Departures and arrivals
Bombay, London New York seems written for all those able to recognise themselves in this autobiographical narrative of a young man who uses his own life to bridge the abyss that separates the East and the West, says MANJULA PADMANABHAN.
EARLY in Bombay, London, New York, is a charming passage which captures an important part of the book's appeal: "That an audience of `ourselves' would have relieved us not only of the mannerisms, but also the desperate grasping for authenticity, which produces ... the mistress of spices, the heat and dust, sweating men and women in lisping saris, brought together in arranged marriages, yes, the honking traffic, and the whole hullabaloo in the guava orchard. In the short, the sound of yakking Indians."
This is a passage written specifically for readers who will recognise the sprinkling of Indian book titles. In much the same way, the book in which the passage appears has been written for all those who should be able to recognise themselves in this autobiographical narrative of a young man who uses his own life to bridge the abyss that separates the worlds, East and West. I say "should" because one of the ironies awaiting those who see themselves as bridges is to discover how much of what they leave behind remains forever behind.
Kumar's book may have been like any another narrative of a young man's journey except that it is told through the words and books which functioned as talismans, milestones, road maps, wishing wells and signposts to the life he would eventually lead himself. His style is deceptively smooth and easy to read, suggesting that such narratives are easy to write, though of course they are not. Any aspiring writer might write about him or herself, but to succeed in the effort in such a way as to keep the reader interested in that private world is not easy. Kumar's tactic of careful redirection, constantly pointing away from himself and towards, say V.S. Naipaul or Hanif Kureishi, works as an excellent antidote to the faint suspicion that all autobiographies raise, about an author's over-weening self-regard.
Kumar begins his personal narrative in Bombay (not "Mumbai"! I am always pleased when someone maintains the distinction) though his own early life was set in Patna. He writes about himself with a detachment which is neither too cold nor too intimate, rather like an excellent film-maker documenting his own open-heart surgery. To read his book is to follow one individual down a path that many others have gone, a fact that he acknowledges with rare generosity, by quoting the others who have gone before him. He doesn't hold himself to a single-track time-line but instead weaves back and forth, between different departures and arrivals, tasting the many different flavours of immigration like a person eating a thali meal, dipping into assorted different curries on a single stainless-steel plate.
Bombay, through Homi Bhabha, the atomic bomb and Bollywood, was the threshold to the greater world outside India. But the city's polyglot hybrid culture also made it a gateway for young Indians from the hinterland to urban India in general. In Kumar's words, writing about the impact of films of the 1950s such as "Do Bhiga Zameen" and "Pyaasa", "I was not aware that these films carried hints of the humble modernity that I inhabited in my daily life. Instead, I believed that there was only one model of modernity, one that was not only urban but also urbane. My eyes were turned to Bombay, to Bhabha, and I wanted to be a man of science, at ease with English and able to eat my food in restaurants while someone played the piano. I wanted to learn to use a fork and knife."
The next stop from Bombay was London the London of Naipaul, of Hanif Kureishi, of Meera Syal and of sexual and emotional conflicts. I consider it one of Kumar's gifts that he is able to inspire me to look with more interest than I had previously had in authors whom I considered to be one-dimensional Syal, for instance but I suspect that his own observations are of greater depth than some of the authors whose books he writes about. He doesn't hammer home his opinions or frame his favourite ideological theses in blinking neon lights instead he slips them under the door like leaflets from an underground organisation, the group of immigrant writers whose country of origin is both too close and too far to write about with any comfort.
Then he is in New York, and his authors are now Manil Suri, Bharati Mukherjee, Jhumpa Lahiri. The pace is different in the U.S. this is a country built by immigrants, being changed by immigrants, being attacked by immigrants. It is, in some ways, a frontier more different than can ever be imagined by someone who belongs to an orthodox traditional culture, where "different" is a word all but synonymous with "demon". Yet this is where he has made his home, where his future as a writer awaits him, where he becomes what he was fated to be.
He ends his book, fittingly, with a parable about a would-be immigrant: Shastriji, who jumps through all the hoops of fire to get to the coveted Promised Land, only to fail in his endeavour, returning, eventually, to live in India. Kumar is too self-aware to pretend that he would like to be a Shastriji himself. Yet, by choosing this man's story to end the book, he tells us that he too, like countless immigrants before him, is doomed to spend the better part of his life looking back across the oceans, to the land he left behind.
Bombay, London, New York,
Amitava Kumar, Penguin Books India, p.224, Rs. 250.
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