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Amitava Kumar Brings It All Back Home

A Matter Of Roots

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"I remember the excitement of my first time on a plane, leaving India to go to grad school in Syracuse in 1986," he says. His prologue to Bombay-London-New York sets the scene: As the young scholar peers out the plane's window, watching his family wave solemn good-byes, "a cousin took off her long dupatta and held it up with both hands so that an elegant span of bright orange unfurled in the strong breeze. Then we were in the air. I removed from my hair the marigold leaves and grains of rice that my mother had sprinkled on me for good luck." A few sentences later, he contemplates how this departure scene echoes V. S. Naipaul's Miguel Street. "There is no beginning that is a blank page," Kumar writes.

He took a taxi from the Syracuse airport, marveling, "I'd never been on a road that smooth." That night he ate beef for the first time and ordered a Heineken, a brand he'd seen advertised in Newsweek and Time.

He also met a relative who'd come to America two decades before and had never returned. "He took me to Sears and bought me a jacket," Kumar reports. Later, the man's aging mother made the trip from her village to Patna to use a long-distance telephone, hearing her son's voice for the first time in 20 years.

Kumar's face lights up. "A beautiful woman just walked in," he says, greeting his wife. He and Mona Ali met in New York, at a 1997 event celebrating 50 years of Indian and Pakistani independence. They married two years later. "I often told myself that my marriage was unusually symbolic: I was doing my bit to help bring peace to more than a billion people living in the subcontinent because I am an Indian Hindu and the woman I was about to marry, Mona, is a Pakistani Muslim," Kumar writes in Husband of a Fanatic. If this sounds hyperbolic, consider that one of his interviewees, a Hindu ultranationalist, called Kumar a dog and a bastard, an enemy of India. "I went to meet him at his apartment in Queens because I wanted a dialogue with him. I also wanted to see his face. I found the idea of a faceless enemy unbearable. That wasn't a psychological problem so much as a writer's problem. I wanted detail and voice."

A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb also gives detail and voice to those labeled "enemy": people caught in the crossfire of the Global War on Terror in post-9/11 America, London, and India. Kumar's subjects include two bunglers lured into elaborate government stings and a man who was tortured for owning what looked like a missile part but proved to be a bobbin from an industrial loom. Nothing about this is simple, their stories assert.

Neither is being your hometown's biographer. "The changes that had come to my town seemed more monumental than changes here," Kumar says. "Here, the rest of the world comes in as a new ethnic restaurant, or a new beat in, say, a Madonna song"—he nods toward Twisted Soul's speaker, which is playing one as he speaks. But in India, "the shift is momentous. In 1986, an old woman travels from her village to place a telephone call via long-distance trunk lines. Now that old woman can call from her hut. Conceivably she can see the Oscars. Mickey Mouse is selling her toothpaste."

American culture and capitalism may have infiltrated Patna, but returning diasporics, Kumar writes, often treat their hometowns "like a leftover." In earlier books, he admits, "I told stories about Patna because they were a part of my shame at having come from nowhere." Still, he returned every year to visit his family. At the end of A Matter of Rats, he writes, "When I step on Patna's soil, I only want to see how much older my parents look. ... Each time I leave, I wonder about the circumstances under which I will need to return."

This January, his mother fell ill. Since the author planned to return for a February literary festival and faced multiple deadlines, he hesitated. The morning after he booked a flight, he awoke to a distant relative's condolences on Facebook. In a moving essay for the Indian Express, Kumar describes returning to India to cremate his mother, concluding with aching restraint: "I realized that I had missed a very important deadline."

Several people he'd profiled in A Matter of Rats attended his mother's funeral, including a renegade poet and a bureaucrat lobbying to serve rat meat in restaurants. The night before, Amitava Kumar had slept in his mother's house, waking when a rat bit his hand in the dark. Later he wrote to his agent, "I suspect this is a form of literary criticism."

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