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'What it's like to be living in the times of the Trumps and Modis'

By Firdaus Ali
May 17, 2019 12:59 IST
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'What it is like to be heckled and hassled for speaking your mind and heart.'
'Writers don't need to join the mob, but rather reflect on it.'
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Amitava Kumar and immigration

Amitava Kumar has been described as a poet, writer, journalist, scholar, teacher and even showman. The last title is perhaps most befitting when you watch him discussing his latest novel, Immigrant, Montana, an incandescent investigation of love, transcending borders and dividing lines, with his readers.

A guest at an In Conversation event organised as part of Toronto's Koffler Centre of the Arts Books and Ideas series, Kumar scored with the audience, displaying quirky humour and ample infectious energy.

He charmed with quick repartees, while reading racy lines from his book in between slow sips of delectable Scotch.

Kumar paints, has written scripts for two documentary films, Dirty Laundry and Pure Chutney, and is a self-confessed social media addict.

With one foot in academia and the other in the outside world, Kumar has built a career rocking a boat most immigrants fear stepping into.

His writings aim to unravel the impostor syndrome: The guilt and shame that immigrants carry with them for 'intruding' into someone else's space, country and culture.


Kumar lives with his family in Poughkeepsie, in upstate New York, where he is the Helen D Lockwood Professor of English at Vassar College.

Born in Ara, which is part of Bihar's Bhojpur district, Kumar grew up in the nearby town of Patna, known for its corruption, crushing poverty and delicious mangoes. He calls Bihar the 'Alabama of India where kidnapping is a popular and growing industry'.

A coming-of-age novel, Immigrant, Montana is a moving tale about a young immigrant in search of himself, and love, in the wider world and has been dubbed as 'a beguiling medication on memory and migration, sex and politics, ideas and art, race and ambiguity'.

Immigrant, Montana made it to Barack Obama's list of favourite books for 2018.

Some of Kumar's previous books include Passport Photos, Bombay-London-New York, Husband Of A Fanatic: A Personal Journey Through India, Pakistan, Love, and Hate and A Foreigner Carrying In The Crook Of His Arm A Tiny Bomb, a prize-winning non-fictional literary response to the war on terror.

A book in 2015, Lunch With A Bigot: The Writer In The World talks about encounters with people and ideas in the US and India, including lunch with an ultra-right Hindu politician whose group had put him on a hit list.

From a student in India -- who mainly scored 'Ds' on his report card, to a professor of English and a wordsmith who was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship as well as the Ford Fellowship in Literature -- Kumar has indeed come a long way!

In an interview with Firdaus Ali, he talks about his fascination with migrant journeys and his penchant for anchoring a moving tale.

If you had to pick a common thread in all your books, what would it be?

All my books are visual narratives.

Whenever I write, I keep reminding myself of a blind editor who kept telling his staff, 'Make me see.' That is what I do.

I try to make readers see, hear and taste an event or an episode through visual narratives as well as photographs, drawings, post-scripts, basically anything that helps readers revisit the moment.

I am fascinated by movement. Whether its people moving from one place to another, or the moving of a political discourse or the flight of imagination, they all hold some wonderful magic within them and I try to bring these out through my writings.

How would you describe Immigrant, Montana?

Immigrant, Montana -- first published in India as The Lovers -- is an in-between novel by an in-between writer from an in-between land.

The novel is between fiction and memoir and a sneak peek into the life of a migrant as life-changing episodes are unfolding around him.

It is a book without borders, without a pause or a comma into literary imagination. It does not belong to a particular time or culture and it’s for this reason that I once thought of calling it, The Man Without A Nation.

Like my previous books, Immigrant, Montana sits on the on the cusp of fact and fiction. Where past is fiction, where past is another country. It's definitely not a linear book and is in no way a slave to its foreground.

It's about an immigrant longing to love, be loved and to belong.

The story revolves around an immigrant Kailash, who comes to post-Reagan America from India to attend graduate school.

From being called Kalashnikov to AK-47 to AK, he takes everything in his stride as he wants to fit in, belong and shine in his new homeland.

The book makes you ask if one can indeed weaponise love. It personifies the famous quote: you cannot truly love another until you know how to love yourself.

The novel has sections that are autobiographical, but isn't that true of most writers? They leave a little of themselves in everything they write.

How did you think of writing Immigrant, Montana?

Immigrant, Montana actually began on a train journey on my way to a job interview during my initial years in the US.

I had scribbled few lines... 'The red-bottomed monkeys of my childhood would leave the branches of the big tamarind tree, peel the oranges left unattended on the balcony of Lotan Mamaji's house/A few years later, the monkeys were still there, removing and eating from what my young cousin said were lice from each other's hair...'

I returned to these lines some 30 years later during residency at Yaddo (an artists' community in Saratoga Springs, New York) while listening to the radio about a wolf being shot in Montana. Who knew they would turn into a full-fledged novel some three decades later with only just-about two pages on Montana!

What genre do you enjoy writing most?

My writings are between fiction and memoir.

Between abstract and the visible, non-fiction writing is extremely popular and perhaps stems from the public's hunger for truth.

Non-fiction is also fiction and, in most of my books, the world is gazed and assessed through language.

The literary lens allows what is real to become truly visible.

I am fascinated by movement, especially movement of people -- be it migration, displacement or exile.

This movement compels me to step into someone else's shoes, to grasp a different point of view or assume a different existence, but especially to approach the subjectivity of another.

From initial works like No Tears For The NRI, a book of poems, to Passport Photos, a multi-genre book on immigration and post-coloniality to Immigrant, Montana -- they all talk about the impact of political decisions and agendas on the human displacement and migrations throughout the world.

Is Passport Photos an early reflection on your own immigration experience?

Passport Photos is an epigraphy and a report on the immigrant experience, including my own.

A multi-genre book combining theory, poetry, cultural criticism and photography, it explores the complexities of the immigration experience.

I call it a self-conscious act of artistic and intellectual forgery and the book came as a response I could not give the customs officer ushering me into his America.

Each passport label is a chapter in the book. Questions like why the father's name appears on a passport and not the mother's? Why is nationality linked to country and not language, when language is our true home?

It was my early tryst with the entire process of immigration.

Why is Husband Of A Fanatic: A Personal Journey Through India, Pakistan, Love, And Hate a special book?

Husband Of A Fanatic chronicled the entanglements my own marriage provoked.

In the summer of 1999, while India and Pakistan were engaged in war, I married a Pakistani Muslim. This event led me to examine the hatred and intimacy surrounding Indians and Pakistanis, Hindus and Mulims, fundamentalists and secularists, writers and rioters.

The book is my personal reflection on the idea of 'enemy'.

An excerpt from the book: I went to my high school in Patna, India, and asked kids to write letters to children their own age across the border. Then, I visited my wife's high school in Karachi, Pakistan, and asked the kids to write letters in response.

One student began with charming candour: 'Dear Indians, First of all hello!! I am a Pakistani Muslim and I want to inform you that you are liars!'

What inspired you to write?

As a child, I liked to draw and paint.

When the paintings wouldn't look like I wanted them to, I turned to writing to express my thoughts and to explain the world around me.

I was an avid newspaper reader. I always wanted to write for them.

Many writers have influenced me and my style of writing. George Orwell was one of them, V S Naipaul another.

When I read Orwell's Shooting An Elephant, his voice resonated with me.

An essay he wrote, Why I Write spoke about the diary that existed only in his mind, a silent voice in his head that compelled him to write about things he saw or did. His essay unlocked the language key for me and, after much practice, that silent voice became my guide.

Naipaul is often called the finest writer of the English sentence. He had a great power of observation, which he could then translate into meaningful words, giving his readers a good sense of his past.

His prowess as a writer to repeatedly dramatise the scene of writing, and thereby also a writer's life has been very powerful and important to my own transformation as well.

Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient broke the traditional writing mould for me. Nobel Prize Winner Alice Ann Munro, Arundhati Roy and many more show up in my writings every now and then.

How is Patna, your home town reflected in your writings?

George Orwell, one of my favourite authors, was born in Patna (Editor's note: In Motihari actually) and the city somehow finds its way in all of my books.

Whether it's through red-bottomed monkeys in Immigrant, Montana or rats who outsmart doctors in A Matter Of Rats: A Short Biography Of Patna or crumbling pasts in Life Of A Bigot, my books reflect my observations of everything that is living and non-living in the city.

Rats, politicians, poets, crumbling myriad cities locked within the mega city.

Outside my writings, I have visited Patna several times, but I feel like an outsider; I am alienated from the place that was once my hometown.

It is no longer home and perhaps this is what so fascinating about migration.

What does it take to be a writer?

Being a writer means having an amazing amount of discipline. It means sitting yourself on the chair and writing for at least five hours a day.

Like many, I am a sensitive thinker. I react to the situations around me. I need to capture a moment to its fullest and this is why I write.

A good writer speaks with purpose and chooses his words wisely.

However, writing needs discipline and a great amount of patience.

If one makes it a habit of writing 150 words and doing some mindful walking for at least 15 minutes every day, you will build a habit where words will start talking to you.

These are definitely mantras I live by.

Is getting published easy?

Hell no, it never was and it never will be.

Success does not come easy in life and why should writing be removed from the world?

No one touched my work when I didn't have an agent and things suddenly started moving at a dizzy pace once I had an agent.

Having a book published is like a gift from heaven.

A Foreigner Carrying In The Crook Of His Arm A Tiny Bomb is an unusual title -- can you tell us more about the book?

The book is a story of entrapment and a true reflection on the repercussions of the 'global war on terror'.

It tells the story of two men convicted in the US courts on terrorism-related charges.

Hemant Lakhani, a 70 year old, was tried for attempting to sell a fake missile to an FBI informant, and Shahawar Matin Siraj, who was accused of being involved in a conspiracy to bomb a subway.

Through this book, I have tried to explore the experiences of ordinary people entrapped in the 'war on terror' as governments push their own agendas and the growing suspicions about foreigners in post-9/11 America.

How did Lunch With A Bigot come about?

Lunch With A Bigot is a book on how the old makes way for the new.

It is a compilation of 26 essays ranging from memoirs to reportage, literary criticism and cultural activism and is my attempt to examine the self and the world.

The essays are encounters with the past and present and showcase stories of migration and travels.

The book includes encounters with writers Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi and Arundhati Roy.

Through a chapter, the book also captures the struggles of actor Manoj Bajpayee and his relationship with Bollywood.

Like me, Manoj is also from Bihar and spent his childhood in a village some kilometres away from my own.

He agreed to make the journey into his past for the book.

The chapter sheds light on what actors who come from villages and smaller towns or cities have to unlearn about their ways in order to assimilate into their new home in Mumbai.

The book was published under the title, Nobody Does the Right Thing, in the US.

With Immigrant, Montana behind you, what's next?

I plan to write about fake news and how they change mindsets.

I want to write about what it's like to be living in the times of the Trumps and Modis of the world. What it is like to be heckled and hassled for speaking your mind and heart. What it is like for a protestor at a Trump's rally to deal with the mob.

I recently designed a savvy slogan commenting on the political situation in India, especially with the ongoing elections.

A lit match with the slogan: learn how to fight fires, not light them!

Writers don't need to join the mob, but rather reflect on it. And that is exactly what I plan to do!

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Firdaus Ali