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Amitava Kumar with a copy of his latest book at the India International Centre, Delhi. Photo: Rituparna Banerjee/Mint
Amitava Kumar with a copy of his latest book at the India International Centre, Delhi. Photo: Rituparna Banerjee/Mint

Writers At Work | Amitava Kumar

The Bihar-born, US-based author on fiction, non-fiction, blogging and the 'litti-chokha' effect

Surprised by stories

Amitava Kumar met us on a sweltering afternoon in July when he was visiting India to promote his latest book, A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna. Sitting in the grounds of the India International Centre (IIC), New Delhi, sipping nimbu-pani, we spoke about the many pursuits (writing, reading, teaching, photography, cinema) and places that make him the person he is. Edited excerpts:

Although you are chiefly known as a writer of non-fiction, much of which is quite novelistic, you did write a novel, ‘Home Products’. How did that happen?

My publisher David Davidar is to be blamed for that. I was finishing Husband of a Fanatic when I happened to watch Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya. At the back of my mind was the knowledge that Manoj Bajpai is from Bihar. I began thinking that this fellow must have had to learn, and unlearn, some things to get here. So I met him many times in the US, I flew to Mumbai, I went to his village, we hung out together.

Then I remember telling Davidar, over lunch in Toronto (Canada) one day, that Bajpai gave one more than many of the others but not enough. So Davidar said, “Boss, turn this book into fiction, surround it with other stories." So I began to enlarge the narrative and ended up with the novel.

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At the time my wife and I had just had our first child. I’d wake up from sleep-deprived nights, drink coffee at a café in Toronto, and sit down to write. When I write non-fiction, I get my notes together first. I am a manager of narratives. I sit down and try to think which goes where, what kind of arc there is, what kind of language and rhythm should I apply. But when you are writing fiction you surprise yourself continuously with the eruption of things that you have never dreamt of.

In my novel, there is a scene in Bihar where a man tells his wife on their wedding night something like: “You got much more marks than me in geography. What is the capital of Mongolia?" To which she says, “Ulaanbaatar". And that is the sexiest thing he has heard. I developed that into a story.

What happened to the poetry?

I don’t write poems any longer, just as I don’t practise photography now. There was a time when I used to carry three Nikons, while I was working with a news agency in New York (US). But I realized, as one does after a certain age, that I wasn’t good enough at photography. So there is a place above the stairs in my house where those three bodies of Nikon now rest peacefully.

But you have responded to photographs, by Teju Cole for instance, and to films.

All art interests me, especially the visual arts. This place (referring to the IIC) was a very important site for me when I was a young man. I wouldn’t have had entry into it but I would stand outside the gate and shamelessly beg people to take me in when I knew there was a screening on. It was here that I saw films by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Renoir. At Pragati Maidan, I would watch the films of Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani, which entered into my DNA.

Anything memorable you have seen recently?

Gangs of Wasseypur was important for me, though I wouldn’t say it was uniformly good. I would say it had the swagger of the vernacular. Bihar, of course, has become a trope in Bollywood now. Earlier, the exotic was luxurious and distant. Film viewers were introduced to five-star culture when the camera followed Amitabh Bachchan into a posh hotel. Now you don’t see that many aeroplanes, for that matter, in films any longer.

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I don’t feel as much at home in India as I did before... My betrayals have more of an edge now because I am an outsider.

Tell us about your experience of teaching creative writing.

I don’t think writing can be taught in a foundational way. But you benefit enormously by participating in a workshop. I run a year-long course (at Vassar College, New York, US) where I teach my students to become better writers. My mantra is simple: Write everyday and walk everyday. You’re not supposed to have immodest ambitions. Everyone is supposed to write 150 words every day. That’s our range. And everyone is supposed to carry a notebook or a small index card and a pencil they can put in their pocket. You are supposed to walk mindfully for 10 minutes and make notes.

I wrote the Patna book in that class. I wanted it to serve as a model for my students. At the end of the first semester, everyone had a first draft—either of a novel or a short story or some poems. Then, at the end of the second semester, we met in different workshops and critiqued one another’s work. It was immensely rewarding.

I write every day. It’s just that I didn’t walk every day and complained so much that my students gave me a pair of walking shoes at the end of the semester. Because I got free shoes, I am now a huge supporter of writing classes.

You teach a course on “memory-work". What does it involve?

Simply put, it addresses questions of remembering and remembering wrong. I teach The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes in that course, along with the writings of W.G. Sebald and John Berger. I also teach a course called “World Bank Literature", which looks at literature that reflects on the policies of the World Bank. For Indian readers, the familiar example would be of Estha coming back to India and walking by the river which smells of pesticide in The God of Small Things. Arundhati Roy mentions the World Bank in that context.

But the course I have taught most often is called the “Literature of 9/11". I started with what happened that day, before moving on to what happened afterwards. I introduced log reports of prisoners in Guantanamo (Cuba). Then it became a course about the wars in Afghanistan and Iran. 9/11 of course did not end on 9/11. My course looks at all that happened in the long shadow of it.

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When I was writing my novel, I tried to follow a chronology of major events which, thanks to the Internet, I could always access. But staying abroad induced a certain anxiety. I wanted to get things right. I remembered the story of James Joyce writing to his mother to ask her to go check if the fence on a particular road was high enough for someone to jump over it. I had a few concerns like that.

The more profound thing was when I first started writing about Patna sitting in Brooklyn (US), just the process of recall allowed me to access something that was fascinating. I had forgotten many things and a string of memories was unleashed. It was not Marcel Proust’s tea and “madeleine effect"; I’d call it the litti-chokha effect. The process of recollection was both selective and flowing, which would not have happened if I were living and writing the book in Patna.

Where do you feel more at home, in India or the US?

I don’t feel as much at home in India as I did before. I welcome the chance to become an insider while also remaining an outsider. My betrayals have more of an edge now because I am an outsider. I may carry a US passport but I never lost the feeling that when I enter a room in America, there is always the barest of pauses in conversation because an unlikely face has come in.

I am aware of your high regard for J.M. Coetzee’s novel, ‘Disgrace’. Which other writers have been important for you?

Writers of my generation couldn’t have existed without V.S. Naipaul. Just his gift of description—whether applied to a building or aspiration or desire or hunger—is incredible. J.M. Coetzee because of his unsparing austere prose, especially in Waiting For the Barbarians and Disgrace. I am currently reading Ian Jack, who has written marvellously on India. He was an early influence, not only because he was the editor of Granta where I wanted to write but also because he wrote about Patna. Arundhati Roy has always been a special case. Her language is different from others. I also admire Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India, Raj Kamal Jha’s The Blue Bedspread, and a number of books by Amit Chaudhuri. But I am sure there are names I am missing.

I don’t feel as much at home in India as I did before... My betrayals have more of an edge now because I am an outsider.

I think the moment for blogging has passed with the coming of Facebook and Twitter. I participated in it because it was a quick form of response. Academics can often get bogged into thinking that they have to always produce learned treatises. Blogging allowed me to break out of that mould.

On Twitter, I have to say, my friend Teju Cole is so much more inventive than anyone else. I don’t think anything special about my tweeting but he has made it into an art form.

What do you think of Twitter fiction?

I find it utterly dissatisfying. I don’t even find it gimmicky; it’s actually half-gimmicky.

Do you have to be in a certain place to write?

Not really. In Delhi, every journey takes such a long time. Your uncle wants you to visit him in Noida, your cousin wants you to come and see him in Dwarka. So I end up sitting in taxis for hours. I took the opportunity to compose a full article on my MacBook Air in a taxi. There was a piece I published last year in The Hindu about a boxer who I was sitting next to on a flight. He had asked me if he could kiss a girl sitting next to me. I composed it from IIC to Dwarka. On the way back, after I had eaten my chicken curry, I edited it and sent it off.

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