23 May 2009

Bombay London New York

Author: Amitava Kumar
Pages: 220
Price: 250
Year of Publishing: 2002
Publishers: Penguin

This was my first introduction to Amitava Kumar, and at the end, his book left me completely in awe of him as a writer. Such flair and finesse of language is a rarity.

What makes Bombay London New York (not a title I particularly fancied but I loved its gorgeous cornflower blue cover) unique is that it is a book about books. So plenty of references of Indian fiction in English get thrown in with some literary criticism to chew over, making this quite a bibliophile's delight. A small part of the pleasure was also to see the author referencing many of the books I'd read. Also it helped in identifying several authors and works I was not familiar with. So by the end of it, I made a mental note of at least half a dozen books that I might want to take up. In fact, I did read Hanif Kureishi's 'Intimacy' almost immediately, given how much Amitava seemed to have loved the book.

The author, both  by virtue of being a professor of English literature abroad and a well-known writer, is deeply passionate about books and sees a lot of the world through the prism of literature. The influence of books is especially felt when he describes his struggle to become a writer. In places where he talks about family and friends, the book takes on the form of a memoir and for me these are easily the most engaging parts. Whether it is his shame about growing up in India's most backward State, Bihar or his craving to experience a life abroad looking at the plush postcards his aunt sends him from US, or his struggle to write, there is a rare emotional power and beauty to these parts.

This is a stage in the young man's life when V S Naipaul and his books like A House For Mr Biswas and Finding The Centre have a deep influence on him. Both are relevant to Amitava at this stage of his life. While  'A House For Mr Biswas' is about a man's struggle to become a writer, the second one concerns Naipaul's dream to leave his village and make a life in London. Both offer great inspiration to the author and prove to be catalysts in his decision of going abroad.

Even though the autobiographical elements are the most interesting parts of the book, Amitava Kumar's real purpose here is to touch upon several significant larger socio-political issues. For example, the book starts on a rather heavy-duty note with the author taking a strong stand against the nuclear bomb testing under the Vajpayee government. He refers to Arundathi Roy's criticism of it in her essay, 'The End of Imagination' and how her writings had a definite impact, paving the way for activism through writing. It's obvious that Amitava Kumar believes in the greater power of writing, as his admiration for playwright Safdar Hashmi and his didacticism suggests. This is also one of the reasons that makes this book quite ambitious in scope.
The other theme that the author focuses on is the immigrant life. Since the author himself has been living abroad, he offers a perspective on both the personal and political side of things. He speaks about the Indian Diaspora who attempt to preserve an 'idea' of an India that no longer exists. "At least among first generation immigrants, India remains the space of wholesome purity."

Citing films like Taal and Pardes, he says, "The grand portrayal of NRI nostalgia is emplematized by the presentation of a single imagine: the desirable Indian woman as an icon of docility and traditional charm, one manufactured on celluloid as an updated image of the mythical Sita"

And this preservation of 'nostalgia', the author believes, is expressed by the diaspora through their support to the Right Wing parties. BJP gets its greatest support from this segment, he notes. "I am disturbed that the 'soft' emotion of nostalgia in the diaspora is turned into the 'hard' emotion of fundamentalism"

Some of these discussions are extremely insightful, even if I felt that the first 50 pages of the book are tediously essayist in nature.
The literary references find the deepest resonance when he talks about his own journey and experiences. There are various literary figures he discusses and how they impacted and shaped his personality. One of them is Hanif Kureishi, whose candid and liberal ideas on love and sex affected the author who himself was trying to make a connection with women. Kureishi's book, Intimacy - about an extra marital affact - made quite an impression on him.

Amitava Kumar doesn't use the opportunity to criticise any of his colleagues' works but he does show his irritation with Salman Rushdie's use of stereotypes when the latter describes small town India or rustic characters.  The author feels it is a mistake to see small towns as a sleepy, provincial place as part of one's nostalgia and 'idea' of a village. These places are rapidly changing, he observes, becoming more aggressive than ever and changing the equation of politics.
The other literary observation that caught my eye was when the author asks Hanif Kureishi to compare himself with V S Naipaul and the former says that he likes women and sex, an aspect that is always missing from Naipaul's writings. "Naipaul can't write about marriage," he observes.

The book's finest moments are when the author describes his own journey and the intimate moments he shares with people close to him. He has courage to bare his feelings, even embarrassing ones. Also, Amitava is too refined to be unduly harsh on anyone. Not even in his wry description of Laloo Prasad Yadav, whom he visits in Patna. This could also be because most of the times the author is in an insecure state, fighting his own demons.

The Epilogue for me was the high point in the book, where the author narrates his friendship with a couple in US, giving a glimpse into the immigrant life and their inability to disconnect from their past. The episode with his uncle and aunt is also very poignant.

Amitava Kumar's book is undoubtedly rich. His great fluency with the English language allows him to succeed with a theme that is difficult to pull off. Of course, not everything about the book is perfect. The first 50 pages are almost devoid of any literary connection, so it's difficult to  ascertain where the book is heading. The author flits from topic to topic - some even unrelated ones ---so it becomes frustrating to find the connection each time.
But the rest of the book flows well, with some particular episodes really standing out. My admiration for Amitava Kumar is mostly for his writing, which I think is marvellous.

-Sandhya Iyer


janaki said...

One of his earliest books (trying to recollect title !) was excellent, when he "belonging" and "home" ... he has a pakistani wife and he wrote about her predicament ... it was brilliant. I do not think "home products" came anywhere close to it !

Alexander said...

Well, Sandhya, dear, I have to say, this recommendation of yours fills me with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, the story of an Indian professor of English literature in America does seem compelling enough. Coupled with a fine writing style, that's sure to make for a great read. On the other hand, that remark about 'plenty of references of Indian fiction in English' does fill me with misgiving. Knowing nothing about the subject, with Naipaul and Rushdie being nothing more than just names, I cannot but expect a somewhat hard read, even after the first 50 pages.

But since you heartily recommend, I will keep the book in mind for the future reading plans. If nothing about myself, it might tell me something about you.