DECEMBER 8, 2015
To intimate is to communicate with the sparest of signs and gestures, and at its root intimacy has the quality of eloquence and brevity.
[Intimacy] also involves an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others that will turn out in a particular way. Usually, this story is set within zones of familiarity and comfort: friendship, the couple, and the family form, animated by expressive and emancipating kinds of love.
— Lauren Berlant
AMITAVA KUMAR’S collection of essays Lunch with a Bigot: The Writer in The World (2015), although organized around the topics “reading,” “writing,” “places,” and “people,” focuses primarily on intimate stories about people who have not been often represented in our media. His essays trouble our desire for intimacy, our desire that others be recognizable, familiar, and our relations with them comfortable, and instead seek parallactic intimacies — he writes stories about others about whom we’ve been silent, and about the “borders of the self.” Interested in blurring the lines between writer and rioter, Kumar finds himself at lunch in Jackson Heights with Jagdish Barotia, a founder of Hindu Unity, a right-wing website dedicated to exposing the menaces in Indian society — Muslims in particular, and even worse in Barotia’s mind, Hindus who marry Muslims — and who had put Kumar on a hit list. As Kumar listens to Barotia call him a haraami (bastard) and kutta (dog), and then give him marriage advice — “you keep fucking her! And through her, you keeping fucking Islam!” — he takes notes. Kumar provides such “details and voice” in part because he believes that “the idea of a faceless enemy is unbearable.” The intimacy he seeks is what Kumar calls a “writer’s problem.”
Collected over 15 years, these essays have been previously published in Kumar’s longer nonfiction works: Bombay—London—New York (2002), Husband of a Fanatic (2004), A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb (2010), as well as many major literary journals. Kumar is prolific and his voice has prolific range. He has been writing steadily about some of the most pressing issues of the last decade and a half: the Kashmir conflicts, post 9/11 legal trials, environmental and ecological disasters, political unrest, and war. He meets writer and professor Rob Nixon’s notion of an “ideal public intellectual”: “someone unafraid to open up channels of inquiry at an angle to mainstream thought; unafraid moreover to face down the hostility that their unorthodoxy often prompt[s].”
Fear, if he has felt it, has never seemed to paralyze Kumar’s curiosity. Neither has he cast himself as a solitary individual in a room of his own — much of the writing collected here involves conversations in living rooms, cafés, and on walks with other writers: Hanif Kureishi, Arundhati Roy, Aravind Adiga, Aqeel Shatir. At one point, Kumar eavesdrops on a conversation between Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth on the way to the Jaipur Literature Festival. He even imagines talking with Raymond Carver and John Cheever about fatherhood, or with Orhan Pamuk on the decline of cities, even if these conversations couldn’t happen in real life.
Kumar has developed a voice that is deeply curious, meditative, and straightforward. As a graduate student he fell in love with Rushdie’s prose. Unlike his postcolonial theory courses, he writes,
where a writer’s meaning was glimpsed, if at all, through the thick fog of nearly impenetrable verbiage, Rushdie’s words were clear, even conversational. His intelligence was evident everywhere, and yet one didn’t feel that his insights were weights dragging you to the bottom of the sea.
He was taken with Rushdie’s ability to display arresting complexity in graceful language. Even as Kumar “did [his] best to sound like [his] teachers and wrote sentences whose texture was inevitably thicker than cement,” he would look to Rushdie to “provide the perfect epigraph — by turns elegant, cutting, or comic” because each line “sat on top, like a glorious, fluttering pennant.”
Although he has abandoned the weighted-down prose of supposed academic rigor, Kumar’s voice as a professor emanates throughout these essays. Trained as a literary scholar, he follows his own advice to his students at Vassar to “become journalists” and contend with V. S. Naipaul’s way of “seeing through” by creating a hybrid voice, part scholar, part literary journalist. Kumar’s fascination with the ordinary beckons his readers to pause and observe, whether he’s in his parent’s home in Patna, visiting a hospital in Kashmir, speaking with the wife of a terrorist suspect, riding in a New York City taxi, or insisting to Paul Auster that he ought to read Bihari writer Husainul Huq. He translates texts and experiences, always attuned to the small details that expose our frailty.
“These days,” Kumar writes, “as I read the news careening about on social media about shootings and terrorist attacks, massacres and gang rapes, I often find myself thinking that a writer’s task today, more than ever before, has become one of making sense of violence.” Kumar admirably returns again and again to what he finds unjust, inhuman, awful — particularly the suffering of other human beings. He meets a young woman named Noorjehan in a relief camp in Ahmedabad after the 2002 Gujarat riots, and relates her story:
She said that when the crowd came there were about seven or eight hundred of them, filling the streets. She had been watering the plants in her garden. Noorjehan used the English word flowers. She was watering her flowers when several men entered her house, hit her on the head with a sword, and then gang-raped her. Later, a young niece had to pull Noorjehan from the fire set by her assailants before they left her.
Recounted matter-of-factly, Kumar is struck by her use of English for an object of beauty, as if to avoid any mistranslation, to emphasize the banality of what she had been doing — standing in her garden, watering her plants — when she was attacked and raped.
Fueled by a desire to intervene in the “unquestioning optimism and amnesia” of master narratives, Kumar is angry but his anger doesn’t choke the reader. He calls his essays “memorial acts”:
a photograph that shows abandoned shoes, stones, and dried blood on an empty street after a riot, this collection insists on what is absent. Who once stood at this place? What happened there? What is the story?
Kumar elaborates on Teju Cole’s notion that objects, “sometimes more powerfully than faces, remind us of what was and no longer is.” Objects teach us to pay attention to what is lost.
(For a particularly exciting collaboration between Kumar and Cole, see “Who’s Got the Address?,” “an ekphrastic project exploring how Cole’s paired images intersect with the works of artists ranging from Sontag to Singh.”)
While Kumar writes for a mainstream audience, he isn’t interested in catering to mainstream assumptions of any kind — his voice directly challenges what we think is true, and aims to find similarities in difference. “It is intolerable to me that I love Phillip Roth and I also love Shrilal Shukla,” he writes, “but that neither they nor their work should ever come together.”
This is advice to writers at large, but Kumar has specific notes for “Indian writers” in the West: namely, that they need to refuse to pander to what historian Sana Aiyar calls the “analytical bind that creates a binary between a singular homeland and host land.” In this model, an imaginary homeland is replayed for the West, while the host land remains a site of exile; these two places, however, are much more complex. Kumar wants Indian writers in the West to confront “not just the depiction of blood on the streets, or, for that matter, the cold air of the morgue” — in other words, violence as fetish — but to pay equal attention to “the warm, somewhat unwanted intimacy in the waiting room in which we have left behind a little bit of our past.” They should refuse to wax nostalgic about an exotic homeland that never existed, standing in stark contrast to the West. He visits his own homeland, particularly Patna and Kashmir, often, to see his family or visit the wife of a terror suspect or to talk with Urdu poets who are writing against Narendra Modi and his inflamed rhetoric. He does not romanticize these places, but nonetheless shows tremendous tenderness toward them.
In “Missing Person,” Kumar recounts his return to Patna to grieve his mother’s death. Unable to see her any longer, he turns to the objects she left behind in order to translate his loss:
Many times during my ten-day stay in Patna I told myself that I would have felt bereft if I hadn’t had a chance to mourn my mother’s death with my father and sisters. I had needed to feel the fresh, and undeniable, sense of loss: in the first few minutes that I was back in the room where I had last seen her, only a few months earlier, what stopped me was the sight of her walking stick, her clothes on the hangers, the two pairs of white shoes with Velcro straps. The shock of what is gone, and yet still lingers. So that, stepping into the bathroom to wash my hands, I realized that the bar of Pears soap in the dish was one that my mother had put there just before she died.
Kumar explains the methodical process of touching his mother’s corpse, and the way suffocating cultural norms pervade even a dead body:
One of my aunts said that we should remove the jewelry because, otherwise, the doms at the funeral would snatch it out. (Doms were men from the supposedly untouchable caste; they were custodians of the funeral ceremony.) The nose stud came out easily enough, but the earrings were a problem. My younger sister struggled with one of them, and I with the other. I didn’t succeed and someone else had to complete the task. At one point, I found myself saying it was better to use surgical scissors right now than to watch her ear ripped by the doms at the ghat.
Kumar pauses to observe his own frailty and fear overwhelm his conscience. Realizing the concrete finality of this moment (no amount of fictional depictions prepare him for this), he caresses his mother’s cheek, and encounters a surprising sensation of intimacy, mixed with grief, while touching her body, which still displays signs of life in her slightly moist cheeks and a red fluid between her lips. Kumar thus brings “his private world into focus — and present[s] it to the West on equal terms,” while handling the “quotidian arrangements” of preparing the body of a loved one for a funeral.
On one of his trips to Patna before his mother’s death, Kumar visits his sister’s medical clinic, full of crying, dying infants and their bereft families. Here he encounters the cruelty of “home” as a place where one hopes to die, and where for some, death looms almost immediately after birth:
Home is where you go to die. The greater truth, of course, is that my hometown Patna is where people are dying … children were brought to Patna, dying or already dead, from having eaten their pesticide-laced mid-day lunch in a village near Chhapra.
In “Amartya’s Birth,” one baby’s life is spared and then giddily celebrated, while three-month-old Sneha Kumari, who arrives at the clinic with a weak sternum and pneumonia, seems to have her fate sealed as a child of manual laborers who make “anywhere between fifty and a hundred rupees” (roughly equivalent to seventy five cents to one dollar and fifty cents) a day. Seeking care for her child on borrowed money, Sneha’s mother looks at Kumar and his sister with “suspicion and resentment.” Kumar recognizes that his own family’s suffering is buffered by a system that safeguards them in Patna:
[Sneha’s mother] addressed angry questions at my sister. She knew that the system was tilted against her. In fact, it promised her annihilation. Why should I have expected the young mother to feel at home in Patna? I doubt she had any education. She was tall and slim, with a pretty face, and all she had was her anger. It shone on her face. I didn’t blame her for hating Patna, or, for that matter, for hating me.
Kumar often turns to people who expose something about the security and fragility of his position. “Collaborator in Kashmir” recounts his failure to meet with Tabassum Guru, wife of Mohammad Afzal Guru, sentenced to death row for an attack against the Indian Parliament. The essay also excerpts his interactions with Hemant Lakhani, convicted of selling missiles to an undercover agent, originally published in A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb. These brief excerpts don’t do justice to one of the most complex, fraught, and analytically insightful works on the consequences of the War on Terror. A blend of memoir, reportage, and cultural criticism, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb belongs in every discussion about the post–9/11 world of surveillance, trials, and terror suspects, particularly in classrooms where how we discuss this 9/11 literature is now under attack. (Every time I think that this will be the last time I teach such a course, I’m reminded of what this text sparks: bafflement, curiosity, and dismay regarding what we do not know.)
Taken together, these essays written over the last 15 years of cataclysmic wars, fanaticisms, environmental disasters, and turbo-capitalism, tell the story of what has really been happening while those of us in the West have looked the other way. As the media caters to our fascination with Donald Trump’s hairstyle and his vitriolic one-liners, Syrian refugees have had to find refuge in Dachau. To see how one narrative has obfuscated the other ought to enrage us, and asks us to examine what is absent from our daily conversations. Kumar provokes us with his vulnerability, his observations of our shared flaws, and his impassioned interest in a world he hopes to make more livable. He reminds us what the writer — the writer as rioter — can do. And he reminds us that to be alive demands that we search for new forms of intimacy all the time, in order, as Adrienne Rich insisted, “to extend the possibilities of truth between us.