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An Uncommon Literature With a Common Language
Sometimes compositions of exemplary character and intuition do not receive the desired attention from their creators. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes mysteries on a lark but tired of his detective, had him killed in a story, only to revive him again after a public outrage. A similar overlooking of one’s own talents occurs in Amitava Kumar’s entertaining new book Bombay-London-New York. While the title may be reminiscent of a travel brochure, the book is an exhaustive thorough survey of Indian authors writing in English, living in both India and abroad. However, sifting through the literary ore, we find fascinating nuggets of Kumar’s own life, gleaming like gold. Kumar’s personal musings cover perhaps a fourth of his book but have an impact far beyond their length. The slender volume of his personal odyssey has enough pathos to overcome his intermittently interesting but mostly descriptive treatise on the Indian contribution to English literature.
Indian fiction, long confined to the coffee tables of Indian expatriates, has now entered mainstream publishing in an understated, but determined manner. The literary world has gradually awakened to the realization that Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul and Arundhati Roy are not confined to the ethnic press anymore; they are internationally renowned writers with considerable influence in the world of ideas. It is therefore particularly apt that there be a reassessment of Indian-English contribution to English literature and Kumar does this admirably through the prism of his own experience.
In The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul describes his journey to America and England and how he ended the day eating a roasted chicken over a waste-paper basket in his hotel room; finding in the unsavory aroma, a bit of self-loathing, home-sickness and plain-old hunger. Kumar extrapolates this experience into his own; upon arriving in America, he gorges on beer and beef, and later reminisces on parallels to the story of another Indian expatriate in London: Mahatma Gandhi. By examining immigrant literature through a highly personalized perspective, Kumar brings an immediacy to his account of Indian literature that is refreshing.
Kumar does not confine his survey to immigrant writing. We are taken to Pankaj Mishra’s Butter chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India , where an Indian born American kid asks a perplexed hotel manager “May I have a boddle of Bisleri Wadder.” He ruminates on the nuclear bomb with Arundhati Roy (The End of Imagination), relives London’s Bloomsbury circle with Mulk Raj Anand ( Conversations in Bloomsbury), revels in the celebration of Hanif Kureishi’s sexually charged writing (My Beautiful Launderette, Sammie and Rosie Get Laid) and discusses Akhil Sharma’s An Obedient father, the story of a corrupt Delhi bureaucrat who is also a child molester. Kumar’s scholarship is impressive; the reader can almost smell the musty library in which the author must have spent his time researching the writers, some of whom he even interviewed later. In addition to his literature survey, Kumar discusses diverse issues that would resonate with Indian immigrants. He points out the new found respectability of the Indian software elite and discusses their problems with work-permit (H-1 B) visas. He lambastes the Indian film industry for portraying a regressive nationalist-paternal plot in their movies to cater to the conservative sections amongst the Indian expatriates in U.K. and the United States. Kumar also delves into the social roles of writers, spending some time on the New Delhi based activist-play-write Safdar Hashmi (whose political activism resulted in his murder) and wonders if Indian writers in the United States can play a similar role. In exploring issues that have been discussed by earlier writers but not dissected, Kumar’s writing is grounded deeply in the current Indian immigrant debates.
For all its scholarship, Kumar’s erudition is enlightening but tepid; the curry is tasty but bland. For a taste of Indian melodrama, one has to wait until Kumar discusses his personal life. Scattered like tinsels throughout his book, the snippets from Kumar’s past are dazzling in their simple language and emotive power.
Kumar grew up in Bihar, considered somewhat uncharitably, as the arm-pit of India. He goes through all the sleazy ramifications of small town India: Eve teasing (known in the Western world as sexual harassment), the dowry system (the bride’s family pays money to the bridegroom) and sundry political rebellions. Kumar’s tenure at a student hostel in New Delhi during his college years was not any better, with poor grades and a sense of what the author calls “his customary indolence.” When Kumar travels to the United States for graduate studies, he lives the life of a typical Indian immigrant, mixing spices with Progresso lentil soup to make it taste like Dal (a staple Indian dish).
When Kumar combines his keen sense of perception with his literary strengths-candid and straight writing-the resulting text transforms even commonplace events from his unruly youth into trenchant writing. Speaking of his sexual awakening, he writes, “From the febrile imagination of a characteristically repressed Indian schoolboy poured out a Sadean fantasy of pulleys and hydraulics, elevation and latitudes, skin and glands that sweated sexuality.” He writes of the dowry cash brought to his parent’s house “Once I touched the notes: they felt slightly moist.”
The last chapter of Bombay-London-New York, an account of his student life and his friendship with a person called Shastriji, is Kumar’s most poignant work. In describing Shastriji, a somewhat maladjusted immigrant, Kumar is at once amusing and melancholy; humor in immigrant gaffes is often the other side of integration problems. In his uncluttered writing style and simple emoting, Kumar is closer to Jhumpa Lahiri (Pulitzer Prize winner for Interpreter of Maladies) than any other Indian author. His diligence in providing structure to Indian writing is laudable; however, his skills in sketching vivid portrayals of Indian life deserve more attention, not least from the author himself.