Wednesday, December 06, 2006

An Interview With Amitava Kumar

Ahmede: What is your forthcoming novel Home Product about?

Amitava Kumar: A Hindi film-director asks a Bihari journalist in Bombay to write a story about a small-time poetess who's been killed by her politician lover. The journalist is unable to write that screenplay. Instead, he begins to narrate the story of his cousin who is in prison for running an Internet porn parlour but who is dreaming of making a film when he comes out of jail. The actor who will star in that film is his old school-friend from Bettiah, a man who is now big in Bollywood. I'd say that the book is about anarchic impulses in a society, and the search among its members for order, and even artistic brilliance.

Ahmede: Your non-fiction work "Husband of a Fanatic" is about modern secular India, a country you have left some years ago. How do you see rising fanaticism--both Hindu and Muslim-- in this part of the globe?

Amitava Kumar: I read the other day that the killers in Rwanda were the shoeless who were fighting those who had a shoe to wear. When I think of what happened in Gujarat, when a thousand or more Muslims were butchered, the situation appears more complex. There you had those with shoes going after the barefoot. But I must add, the Hindu fanatics I interviewed always mentioned Bangladesh. They would say to me, "when will you liberals raise your voice against what the Muslims do to Hindus in Bangladesh? Do you know what is happening to Hindu temples there?"

Ahmede: In "Bombay, London, New York" we see you masterfully dissect the idea of post colonial fiction; can you tell our readers how you see English in the south Asian sub-continent, a place where the language has for some years been a mere tool used by the colonisers?

Amitava Kumar: Even our constitution was arguably a gift from our colonisers--the point is not where this language came from, but what we now do with it. In the hands of our best writers, but also as a tool used by millions on the street, English has been changed. It has become a creative weapon in our hands. We cannot be blindly opposed to it. At the same time, it has to be said that in the subcontinent, given the deep social divisions, those who are considered the rightful users of this tongue, and those who employ it most authoritatively, belong to a class that's set so far apart that to think of writing in English as being wholly free from contradictions would also be a mistake.

Ahmede: Is there any particular way you think readers in the west read or react to texts from our side of the universe?

Amitava Kumar: In an ideal world, the reader in the west would have to be prepared to encounter a novel or a short story from our part of the world as more of an enigma than a plain tale. This hypothetical reader would not get their texts as either ready-made exotica or even as a very legible, easy-to-consume product. In a more just and equal world, the western reader would have to work, and work hard, to translate our truths. Just as we do with them.

Amitava Kumar is the author of several works of literary non-fiction and has edited five anthologies. His 'Husband of a Fanatic', was on the "Editors' Choice" list in the New York Times. He is Professor of English at Vassar College. His novel, 'Home Products', will be published in 2007.