Saturday, March 24, 2007

On Amitava Kumar's Home Products

A shorter version of this piece appears today in Mint.

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:

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.

"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".

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.


Anonymous said...

Can I share a personal experience here? I will make it concern strictly with Amitava Kumar only.

This must be around/after 2002 or so. He had come to Hindu, around the time when Bombay-London-New York was released in India. The other day, I had read an article where he mentioned that all the Indian critics could be put in a car and there would still be space available for more (something on this line, I think. Pardon me if I am quoting incorrectly. But the 'car' was absolutely there.)So, he was there and in my very young mind, i thought he embarassed the hell out of all the lecturers of the English Department. He mentioned something about not attending classes, the teachers being incompetent and an acidic meeting with the principal to sign a form that will land him in USA. Before the session, I came with a good mind to buy his book. After the session, I changed my mind. Somehow, during the session, however talented Mr Kumar might be, his personal anecdotes created a zombie in my head. Ideally, a reader should just keep her nose in the book and nowhere else. But there are times when we make emotional investments in literature and even after the best of rational efforts, a reader like me unfortunately decide to judge a writer. I have never picked up an Amitava Kumar after that, though I sneak a look at his blog through yours.

And, Chandrahas, on this:

"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."

I will agree with you, but for a writer - it's an excruciating balance to maintain. We live in such INTERESTING TIMES that we are tempted to sneak in the global either because of conscience or the fertility of events. I worship the writer who maintains that balance because I feel I know how much s/he has wrung his/her heart to reach it.

Anonymous said...

I preferred the piece in Mint. It was nicely written without the complex sentence construction that is your trademark!

Chandrahas said...

Swar - I have looked carefully at your criticisms, and I think it is possible to defend Amitava on most of those counts.

About his saying that all the Indian critics of worth (I assume this was what he meant) could be put in a car and there'd still be space available: well, you must remember that 2002 was the time really big cars were beginning to become available in India, not the little Marutis and Fiats on the world in which you and I grew up.

And Amitava himself, I'm sure, would no longer hold his assertion of 2002 to be true. I know this for sure because just last month I tried getting on to this car myself and there wasn't any place for me, no matter how piteously I shouted. I couldn't see very well in the melee, but I have a distinct suspicion that the person who pushed me out finally, saying "Sit in the boot! You're the one who loves boots!" was Amitava himself, wearing a pair of very fancy dark glasses and brandishing a copy of The Nation, where he'd just published a piece.

And about not attending classes at Hindu - you and I didn't either when the teachers were really great, so there's no reason to grudge Amitava this confession. Also, Amitava is a really aged fellow, so there could have been no overlap between the generation of teachers whose classes he attended and the generation he was currently addressing.

So maybe you should just go read his book, and if you're not satisfied with that, then you truly have reason to complain, and you should write to Amitava at his blog address asking for a refund. I promise you I'll take up the cause personally then.

Chandrahas said...

Anonymous - I'm very touched that you took the trouble to read both the pieces I'd written.

But as far as I can tell, the newspaper review had sentences no less simple or complex than the blog piece. Yes, the blog piece did have a bit on Victor Shklovsky, but then Shklovsky was a might complex man himself, and I couldn't simplify his ideas any further without doing injury to the man, bless his soul.

But keep writing in: I love hearing from people, and you're a great deal more civil than some of the other Anony Mouses who've written in lately.

Anonymous said...

Haha, you're funny! Though I think you flatter yourself too much! Enjoy your blog.

Chandrahas said...

Anonymous - You make a valid point. But consider: I could flatter myself less, but then I wouldn't be as funny - I'd sound like a church pastor forty-five minutes into his sermon, declaring for the eleventh time that morning that we are all unworthy sinners, and should never think well of ourselves. That wouldn't be of much use to either me or you, would it? There has to be a trade-off somewhere.

And pray tell me - or rather please tell me...this church metaphor is already beginning to seep into my language - where is the question of self-aggrandisation in this particular instance? I'm actually speaking of how I wasn't allowed onto the car of worthy Indian critics. Perhaps in another couple of years I'll have made it. Will you send the link to my blog to everyone you know?

Anonymous said...

Wel...I think you might have missed the point. Anyways, I am not sure when self-aggrandisation became a pre-req for humor. However, to each his own. And if you really do make it, which I am sure you will, you certainly wouldn't need me to forward your blog link to everyone in MY social circle! You have a minty fresh day!!

Chandrahas said...

Anonymous - You're quite correct. Self-aggrandisation is not the only way to do humour. The other tried and tested way is self-deprecation, but I've tried it a few times, and no one seems to notice.

Thanks very much for your good wishes. I was fast asleep at the precise time when you sent your message, but on waking I immediately felt in a good mood, for reasons I could't explain then but can now, and I got down to work straightaway and knocked off a thousand words. Have a great afternoon and an evening!!

Anonymous said...

To do is to be - Descartes, To be is to do - Voltaire, Do be do be do - Sinatra.

Chandrahas said...

Anonymous - Do explain this too.

Anonymous said...

Lol...It seems he/she was trying to say that you go off at tangents we could not have imagined existed.

*Takes a bow*

ak said...

I liked this piece; I don't think there is a single sentence that is complex where it could have been simple. But like 'Home Products', I think the piece does not redeem the promise of its first half (or rather, its first three-fourths). You've pointed out the faults in the novel very well - I can understand exactly what you mean in spite of not having read the novel - but you could have devoted two more paragraphs to them; it would have "completed" the piece.

Chandrahas said...

Amitava - Were it not for tangents, we'd all be going around in circles. Tangents are of the greatest importance to writers, coming second only to agents.

Anirudh - Your thoughtful criticism is appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Hoohoohoo to the geometry of language!