Amitava Kumar’s Home Products, a first novel from this critic, teacher and author of several non-fiction books, is out.
When I began to get more time to write, maybe an hour or two each day, I’d start by reading a few pages of A House for Mr. Biswas. I wanted to be reminded again and again of the comedy that informs V.S. Naipaul’s writing about failure. And every time I finished work, I’d be conscious only of the ways in which I had failed. There is very little doubt in my mind that one of the hardest things a serious writer must do is write with humour. It was easy to forget this demand because I was anxious to get the words on the page. I was always afraid that the book would run aground. I’d be stranded in the sand. The journal’s pages are full of notes recording scenes and snatches of imagined dialogue. Much of it was never used. But reading those pages now, I can very easily recall the panic and dread that dogged me during that time.
And here’s V S Naipaul on writing:
I thought when I began to write that I would do fiction alone. To be a writer of the imagination seemed to me the noblest thing. But after a few books I saw that my material – the matter in my head, the matter in the end given me by my background – would not support that ambition.
The ambition itself had been given me by what I knew of the great 19th-century novels of Europe, or what I thought I knew of them. I put it in that cautious way because, before I began to write, I actually hadn’t read a great deal. I saw now – something I suppose I had always sensed but never worked out as an idea – that those novels had come out of societies more compartmented, more intellectually ordered and full of conviction than the one I found myself in. To pretend that I came out of a society as complete and ordered would in some ways have made writing easier.
Here’s a brief excerpt from Home Products; Amitava read this at the Delhi launch:
“[Binod] began to read on his own when he got older. He read his mother’s books. Till he was fifteen, the only book in English that he had read was The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. It was a book that Ma had received as a wedding gift from her distant cousin Vijay, who later became a senior member of the Communist Party and prided himself on having read all the major works in modern English and American literature. Hemingway’s story was simply told and the plot had been easy for Binod to understand.
Unaccountably, he had held the idea till then that all the books that were written in English had sex in them, and that was the only reason why it was just the grown-ups who read books in that language. But there was no sex in The Old Man and the Sea.“
Though Binod and I don’t have a background in common–he’s a small town boy, I’m a big city person–this particular passage took me back to the wedding gifts from my marriage, 11 years ago. We had two receptions, one in Delhi, where the gifts ran to ‘lemon sets’, art and silver nut bowls; and one in Calcutta, where we were gifted hand-stitched tablecloths, handloom saris–and books.
It was years before I looked at the books, especially those in Bengali, and recognised the level of tact that had gone into their selection. My husband reads and speaks Bangla; I read and write fluently, but speak with some hesitation. The books that we were given sought to introduce me to what might well be an alien literary world, for all the gift-givers knew, but with tact and grace. The simple, more lucid works of obscure poets; short story collections by major writers, presumably easier for a beginner to read than novels; wonderful Bengali cookbooks, though much later I realised that I had received the ones written in less complex prose.
There were also two English books, gifted by the same person: Wuthering Heights and a Nancy Drew mystery. My husband and I puzzled over these for a long time: was this a subtle insult, Japanese-fashion, a delicate putdown of our intellectual pretensions? Was it an honest error? Years later, I learned that the gift-giver read chiefly in Bengali, was uncomfortable with English, but knew that both of us read “Ingrej” books. She had taken the time and trouble to visit an English bookstore and ask the sales person for two books: “One classic, and one fun read.”
Those books are still on my shelf. They might not be appropriate reading, but I’m reluctant to let go of them.
And two moments from the Delhi reading:
Amitava spoke about his first job as a teacher at an American university. At the first meeting, someone suggested a course in ‘Latino-Latina lit’; another professor, seeing his cue, asked why literature in a US university had to be so broad, what would happen to ‘indigenous’ American literature. Amitava: “In my village near Patna in Bihar, there’s a mural of Mickey Mouse. He’s selling a brand of toothpaste. Robert, I’ll tell you what Latino-Latina lit is doing in a US university if you can tell me what Mickey Mouse is doing in my village.” (Not an exact quote–I wasn’t taking notes, so this is from memory.)
The second was when Jeet Thayil suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that Pankaj Mishra, Siddhartha Deb and Amitava Kumar were part of a new Cult of Authenticity:
“Amitava owns Patna. Siddhartha owns the North-East. And Pankaj owns a very large chunk of North India.”