By Amitava Kumar
Price: Rs 599
The narrator of V.S. Naipaul’s 1987 novel, The Enigma of Arrival, is a man twice displaced—first by forces of history and then by the drive of ambition. India, the home of his ancestors, has no real meaning for him since he has never lived there. His childhood home, Trinidad, he had abandoned years ago, seeking a better alternative, better suited to his idea of the writer’s life, in the West. And after having spent two decades in London as a writer of some renown, he has now moved to Wiltshire in the English countryside, hoping to find another, more hospitable home. To be “a man in tune with the seasons and his landscape”, he says, is “...an especially happy condition”. But do writers have any use for this at-homeness that Naipaul’s narrator pines for?
At its core, Amitava Kumar’s new novel, The Lovers, is an attempt to address some version of that question. The novel’s protagonist, Kailash, is an immigrant in 1990s America—a college student with an eye on an academic career, as well as an apprentice writer trying, in the usual Naipaulean vein, to find his subject and voice. America makes him feel like an outsider. It is always, he writes, “someone else’s country”. As for India, it acquires a special place in memory, a distant dream accessible only through stories and legends, through aerogrammes and international calls, through self-cooked meals and kitschy American adverts featuring images of the Taj Mahal or of Gandhi.
“For so many years,” Kailash tells us at the beginning of his narrative, “the idea of writing has meant for me recognising and even addressing a division in my life: the gap between India, the land of my birth, and the US, where I came as a young adult.” So the deracinated writer refuses to choose between the two subjects of home and away, mining his material rather in that culturally-rich divide that lies somewhere in the middle.
It’s not much use stressing the point that the trajectory of Kailash’s life—especially his journey from India to America—mirrors that of Kumar’s. Naipaul was pulling a similar trick in The Enigma of Arrival, which, for all its autobiographical conceits, teasingly carries the tagline “A Novel” on its cover (as does The Lovers, by the way). What’s important is that both these books remind us, each in its own way, that in literature, ambiguities are always more welcome, and more resonant than certitudes.
This experimental mode of narration is what The Lovers is both an exploration and a celebration of. It is a novel less about desire than about writing itself; and about writing as an act of preserving, even creating, memories. Much of the material in the novel, we are told, derives from a journal that Kailash has been keeping for some years.
In his “Author’s Note” to The Lovers, Kumar fuels the confusion: “This is a work of fiction as well as non-fiction, an in-between novel by an in-between writer.” He has borrowed the term “in-between” from the critic David Shields, whose 2010 book Reality Hunger makes the case that the novel as a form has become hidebound with age, just as novelists all over seem to be getting too comfortable in their appointed role. “The novel has always been a mixed form; that’s why it was called novel in the first place,” writes Shields in Reality Hunger (or else he is quoting here from Graham Greene; this mix-up is part of his whole shtick).
The Lovers aligns itself with that great tradition of mixed-form novels by writers such as W.G. Sebald, John Berger, Geoff Dyer and Teju Cole (who is the dedicatee of Kumar’s book) among others. “No one is sure any more what the novel is,” Amit Chaudhuri writes in Friend of My Youth, another wonderful recent addition to the list of books that are not bound by the constraints of form.
But there’s also a more conventional side to The Lovers. After all, the book has a beginning, a middle and an end, as E.M. Forster decreed all novels must. It has an abundance of stories—often characters telling each other yarns in the old Victorian fashion. It has a plot that touches upon the two immemorial themes of human existence: love and desire. Kailash is desperate for sex, but also for love. The account of Kailash’s many love affairs during his time at the university—weighed down by his anxiety and his sense of the always impending breakup—underpins the narrative. Moreover, this sentimental education wouldn’t be complete if there was no sexual adventure thrown in for good measure, the kind where desire ominously manifests as the prelude to despair and even, as the final pages reveal to us, public disgrace.
Yet it is elsewhere that the emphasis of Kailash’s story falls. The novel’s most prominent character is not “Jennifer” or “Nina” or “Cai Yan”—Kailash’s lovers after whom three of the chapters are named—it is Kailash’s professor, Ehsaan Ali, who, Kumar tells us in the afterword, is partly based on the Pakistani academic Eqbal Ahmad. Kailash finds an inspiring raconteur in Professor Ehsaan. “From Eshaan we sought narrative,” Kailash tells us. “We didn’t always care how much of it was non-fiction or fiction. Ehsaan lived—and narrated—his life along the blurry Line of Control between the two genres.”
This experimental mode of narration is what The Lovers is both an exploration and a celebration of. It is a novel less about desire than about writing itself; and about writing as an act of preserving, even creating, memories. Much of the material in the novel, we are told, derives from a journal that Kailash has been keeping for some years. This journal contains newspaper cuttings, photographs, random scribbles and scandalous confessions, all of which, including the images, are produced in The Lovers as chapter heads, footnotes or random insertions: so that we discover these, in Kumar’s words, “like dried flowers found between the pages of a book”.
It’s one of the strengths of The Lovers that you can’t place it under any strict categories. Cherish it as a work of art independent of all other biographical or historical concerns and you’ll get the most out of it. But consider it also as a literary response to the question we began with: what use is the idea of home to a writer? Could it be that to never be in tune with the seasons and the landscape is somehow integral to the experience of being a writer? Are writers forever condemned to live in a state of what the Hungarian critic Georg Lukács once called “transcendental homelessness”? At one point in The Lovers, Kumar writes of “that familiar land called language”. So there we have it: what’s more essential for a writer than finding a home, perhaps, is building one in that land called language.