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LUNCH WITH BS: Amitava Kumar

The story of the story

Jai Arjun Singh  |  New Delhi 

The established essayist says his success lies in the readers seeing the book in their hands is the very one the protagonist was trying to write.

"Let's go to Karim's," Amitava Kumar suggested in his email when we were fixing up this lunch. "One or two greasy parathas and an oily rogan josh will be the proper cure for my jet-lag." But when the day comes, we need to find a place closer to the guesthouse where he's staying, so we opt for Gulati restaurant on Pandara Road "" not as iconic as Karim's but distinguished enough, and more likely to be quiet and have seating space. Besides, we can always put in a request for extra oil, writes Jai Arjun Singh.

An established essayist, writer of non-fiction and Professor of English at Vassar College, NY, Amitava is in India for the launch of his first novel, Home Products. In the interests of full disclosure, we have been friends for some time, corresponding regularly on email and through our blogs "" which is why this conversation is more informal than the standard Q&A. Also, many of his specific phrases, especially the Hindi ones, cannot be repeated in this newspaper; Amitava enjoys channelling his small-town Bihari side, throwing in a juicy colloquial cuss word, for instance, in the middle of a serious discussion on post-colonial theory.

On the way to the restaurant, he asks me to stop the car so he can take photographs of some faded posters of wanted criminals and terrorists on a nearby wall. "I'm working on something about arrests and entrapment," he says, "and I'm interested in the language used to describe terrorists, and how we are expected to recognise them "" after all the 9/11 hijackers were anonymous in appearance, they didn't look like stereotypes." It's fun studying the descriptions on the posters. "Wears shirt and pant," one says helpfully, "and carries China pistol."

Settling into the cosy north Indian family atmosphere of Gulati, we order a non-veg kebab platter, some yellow daal and a half-portion of tandoori chicken. The tape recorder is on and as I start to respond to something Amitava said, he picks it up and turns the recording side towards me. It's a quick, matter-of-fact gesture but it bespeaks a meticulousness that reminds me of what I admire most about his non-fiction work: the attention to detail, the level of engagement with things around him. In his essays and books, this often takes the form of nuanced commentaries on the writing process, and careful analyses of what other writers are trying to do.

In the preface to his celebrated literary memoir Bombay-London-New York (2002), Amitava wrote: "This book bears witness to my struggle to become a writer." Today he is a respected literary figure (and an outstanding reader) but one gets the sense that the struggle to write, to understand how to write, is an ongoing process for him. This theme is echoed in Home Products, the story of a journalist, Binod, trying to write a film script about a murdered poet, but exploring a number of other stories in the process. "I'm convinced," Amitava tells me, "that the only story I have to tell is the story of how to find the words to put down on the page. At the end of Home Products, the reader should see that the book Binod was trying to write is this very one, the one the reader is holding."

Another striking feature of his writing, also reflected in his personality, is the natural, unforced humility. This is markedly different from the show-offish attempts at self-deprecation sometimes seen in other writers; reading his work, one gets the unsettling impression that the Writer's Ego is entirely absent. I think of an article where he mentioned contacting Rahul Bhattacharya, the young cricket writer and of Pundits in Pakistan, and asking him to elaborate on something he had written. Writers are famous for becoming more guarded as they get older, and you won't find many others of Amitava's age (he is 44) and stature openly evincing such interest in the work of a much younger man.

He's pleased when I mention this. "The humility, as you put it" he says, "may have come from my long-time admiration for George Orwell.

I was very much influenced by his honesty and candour, and I wanted to be like that." Relating the genesis of Home Products, he says he was impressed by a similar candour in the actor Manoj Bajpai. "He told me that he used to wet his bed as a child," he says, "and that reminded me of Orwell, who was equally unflinching in his descriptions of his own weaknesses."

In the book, the character of Neeraj Dubey, a small-town actor who makes it big, is based on Bajpai. What prompted Amitava to move away from his comfort zone and tell this story as fiction? "I started off wanting to do a non-fiction book about Bajpai, but then I realised that the guy has told me about wetting his bed but would he tell me if he had a relationship with his aunt? So one has to make that up. Because there are other rooms in the house, and only a fiction writer will enter those rooms."

Besides, writing fiction carries its own sense of power. "It gave me a thrill," he says, "to create a wedding night scene where the guy starts talking to his wife about her Geography marks. Making up a conversation like that was a huge delight." The leap from non-fiction was interesting in other ways. "The fiction writer doesn't have to explain everything. For a long time, I thought fiction meant that one needed to add dramatic details to what had already been collected through travel and research "" but writing this, I learnt that it's more about taking things away and letting the silences stand."

Does he think of himself primarily as an academic, an essayist or a member of that much-discussed club, the Indian Writer in English? "I'm opposed to the IWE acronym," he says, chewing on a mutton barrah. "Recently a friend told me that the language in my book seemed to melt away into Hindi. That felt good "" I can't really think of myself as an Indian writer in English."

"Academics make a profession of knowing things and I don't want to be the person who always knows. Everything doesn't come accompanied with footnotes. Academia is about being politically correct "" offending no one "" but in a world full of offences, it's sometimes good to admit that you carry hate in your heart. My conscious choice in writing has been to admit incorrectness, to make space for faults."

"So I guess I'm left with being an essayist "" or just a writer! Have some barrah," he adds, "it's lovely." And then a non-sequitur "" "When you write your article you should include this sentence: 'While I was praising Amitava Kumar, he exploited the situation and ate up all the kebabs'."

As people stream in and the decibel levels in the restaurant rise, our talk becomes more general. We touch on Salman Rushdie who, presumably annoyed by some of the things Amitava has written about him, refused to share the stage with him when he was invited to speak at Vassar College. Amitava's exact words about Rushdie will have to stay off the record; the very polite version is that he thinks of him as "hum sab ka baap" (roughly: a father figure of sorts to contemporary Indian authors working in English) "" but a baap who's gone somewhat astray.

After a hurriedly consumed fruit cream dessert, it's time to go. Amitava's book launch is in the evening and he'd like to grab some shut-eye before then. "When I was living in Delhi as a student," he says, "I would walk across to Pragati Maidan to watch Shyam Benegal saab's films. And now he's going to be releasing my book!" You'd normally expect these words from a first-time author, a launch virgin, but coming from Amitava Kumar they don't seem unnatural at all.

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First Published: Tue, March 20 2007. 00:00 IST