In a scene late in Amitava Kumar’s novel, Home Products, the protagonist Binod is returning home with his family from Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre after watching a powerful Hindi adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play, The Glass Menagerie. “Binod felt the tragedy they had witnessed on stage had also made their own small sufferings pleasant and lyrical,” writes Kumar. His novel might be thought of as exploring the question of how art, which is a representation of life, also impacts life, triggering memories, provoking connections and being assimilated till it practically becomes a home product.
Binod himself wanted to be a writer—we learn at different stages that he likes reading Orwell, Chekhov, Manto, Bhalchandra Nemade—but he now works in Mumbai as a film journalist. When he writes an editorial about the murder of a small-town female poet by a politician in his home state, Bihar, a film director asks him if he would like to write a script around the story.
Binod travels to Patna to understand the story better, but finds the dead woman’s family stubborn and unhelpful.
His cousin, the ambitious and amoral Rabinder, is in jail, not for the first time. On hearing Binod’s story, he suggests there is no need for Binod to track reality so doggedly. If he really wants a model for “a woman’s lonely ambitions” in a small town, then his own mother, Binod’s aunt, whom everyone calls Bua, is good enough.
Bua, after losing the support of her husband early in her married life, got herself an education, took up welfare work and is now a minister in Lalu Prasad Yadav’s cabinet. Rabinder’s question: “Shouldn’t you be writing Bua’s story instead?” resonates in Binod’s mind—another instance in the novel of a story merging with something close to home.
Binod thinks later of “how stories begin in one place and end in another place that is often altogether unexpected”. Kumar’s narrative, shuttling continuously between the present and past, is faithful to Binod’s realization, adding layer upon layer in a very even, composed style.
In the linking up of personal ambition, crime, politics and film, his book is slightly reminiscent of Vikram Chandra’s magnum opus, Sacred Games. And, much like Chandra, Kumar really knows how to write a rich, satisfying scene.
The first two sections of Home Products—‘The Car with the Red Light’ and ‘Ulan Bator at Night’— string together episodes of startling power: A wrestling match in Rabinder’s jail, Binod’s memory of accompanying his aunt to her new home the day after her wedding and the boy Rabinder accidentally killing a little girl after firing a gun at a celebration.
Kumar’s eye for the telling detail is very sharp. Early in the novel, when Binod visits Patna, Bua comes to see him, accompanied by another minister, Parshuram. Bua has never remarried, but midway through the conversation, “Parshuram reached over to where Bua sat, took the corner of her sari in his right hand and began to rub it on the lens of his spectacles.”
This is enough to suggest the nature of their relationship and also their indifference to gossip. In the same way, Rabinder, we know, has indulged in several acts of violence, but feels no regret or remorse. And even in a sentence such as “Rabinder had finished his meal quickly and was sucking on the lime pickle on his plate”, we are invited to see a trace of the sinister beneath the everyday.
If Home Products does not quite redeem the promise of its first half, it is because Kumar’s narration, having carefully opened out a world, continues to expand outwards and, as a result, becomes somewhat unfocused. Kumar has written three non-fiction books previously, including the splendid Husband of a Fanatic, and even in this book, he has an eye on the news, which we are perhaps meant to understand as an expression of Binod’s own curiosity as a journalist.
In one stretch of the book, we are told in quick succession of Virender Sehwag batting against South Africa, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the tsunami in South India.
But novels are always more interesting when exploring the local than gathering up the global—in a novel, a man rubbing his spectacles on a woman’s sari may be of greater import than the news of bombs falling on Iraq. “Give me the home product every time,” says Mark Twain in the epigraph to this novel. That might have been his criticism of Home Products as well.
(Respond to this review at firstname.lastname@example.org)