We asked author Amitava Kumar if he went back to read his own writings and he laughed and said maybe he shouldn’t be honest with his answer because the truth was that he sometimes really loved it! We were in conversation with the author of The Blue Book: A Writer’s Journal (HarperCollins India; Rs 699) all the way from London over Zoom as he allowed us a peek into his quirky mind. The Blue Book is a collection of vignettes of the author’s most intimate thoughts and experiences, illustrated perfectly with his watercolour drawings. His answer reminds us of Shashi Deshpande’s essay where she writes about the ‘writer’s guilt’ for enjoying life in a vocation that gives an intimate pleasure that can never be explained.
Kumar is an English professor from Vassar College in upstate New York and has previously written a novel, A Time Outside This Time, amongst other fiction and non-fiction pieces. His latest The Blue Book is a colourful and vibrant presentation of intimate moments and thoughts as experienced and felt by the author. The book is as honest as he is when he admits that while his own writing often makes him happy, it also makes him cringe sometimes. “One of the gifts of seeing a book is that it has its own completeness. It becomes detached from you. So, when you read it, it’s as if you’re reading someone else’s work,” he said. The restless author doesn’t dwell too long on his work and he has already moved on to planning The Yellow Book next. Here are excerpts from this fantastically invigorating conversation....
Despite your editor’s warnings against the use of pictures, this book is now alive. Tell us how it came about!
I have said this in my earlier books as well, that I wanted to be an artist as a boy. We would travel by boat from Patna to go to our village sometimes and the little boat on the Ganga looked like a red pendant which seemed very beautiful to me. My village would have these stereotypical mustard fields and I immediately wanted to paint it. I was a bad artist and it didn’t really work out! And I have said half-jokingly that maybe it was my failure as an artist that made me a writer. During the pandemic, I devised activities with my child to do together, one of which was drawing and writing a paragraph every day.
I was on a book tour when I met Michael Ondaatje, the author of The English Patient. He showed me a picture book by John Berger, asking me to write about it. All of these little things came together to form this book that you have in your hand today. My literary agent wanted to use some of my drawings on her website and they got enough traction for her to ask me to compile it together. I didn’t know how I wanted to present it. They were little stories in my mind that were running parallel as I was writing a novel. I was looking for ways to slow-jam the news that kept trickling in every day. If you surround a picture with words that are a bit heartfelt or introspective or critical, they give you a different frame to in which to put the picture to raise. So I started drawing on newspapers and drawing the news to make sense of it. My next thought was to add words to the pictures just to make an oblique passage to the picture. And that’s how it grew….
Your other books have allowed you to base your protagonist partly on yourself. However, your journal entries are deeply personal and a peek into your mind completely. Was there any trepidation?
Yeah, that’s a good question. Because your journal entry is like a diary entry. How many people do you allow people to read your diary? But I think the task of a writer, when you decide to become a writer, is to be shameless about it. If not shameless, be fearless. I have an evening journal and a morning one and no one is supposed to read the latter. It’s not for public consumption because it has all my thinking in their rawest form. An embarrassing dream or a shameless thought I have while making my morning coffee. I feel that by this exercise, I am unblocking myself and allowing myself to be more expressive.
So yes, there was trepidation but I had a different thought.
There is an entry in the book where I talked about how a guy asked me to give him two truths and a lie. You know how Indians aren’t supposed to lie about anyone’s death? But the lie I gave him was that my father had died due to Covid complications in 2020. Even yesterday, I thought about my sisters’ or my father’s reaction if they read that portion of the book. But I decided to be honest with all my thoughts and doings that would perhaps not be palatable to a few. I am definitely conscious but one has to do it.
You are an artist who creates art through paint, words, and more. What is the purpose of your art?
Instinctively, even though I think it's not the right answer, the first thing I want to say is, the purpose of my art is to tell people what it means to be alive today. And I am unhappy with this answer because I think somewhere, I want to say that the purpose of my art is to write about freedom. A part of me feels that the purpose of art is to open up a space that is at least for a while free of politics, that feels like freedom. I want to be able to think about this plant that I bought for my wife’s birthday and how I want to take care of it. I want to talk about how the texture shines when light falls on the little buds.
There is a question I have asked all fiction writers I have encountered –– does fiction need to be morally responsible? Two distinct schools of thought have emerged –– those who believe fiction can be an escape and those who think if you are not political, you are being deaf. Where do you belong?
Yes, very good question and I would love to know what everyone answered! But I am going to be the boring person who thinks you can’t do any one of those things without doing the other. In other words, I cannot write about the pandemic, without thinking a little bit about let's say, a man playing on his guitar, to a woman he kind of likes across from him in a building.
And I cannot write about a man playing the guitar, to a woman he kind of knows, without noticing, and also writing somewhere, that it is a city under lockdown because a disease has come into town.
So, the real thing and I hope The Blue Book achieves is how to be meaningful and observing what is going on in the larger world. But without sacrificing our primal urge for pleasure, for ordinary joys. And for collecting smiles. For recording all of this because that's what human life is. You can't write a novel as if you’re writing a slogan. And you can’t write a slogan without thinking if there is music in it or not.