitava Kumar suggested in his email when we were fixing up this lunch. “One or two greasy parathas and an oily rogan josh will be the proper cure for my jet-lag.” Unfortunately, when the day comes, we need to find a place closer to the guesthouse where he’s staying, so we opt for the Gulati restaurant in Pandara Road – not as iconic as Karim’s but distinguished enough, and more likely to be quiet and have empty tables. Besides, we can always put in a special request for extra oil in the food.

On the way to the restaurant, he asks me to stop the car so he can take photographs of some faded posters of wanted criminals and terrorists on a nearby wall. “I’m working on something about arrests and entrapment,” he says, “and I’m interested in the language used to describe terrorists, and how we are expected to recognise them – after all the 9/11 hijackers were anonymous in appearance, they didn’t look like stereotypes.” (We joke about the descriptions on the posters. “Wears shirt and pant and carries China pistol,” says one helpfully. So if you’re a terrorist and in the Golf Links area, wear shorts. And don’t carry a China pistol.)

Settling into the cosy north Indian family atmosphere of Gulati, we order a non-veg kebab platter, some yellow daal, and a half-portion of tandoori chicken – the last in honour of a passage in the book that Amitava had mailed me a few days earlier. He draws my attention to the song playing in the background, “Aage bhi jaane na tu” from the classic Waqt. “Does it occur to you that this music is quintessentially for a restaurant like this, with its associations of a woman in a green sari, singing in a ballroom…”

An established essayist, writer of non-fiction and Professor of English at Vassar College, NY, Amitava is in India for the launch of his first novel, Home Products. He likes channelling his small-town Bihari side when he talks, throwing in a juicy colloquial cuss word, for instance, in the middle of a serious discussion on post-colonial theory. At other times he speaks with a careful, almost exaggerated politeness, and it’s fun to watch the contrast between these two sides; to anticipate the shifts in tone. I take out my tape recorder (because you can’t eat kakori kebabs with one hand and take notes with the other) and he comments on journos who have an aversion to taking notes – “Mere bache mere paas laut ke aayenge aur unki shakalen bilkul alag hongi.” (“My own children, the sentences I have spoken, will come back to me with new faces. They won’t look like me.”)

A while later, as I start to respond to something he said, he picks up the tape recorder and turns the recording side towards me. It’s a quick, matter-of-fact gesture but it bespeaks a meticulousness that reminds me of one of the things I admire most about his non-fiction: the attention to detail, the level of engagement with things around him. In his essays and books this often takes the form of nuanced commentaries on the writing process, and careful analyses of what other writers are trying to do.

In the preface to his celebrated literary memoir Bombay-London-New York, Amitava wrote: “This book bears witness to my struggle to become a writer.” Today he is a well-known literary figure but one gets the sense that the struggle to write, to understand how to write, is an ongoing process for him. This theme finds echo in Home Products, the story of a journalist, Binod, trying to write a film script about a murdered poet, but exploring a number of other stories in the process.

Recounting a line by James Baldwin (“Every writer has only one story to tell”), Amitava says, “I’m convinced now that the only story I have to tell is the story of how to find the words to put down on the page, or how to tell your own story – the story of how you came to be. My idea is that at the end of Home Products, the reader should find that the book Binod was trying to write is this very one, the one the reader is holding.”

[If this sounds confusing, read some of Amitava’s articles here, especially this one.]

Another striking feature of his writing, also reflected in his personality, is the natural, unforced humility. This is markedly different from the show-offish attempts at self-deprecation sometimes seen in other writers. Reading Amitava’s work I often get the impression that that famous quality, the Writer’s Ego, is entirely absent in him; one waits for cracks to appear in what is – surely has to be? – a façade of self-effacement, but it never happens.

For example, in one of his articles, he mentions contacting Rahul Bhattacharya, the talented young cricket writer and author of Pundits from Pakistan, and asking him to elaborate on something he had written. At 44, Amitava is nearly a couple of decades senior to Bhattacharya, and writers are famous for getting more guarded and less accessible as they grow older; it’s difficult to imagine many others of his age and stature openly showing such interest in the work of a much younger man.

Amitava makes no attempt to hide that he’s flattered when I mention this. “Tum aur tumhara pyaar!” he says before getting serious: “The humility, as you put it, may have come from my longtime admiration for George Orwell. I was very much influenced by his honesty and candour, and I wanted to be like that.” Relating the genesis of Home Products, he says he was impressed by a similar candour in the actor Manoj Bajpai. “He told me that he used to wet his bed as a child,” he says, “and that reminded me of Orwell, who was equally unflinching in his descriptions of his own weaknesses.”

In the book, the character of Neeraj Dubey, a small-town actor who makes it big, is based on Bajpai. What prompted Amitava to move away from his comfort zone and tell this story as fiction? “I started off wanting to do a non-fiction book about Bajpai, but then I realised that the guy has told me about wetting his bed but would he tell me if he had a relationship with his aunt? So one has to make that up. Because there are other rooms in the house, and only a fiction writer will enter those rooms.”

Besides, writing fiction carries its own sense of power. “It gave me a thrill,” he says, “to create a wedding night scene where the guy starts talking to his wife about her Geography marks. Making up a conversation like that was a huge delight, and I wish others the same.” The leap from non-fiction was interesting in other ways. “A non-fiction writer wants to explain everything, but the fiction writer must be more restrained. For a long time, I thought fiction meant that one needed to add dramatic details to what had already been collected through travel and research. What I learnt, however, is that writing fiction is more about taking things away and letting the silences stand.”

Does he think of himself primarily as an academic, an essayist or a member of that much-discussed club, the Indian Writer in English? “I’m opposed to the IWE acronym,” he says, chewing on a mutton burrah. “Recently a friend told me that the language in my book seemed to melt away into Hindi. That felt good – I can’t really think of myself as an Indian writer in English.”

“Academics make a profession of knowing things and I don’t want to be the person who always knows. Everything doesn’t come accompanied with footnotes. Academia is about being politically correct – offending no one – but in a world full of offences it’s sometimes good to admit that you carry hate in your heart. My conscious choice in writing has been to admit incorrectness, to make space for faults.”

“So I guess I’m left with being an essayist – or just a writer! Have some burrah,” he adds, “it’s lovely.” And then a non-sequitur – “When you write your article you must include this sentence: ‘While I was praising Amitava Kumar, he exploited the situation and ate up all the kebabs’.”

As people stream in and the decibel levels in the restaurant rise, our talk becomes more general. We touch on his love for Indian food (“Nothing like a warm roti,” he says, “Do you know how to make rotis? Neither my wife nor I know – big disadvantage”), his hometown Patna (“it’s changing fast – Gurgaon isn’t the only megapolis in India!”) …and Salman Rushdie who, displeased by some of the things Amitava has written about him, refused to share the stage with him when he was invited to speak at Vassar College. (Amitava blogged about the incident here.)

Does he think of the Rushdie of today as more a P3 celebrity than a serious writer? “I do, yes,” says Amitava, “and that’s the short answer. The long answer is: he’s a very important figure for us (contemporary Indian authors working in English). Baap hai woh. Aur baap ko gaali dena buri baat hai.” A meaningful pause, and I can anticipate what’s coming next. “Lekin chutiya baap hai. Baap agar roz daaru peeke ghar aayega toh aap usko kitna respect denge?

[I’m not translating the above into English. You get the spirit of the thing only in the original.]

After a hurriedly consumed fruit cream dessert, it’s time to go – Amitava’s book launch is in the evening and he’d like to grab some shut-eye before then. “When I was living in Delhi as a student,” he says, “I would walk across to Pragati Maidan to watch Shyam Benegal saab’s films. And now he’s going to be releasing my book!” You’d normally expect these words from a first-time author, a launch virgin, but coming from Amitava Kumar they don’t seem at all unnatural.


A few more quotes that I couldn’t fit in:

On his use of the first-person in essays about other people’s work

The “I” is linked with the “eye”, which is looking at the world. When one of my students comes into class and says he wants to write a story about a guy who goes to the moon and meets a dog and such-and-such happens, I said to him, ‘Whoa! How about coming down to earth and looking at the lives of people around you – there are so many fascinating stories there. Find out what happened to your mother when she was a waitress at that restaurant.’

On post-colonial studies

I have benefited from it, and I shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds me, but allow me (he says very deliberately), allow me to at least bark at the hand that feeds me.
Post-colonial theory has analytical value – in terms of studying inequalities and so on – but it is also very narrow and not willing to change. In fact I tried to call it by a new name, “World Bank literature”. This could refer to the “literature” produced by the WB itself – the reports etc – which we could consider Literature! Or it could refer to the literature in the countries where the WB exists.

More on moving away from the political correctness of academia

If you’ve read my recent piece on rape – it’s a disturbing thought that a woman should run away with her rapist, and it’s awkward to even discuss such a thing. But these things happened during Partition – there were women who didn’t want to leave the promise of a new life.


  1. Wow, Jai. A very engaging peice. You manage to give us a sense of what it might be to sit and have lunch with AK. I recall him sharing in B-L-NY (or elsewhere) his experience as a young student in Bihar, his movement westwards in pursuit of education (first to Delhi and then to the US), the tradition of respect for paper. (if i remember correctly, how students , on dropping a note-book aplogise to it by bringing it close to your forehead. So I am not at all surprised that his story is one of 'how to put words on paper'. I think he has not forgotten where he comes from. And I don't mean that in a judgemental way. The process is fascinating for him partly because in some sense he had to master this language on his own.
    It is also not surprising then that his writing is marked by a certain simplicity (not necessarily that of ideas, and that he often talks about Post-colonial writers needing to have 'a broad reach' and create 'inwardness' (things he said in reference to sontag's work which SO STRANGELY i read just a few days ago.)
    i am pretty much repeating some of the things you said. I guess, i got reallly into it (partly because the how-to part of writing fascinates me too. Sometimes i find myself thinking about it in the context of class, culture and colonization. In any case, thanks a lot for sharing this with us. (Ah, i was so sleepy but your post woke me up.) should i thank you or curse you? i will stick to the thanks.

  2. i completely forgot to say. you made me hungry as well. :|

    i am awake and i am hungry. thank you.

  3. Parul: ha ha + sorry! I actually would have liked to write a long post discussing Bombay-London-New York at length (read it very recently), and maybe interspersing that with what we discussed over lunch. But the post would have been too confused and too long, so I took the easy way out. Later perhaps.

  4. this is a very nice format for talking about books and writer, and you do it very well :) Your Kiran Desai lunches were also very good, I mean the writing, not the food!

    I haven't read anything by him yet. I should because he seems to be interested in patna and bihar quite a bit :) (two smileys in one comment, here you go!)

  5. JAS, enjoyed the interview very much. And please do write something about Bombay-London-NY, it's one of my favorite books and I think it's a great example of what Amitava is capable. (And he is such a decent guy, isn't he?)

    A friend is carrying back the novel in a few weeks and I can't wait...

  6. Jai...your "schizophrenic" posts are among the most enjoyable posts here.

    so....in these lunches with BS, do you get to eat what ever you want to, where ever you want to, bill BS, and BS the afternoon away? I'd call that a sweet deal.

  7. Yellow daal. Oh dear. I used to have colleagues who would consume copious quantities of the stuff at lunch and then have post-lunch discussions consisting mainly of them emitting gentle yellow daal burps in my face. Not very nice, no not at all, that yellow daal post-burp fragrance.


  8. Intersting piece Jai. Enjoyed it very much. Man, it is time you too wrote a book. That would be lovely.

    Prof Kumar's book is yet to hit bookstores in Singapore. I went to look for it but alas had to come back disappointed (I returned with Mohsin Hamid's new novel).

  9. zafar, how is mohsin hamid's new book? its not available in bombay yet...does it live upto all the expectations after moth smoke?


  10. I'm reading Amitava Kumar's Bombay London New York, so I checked up this post. This is really one of your best interviews. The author's personality really comes across here.

  11. why is this piece so positivist? Are you in love with Mr. Kumar? All of Mr. Kumar's work is about him. And you can't see a hint of Writer's Ego? I thought he was a Marxist at some point....what happened to dedicating your life to the struggle? I've met him on several occasions....and as much as I respect his writing and keep up with his blog....he's one of the most self-centered writers I've come across....

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