Reading Amitava Kumar’s Lunch With A Bigot, a collection of essays that charts his long career engaging with the real and the search for a perfect fit of “realism", I grew edgy from time to time. For in these essays about “Reading, Writing, Places, People", I had the sense of being observed by a shrewd, even if benevolent, shrink.

Writing about collecting various kinds of news reports and articles in his first year as a new immigrant in the US, he mentions a newspaper clipping from The Statesman. “The report is about the visit to Delhi of a literary critic who had emigrated from India in the early 1960s. The critic told the reporter that she liked to eavesdrop on conversations in Delhi’s buses. She had noticed how people would switch to English whenever they wanted to express ‘a noble thought or a higher emotion’. The literary critic went on. ‘It would be interesting to study how many people, who otherwise conducted their courtship in one Indian language or the other, have said that vital sentence “I love you" in English.’"

About 80-odd pages later, Kumar writes about love and language again, this time about himself. It’s from his essay, Writing My Own Satya, one of my favourites from the collection—the paragraph begins with his recounting of the circumstances under which he first watched Mani Ratnam’s film Bombay. “I must have already been drunk by the time I saw Manisha Koirala running toward her lover beside the sea—her body and, it would appear, even her love buoyed on the rhythms of A.R. Rahman’s music. I was thinking of my girlfriend, a white American, with whom I had recently broken up. That night, in a mood that must have been a mixture of maudlin sentimentality and nostalgia, and perhaps a dash of despair, I resolved that I would never marry anyone who didn’t understand the words that a slightly shrill Lata Mangeshkar was singing at that very moment: ‘Tu hee re, tu hee re ... tere bina main kaise jeeoon.’"

Kumar’s careful consideration of the literary critic’s words, his refusal to marry a woman who wasn’t fluent in his language of love (“I am a citizen of the world created by Bollywood"), all this pursued through a personal, emotional and intellectual investigation into the nature of the real—a realism that would be a good fit for the rich confusion of his immigrant’s life of old people and places gently acquiring expiry dates and the new making space on kitchen and book shelves and computer disks—all this made me nervous. I felt myself groping as I reflected, only on the margins of course, on my language of love and whether it measured up to any standard of the real. This lover’s anxiety drove me to songs from Hindi films, Kumar’s temporary and moody barometer. There it was: “Angrezi mein kehte hain ki I love you ..."

I had translated my mother’s “shunchho"—the Bangla variant of “Eji, suntey ho (are you listening)?"—to “Listen" while calling out to my partner. Had I lost something precious by doing that? This anxiety gives so much energy to this book that when I came to the last line of the last page, I had the sense of having marched through a thriller—for a book of essays that addresses the sly and tenacious workings of the literary, that must count as an achievement.

Instead of asking that hammer-beaten question—What is the real?—Kumar sets out to map it. The asli—authentic, original, real, by any other name—is what he’s after. “I hereby call for a literature that engages with ‘the real’: not just the depiction of blood on the streets, or, for that matter, the cold air of the morgue, but also the warm, somewhat moist atmosphere of unwanted intimacy in the waiting room in which we have left behind a little bit of our past."

Love demands the real. And so that tautology—“Real Love", asli pyar, and in a recent Bangla song, 100 Percent Love.

Lunch With A Bigot: Picador India, 227 pages Rs 599
Lunch With A Bigot: Picador India, 227 pages Rs 599

And there is death: There is a mention of death in almost every essay, sometimes many. Death for which “real" is an unnecessary prefix. It’s not cleverness but coincidence and chronology that make Missing Person, his moving essay about his mother’s death, the last piece of writing in the book. Death must come in the end—that is the only real we can be certain about.

The case for the real, when the life-art question is replaced by the death-art deal, becomes sadly ironic, as in the example that Kumar gives us: “I had tried to make all this easy for myself. As my parents grew older, I began to prepare for their death. This will sound cruel, or callous, and perhaps it is. A few years ago, I wrote a novel in which the protagonist, Binod, describes his father’s death and then his cremation ... The father dies, and Binod tells himself that he should have spoken to his father: ‘In English films, people said ‘I love you’...’".

It is not only the return of the English “I love you" and its questioning of love and the disloyalty of death that is the focus of the real here. It is Kumar’s rehearsal of the death of a parent in his writing that gives a nervous energy to his investigation. Not just in Home Products, but also in his last book, a biography of Patna where too death loomed like a vulture in the final pages: “To return to Patna is to find the challenging thought of death, like the tip of a knife, pressing against my rib."

There is love, there is death, there is life and literature in between. Kumar’s writing has, over the last decade, been a search for the idiom of the real—perhaps what he is looking for, in that in-between space, is jaan, a word which stands for both “life" and “love" and also, by extension, the real. As in “Jaan aa gayi", it’s come to life. I had the same feeling after reading Lunch With A Bigot.

Sumana Roy is a writer and critic based in Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal.

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