“…I have written of a world seen from the eyes of an immigrant. I’m conscious of borders. And it was that consciousness that entered my mind when I was approaching the account of my marriage in Husband of a Fanatic…”
Amitava Kumar talks to Dibyajyoti Sarma about his fascination for destinations, the idea of being an immigrant and his new novel, Home Products
In his latest novel Home Products, published February this year, the protagonist Binod travels to Bihar, the place where he grew up, to research for a Bollywood screenplay. That his life unexpectedly intertwines with his cousin Rabinder, an archetypal Bihari smalltime mafia is a different story, but the novel reinforces one thing, the importance of places for writer Amitava Kumar.
It’s probably because that’s what Kumar’s personal life is, moving from one destination to another. He was born in Bihar in 1963, did his MA in Delhi University and earned a Ph D from the University of Minnesota before settling down as a professor of English, Vassar College in the US.
Even his writing reflects his fascination for travels and destination. Beside writing/editing film scripts, literary essays and poetry, Kumar has also authored Passport Photos, multi-genre book on immigration and postcoloniality. His next was Bombay-London-New York, literary memoir cum critical report on Indian fiction, before bursting into Indian literary scene in 2005 with Husband of a Fanatic, a book on writing and religious violence. The book talks about a Hindu man’s marriage to a Muslim woman, and his subsequent conversion, a reflection of Kumar’s personal life. Yet, the book is more about an attempt to understand the two neighbours, India and Pakistan, as the subtitle, ‘a personal journey through India, Pakistan, love, and hate,’ suggests.
Kumar explains his fascination for destinations and its implication in his writing: “I became a writer in any real sense only after I had left my home in Patna and travelled outside. This is particularly true of the writing I have done in the past 15-20 years. I have written of a world seen from the eyes of an immigrant. I’m conscious of borders. And it was that consciousness that entered my mind when I was approaching the account of my marriage in Husband of a Fanatic. The feeling that you have, when you’re standing at
Wagah, that it is the same earth, the same trees, the same air on both sides of the wire in between. In my novel, however, I was more conscious of the migration that takes places within a country. How small places, villages and small towns, exist inside the big metropolises of our nation.”
Immigration entails another concept ‘homeland,’ especially the term ‘Imaginary Homeland’ popularised by Salman Rushdie, a place that exists nowhere. Is Kumar’s attempt is also about 'writing back' the 'homeland,' imaginary or otherwise?
Kumar does not agree. “No entirely. It is partly about the places one has left behind, but it is also about the discovery of new ones. In both cases, the past and the future, there’s a bit that is real and a great deal that is imaginary.”
We move into broader topics. An oft-cited criticism against the Diasporic writer is that they do nothing except for exotising India. Critics have found elements of it in Home Products as well. After all, Bihar itself is exotic, even within India, isn’t it? Kumar defends: “This criticism, a familiar and somewhat formulaic one, has always struck me as a variant of the type that goes like this: ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ There is always the assumption in the questioner that the writer is guilty; the question is often only an excuse to repeat the charge!”
But what about the autobiography in fiction? Where does, for a writer, life ends and fiction starts? “There is a lot that is autobiographical in my writing. A small slice of light separates life from what I do with it on the page. All art is in that narrow space of manoeuvre, transforming the raw content of days into a narrative.”
These are the days of non-fiction. Is there a difference between creative writing and the other kinds of writing? Of course there is, although, in the same breath, I want to say that both kinds strive for a kind of expressiveness. I’m drawn to more imaginative writing because it is experimental, but I’m not wholly free of my love for critical writing which is analytical and economical.”
That’s Amitava Kumar who knows his place in the world full of destinations and also knows what kind of writing he wants to do. But does that also involve writing a film script for Mahesh Bhatt? “Like a thousand other things in life, it lies incomplete, halfway between desire and fulfillment,” answers Kumar.
Home Products (novel)
Husband of a Fanatic (book on writing and religious violence)
Bombay-London-New York (literary memoir)
Passport Photos (multi-genre book on immigration and postcoloniality)
No Tears for the NRI (poems