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July 29, 2000

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Amitava Kumar speaks up

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    "If it can be allowed that the passport is a kind of book, then the immigration officer, holding a passport in his hand, is also a reader. Like someone in a library or even, in the course of a pleasant afternoon, on a bench beneath a tree. Under the fluorescent lights, he reads the entries made in an unfamiliar hand under categories that are all too familiar. He examines the seals, the stamps, and the signatures on them.

    He looks up. He reads the immigrant's responses to his questions, the clothes, the accent. The officer's eyes return to the passport. He appears to be reading it more carefully. He frowns. Suddenly he turns around and tries to catch a colleague's eye. It is nothing, he wants more coffee.

    You notice all this if you are an immigrant ..."

This introduction from Amitava Kumar's new book Passport Photos (University of California Press, 2000), documents the condition of the immigrant with great detail and even greater clarity.

Kumar should know his subject. He previously wrote No Tears for the N.R.I. (Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1996). In the introduction to that book, he wrote, "I was born in Bihar, famous for its corruption, its poverty, and its sweet mangoes."

After teaching English at the University of Florida in Gainesville for seven years, Kumar will be joining the faculty at Penn State University in fall.

He has earned master's degrees from Delhi University and Syracuse University. He also has a doctorate from the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. Talking to Nitish Rele here is the writer describing on his past, present and more:

When I started writing, I only wrote poetry. This was in secondary school; most of my writing was done in the economics class when the teacher was trying to explain the relative merits of buying butter over guns.

I came to this country in 1986 to do graduate work. Like many other desis, I intended, even wanted, to go back. But, things change. You change. Now, I go back and people walk up to me on the streets of Delhi and ask if I have dollars to sell. I feel very uneasy, if not exactly unhappy, about this change.

I sometimes think about how long a journey this has been. I remember the day I left Patna to come to New York in August 1986. Through the small window in the plane, I watched the rest of my family standing far back from the tarmac. They were all there to say goodbye to me, aunts and uncles, my mother in a new sari, my grandmother who had been brought from the village in which she lived. It was going to be my first journey by plane.

Even before I came to this country, I had made a big move in India. I had left Patna to go join secondary school in Delhi.

That was in 1979. I had recently won a scholarship. I took one of my mother's small steel-trunks to the New Market in Patna and got it painted a shiny black. In bold letters in the right-hand corner, in white, I had the painter carefully write: A KUMAR, NEW DELHI.

To this day, some of my relatives call me by that whole "name". I was sixteen then. The move had been made, I felt, from the provinces to the capital city. Suddenly, I wanted to be better at English and would write in a notebook all the unfamiliar words I encountered. The first entry in my notebook was the word "lambent." I had come across it, if memory serves me correctly, in Hardy's Tess.... I think I got interested in language and in writing as I began to learn new words. When I had the language, I guess I had more things to say.

Two more years passed in Delhi, and, I got interested in the arts, in Marxism, in the Indian New Wave films.... I was increasingly drawn by street plays and theater at the National School of Drama, the paintings of ordinary life that I saw coming out of Baroda, and the authors whose books I found in the Sahitya Akademi Library and also in the USIS library near Connaught Place.

And now? I have entered the drama that is becoming the reality of thousands, no, more than a million, Indians. In a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri, this reality is summed up succinctly. In the story, we read the words of an Indian who had come to Boston as a young man on the day the Americans first landed on the moon: "While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly 30 years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination."

I love my students. I am especially interested in the students of Indian origin in my classes. Their questions, even their confusions, fascinate me.

One student in my undergraduate class at Yale, in the spring of 1999, wrote this on his first day: "I want to know how to read Rushdie, Naipaul, Roy, and others -- are they really India? Are they Indian in the same way that I am? What is my relation to them? What is our relation to India?" I await the answers that only they can give me.

Over the past 10 years or more, I have shaped myself to be a writer who is documenting the immigrant condition. In my prose, in my poems, in my film work, I am very interested in producing a document of my own life and of others like me.

The Caribbean writer C L R James has talked about trying to understand where you are coming from, where you are going, and the rate at which you are getting there. I want to -- oh how shall I put this? -- the eloquent scribe of that movement.

Passport Photos is an attempt to tell that story. But it is also an attempt to record the difficulty of telling that story. Let me give you one example. As immigrants we often wear our nostalgia like a badge. We bemoan our loss. That doesn't interest me. Others will say, but look also at what you have gained. That's a good point but that doesn't seem as important as something else entirely.

For me, the more critical -- and the less noticed -- point is how the soft emotion of nostalgia is turned into the hard emotion of fundamentalism. I am interested in addressing, in a sympathetic but nevertheless oppositional way, how we become more Indian than the Indians we have left behind.

One other point. I think I say somewhere in the book that immigrants do not speak in one language alone. So, in Passport Photos, I have tried to speak through different tongues: poetry, criticism, journalism, photography... I do not think I can be only a poet or only a critic: I want to challenge the complacency of any one discourse.

It has become more and more common in the last few years for people to strike up a conversation with me about Indian writers in English. I am speaking, of course, of people in the West, mostly in the US.

We can be at a party, or in the bus, or in the airport bookstore. The conversation so often begins or ends with my interlocutor asking me if I am Indian.

"Yes? Are you a doctor? Computer engineer?"

"No, I teach English."

"Oh, I love Salman Rushdie! Or Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Hanif Kureishi, Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai."

Once, I was asked if I was related to Hari Kumar in The Jewel in the Crown playing on PBS's Masterpiece Theater. In my first few years in this country, I was incessantly quizzed about arranged marriages and bride-burning. Suddenly it is more common now to be asked about novels. I guess one could regard that as a change for the better. I see myself as repeating but also taking some distance from what has become known as Indian writing. In my own writing, I try to present an inventory of our lived experiences. I would call it a brand of humble anthropology.

Although I have learned a lot from Indian writers in the West, I find evidence of our lives in more ordinary places than the writers I am incessantly quizzed about.

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