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Between fact and fiction: Amitava Kumar & the hunt for the real Patna

Amitava Kumar has produced memorable non-fiction over the years, writing of the marginalized in India and America with candour and sensitivity. Aditya Mani Jha meets a writer whose thinking is infused with the linguistic strains of his home, Patna.

ADITYA MANI JHA  3rd Aug 2013

Amitava Kumar | Photo: Neeraj Priyadarshi

ujh rahe ho naa?" Amitava Kumar has buttoned his sentences thus, for the past ten minutes or so, while telling me a story about his wedding in Patna. We're sitting in the lobby of Delhi's India International Centre. At some point, Kumar feels that he and I — complacent in what he calls our 'Bihari rapport' in jest — have been unfair on the third beside us in the room. Sugandha works for Aleph (the publishers of Kumar's latest, A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna) and has been very patient with our linguistic transgressions so far. "Bujhnaa means to understand," Kumar tells her apologetically. She smiles and says she knew that. I'm not entirely convinced, but I accept the levity of the moment and let it pass.

In a segment within A Matter of Rats, Kumar writes about the NDTV journalist and anchor Ravish Kumar, known for his shows Ravish ki Report and Hum Log. Ravish, like Kumar himself, grew up in Patna and went to college in New Delhi. The author finds Ravish attractive "because he doesn't pander to that section of society that thinks and feels in English." Iski bhaasha se sangeet nikaltaa hai, (there is music in his words) says one of Ravish's professors, during an anecdote in the book.

I would go a step further and say that Ravish is, in fact, a much-needed bridge between the primarily English-speaking and those who 'think and feel' in Hindi. The kind of long-term interest in Bihar/Jharkhand that he has generated is very different from the ephemeral, faddish buzz which news channels cook up whenever confronted with a Gangs of Wasseypur. Ravish's inimitable style of spoken Hindi is definitely the instrument for the music that he makes. But this flair is inseparable from an easy intimacy with his native Bhojpuri. In turn, his English (which Kumar terms 'not very good') has all the affectations and voice tics of a primarily Hindi-speaking person. No coincidence, then, that at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January this year, Ravish was moderating a panel discussion called Hindi-English Bhai Bhai. Perfectly encapsulating this phenomenon, he said, "Bhojpuri meri matribhaasha hai, aur Hindi meri pehli Angrezi hai (Bhojpuri is my mother tongue while Hindi is my first English) "He (Ravish) is going to be awarded a prize today," Kumar tells me, referring to the Ramnath Goenka Award for Journalist of the Year (Broadcast).

I'm keen to talk about Ravish — not just because my father watches him religiously — but because his rise mirrors some of the most remarkable things about Kumar's only novel till date; Home Products (2007), published outside India as Nobody Does The Right Thing (2009). In a characteristically astute article on the book, Daisy Rockwell wrote what a lot of readers (especially Hindi-speaking readers such as myself) had felt so strongly. "Home Products feels like a Hindi novel. It even feels like a translation of a Hindi novel. I say this as someone who has translated substantial quantities of Hindi literature." Rockwell tries to make sense of the novel's uniquely hybrid sensibilities, noting the abundance of Hindi literary references. In the first chapter itself, the central character Binod, an English-language journalist, is asked, "Do you write exclusively in English? You're from the cow-belt, you must..." (One of the first things that Kumar had asked me — prompted by my last name – is whether I understood Maithili. He was visibly happy when I confirmed that I did.)

Rockwell, then, places Kumar's English novel — paradoxical as it may sound — in the tradition of aanchalik saahitya, or regional literature, a movement associated with iconic Hindi writers like Nagarjun and Phanishwarnath Renu. (Indeed, in A Matter of Rats, Kumar likens Ravish's language to that of a modern-day Renu, "the only difference being that the writer is now walking the street, red microphone in hand.")

anchalik writers experimented with carving out a niche for local language and culture in the areas of India where Hindi is the trans-regional standard language. Thus, Nagarjun, an author from the Mithila region of Bihar, inflected his writing with Maithili language and culture, while loosely retaining standard Hindi as the narrative glue."

You’re not reading non-fiction for some simple idea of truth. You’re reading non-fiction to find a different, more challenging entree to reality. — Amitava Kumar

But then, Kumar's books have never shied away from tackling paradox; the messier the puzzle, the better. One need only look at the title of arguably his best book, Evidence of Suspicion, to understand this intent. Evidence of Suspicion has several unforgettable portraits. Colonel Prakash is a bigoted, grandiose slave-driver in Kashmir, and yet he is more of a revelation than any number of courage-under-fire stories. The bungling Hemant Lakhani's guilt is more legal than human; that honour is reserved for his idiocy — and the U.S.'s pig-headedness in exploiting said idiocy."Yahaan fake encounter ho jaata hai (Here (in India), you simply have a fake encounter)," Kumar says. "Reality is complex. It doesn't suit an ideology; it doesn't suit a particular worldview."

In A Matter of Rats, too, the happy eclecticism of Kumar's profile choices is a triumph. We're introduced to Raaghav, a Hindi poet who speaks of Nietzsche and Picasso, outside the Patna College, with "the smell of cow dung and urine on the street outside". Raaghav is by turns poetic, brilliant and acutely irritating; a satisfactorily complex man for a satisfactorily complex city. Kumar is rather more enamoured of Anand Kumar, the mathematics teacher who has trained hundreds of children from underprivileged backgrounds for years. At the end of the day, this is just another cog in "a nearly-industrialized regime of rote learning". But for a lot of these children, success in engineering entrance examinations signals emancipation in more ways than one. In A Matter of Rats, Kumar writes,

"In Anand's lesson plans, Bholu is the Hindi-speaking Mofussil boy who presents creative solutions to mathematical problems. Also, he laughs a lot. He is Anand's hero. His anti-thesis is a character called Ricky, who is arrogant, rides a motorcycle, and, as Anand puts it to me, is suited-booted and speaks meow-meow English."

"The way he practises his pedagogy is remarkable," Kumar tells me while recounting his meeting with Anand. "He makes them (the children) project their anxieties upon the upper class." Perhaps it's a professional doff of the hat on Kumar's part here, for he takes his writing class at Vassar College very seriously indeed. A Matter of Rats was written in sync with the curriculum's progress. His students filed their first drafts before the end of the course; he filed a draft with David Davidar in the winter semester. "My approach is very simple. I ask my students to write 150 words every day, and to take a ten-minute walk where they're thinking about nothing but their writing."

Kumar's writing relentlessly interrogates his own bias as much as any the reader might hold. And that, to my mind, makes his non-fiction oeuvre unique. "You're not reading non-fiction for some simple idea of truth. You're reading non-fiction to find a different, more challenging entree to reality." You cannot go looking for easy answers. As a writer, perspective is all you have, perspective is everything.

Bujh rahe ho naa?


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