In a scene late in Amitava Kumar's novel Home Products, the protagonist Binod is returning home with his family from Bombay's Prithvi Theatre after watching a Hindi adaptation of Tennessee Williams's play The Glass Menagerie. "Binod felt the tragedy they had witnessed on stage had also made their own small sufferings pleasant and lyrical," writes Kumar. His novel might be thought of as exploring the question of how art, which is a representation of life, also impacts life, triggering memories, provoking connections, and being assimilated till it virtually becomes a home product.
Binod himself wanted to be a writer - we learn at different stages that he likes reading Orwell, Chekhov, Manto, Bhalchandra Nemade - but he now works in Bombay as a film journalist. When he writes an editorial about the murder by a politician of a small-town female poet in his home state Bihar, a film director asks him if he would like to write a script around the story. Binod travels to Patna to understand the story better, but finds the dead woman's family stubborn and unhelpful.
His cousin, the cool, ambitious, amoral Rabinder, is in jail, not for the first time. On hearing Binod's story, Rabinder suggests there is no need for Binod to track reality so doggedly. If he really does want a model for "a woman's lonely ambitions" in a small town, then his own mother - Binod's aunt - whom everyone calls Bua, is good enough. Bua herself, after losing the support of her husband early in her married life, got herself an education, took up welfare work, and is now a minister in Lalu Yadav's cabinet. Rabinder's question "Shouldn't you be writing Bua's story instead?" resonates in Binod's mind - another instance in the novel of a story from the wider world merging with something close to home. Binod thinks later of "how stories begin in one place and end in another place that is often altogether unexpected".
Kumar's narrative, shuttling continuously between present and past, is faithful to Binod's realisation, adding layer upon layer in a very even, composed style. In the linking up of personal ambition, crime, politics and Bollywood, his book is slightly reminiscent of Vikram Chandra's magnum opus Sacred Games.
Like Chandra, Kumar really knows how to write a rich, satisfying scene. The first two sections of his book - "The Car with the Red Light" and "Ulan Bator at Night" - string together episodes of startling power. Among these is the boy Binod's memory of the night after Bua's wedding. A male relative is expected to accompany a bride to her new home, and so Binod makes the long journey by car with Bua and her husband Lalji. Tired out, he falls asleep early and wakes up to hear voices in the dark:
"but it seemed that he had begun to run in bed" - that is a striking example of what the Russian literary theorist Victor Shklovsky called "defamiliarization", or the use of some rhetorical or linguistic device to make the familiar newly strange. In novels this effect is often achieved through the accurate depiction of the experience of characters who, like Binod, cannot quite understand what is going on. We understand more about what they are seeing than they themselves do, but paradoxically it is we who are indebted to them, for their way of seeing makes alive for us something that had become all too familiar - it removes things, to use Shklovsky's words, "from the sphere of automatized perception".
Bua was talking to someone in a very low voice. When he heard Lalji's voice, he knew he should be sleeping. It was wrong to be awake. But sleep didn't come to him and he was afraid to move or change sides.
Lalji spoke to Bua in a loud whisper. "I looked at your matriculation marksheet. No one scores so high in History and Geography. You got more than I did in both Hindi and English.
Bua was saying,"Let me go."
Lalji shifted his weight and when he spoke again his voice seemed to come from a closer place. Bua was lying between Binod and Lalji's voice that sounded as if he was laughing. "But tell me your secret. How can anyone be so brilliant?"
The low laughter in his throat made Binod think of marbles being scrubbed in the palm of his hand in the schoolyard.
There was silence. Binod had shut his eyes. The bed creaked again, and once more Bua said "Let me go." Her bangles jingled in the dark. Perhaps she was sleeping closer to him than to Lalji. Binod knew that she was wearing thin gold and new red and green ones.
He heard Lalji saying "Okay, okay" in a reasonable voice. There was a pause and he spoke again. "People like me know that the capital of Nepal is Kathmandu or that the capital of Burma is Rangoon. But please tell me - what is the capital of Mongolia?"
He laughed but a note of pleading had come into his voice.
Bua rose to the bait. She said quietly,"Ulan Bator."
"Ulan Bator," Lalji said with great relish and laughed.
Binod was glad that Bua knew the answer because he certainly didn't. He heard Lalji murmur happily in the dark "Ulan Bator…Ulan Bator" but it seemed that he had begun to run in bed. He was trying to catch his breath. Bua said,"You are breaking my bangles". But Lalji didn't say anything in response. He continued to run in the dark. And then it seemed that Bua was running too. They were panting with the effort and then Binod felt that they were tiring and he shared their tiredness and sometime later when the voices had stopped in the dark he began to dream of leopards in the forest and small birds with painted breasts.
When we hear lovemaking being described as people running in bed, we feel the intensity of it far more than if the experience had been correctly named. As Shklovsky understood it, defamiliarisation in art, and indeed art itself, exists "in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony".
As evinced by that line about Lalji's laughter resembling marbles being rubbed together, Kumar's eye for the telling detail is very sharp. Early in the novel, when Binod visits Patna, Bua comes to see him, accompanied by another minister, Parshuram. Bua has never remarried, but midway through the conversation, "Parshuram reached over to where Bua sat, took the corner of her sari in his right hand and began to rub it on the lens of his spectacles." This is enough to suggest their relationship, and also their indifference to gossip. In the same way Rabinder, we know, has indulged in several acts of violence, but feels no regret or remorse. And even in a sentence like "Rabinder had finished his meal quickly and was sucking on the lime pickle on his plate" we are invited to see a trace of the sinister beneath the everyday.
If Home Products does not quite redeem the promise of its first half, it is because Kumar's narration, having carefully opened out a world, continues to expand outwards, and as a result becomes somewhat unfocused. Kumar has written three nonfiction books previously, including the splendid Husband of a Fanatic, and even in this book he constantly has an eye on the news, which we are perhaps meant to understand as an expression of Binod's curiosity as a journalist.
In one stretch of the book, we are told in quick succession of Virender Sehwag batting against South Africa, the attacks on the World Trade Center, and the tsunami in south India. But novels are always more interesting when exploring the local than gathering up the global - in a novel, a man rubbing his spectacles on a woman's sari may be of greater import than the news of bombs falling on Iraq. "Give me the home product every time," Mark Twain is quoted as saying in the epigraph to this novel, and that might have been his criticism of Home Products as well.
Amitava Kumar had a good essay called "How To Write A Novel" on his years of work on Home Products here. Here are some of his other essays and reviews: "A Shrine At The Border", "The Enigma of Return" (on Suketu Mehta's Maximum City), "A Civilizing Mission" (on the Pakistani scholar Eqbal Ahmed), and "Passages to India". And on the subject of Partition: "What If We Were Together?"
Victor Shklovsky's seminal essay "Art as Device" is here, and here is an old post on another instance of defamiliarisation in fiction, in Monica Ali's Brick Lane.