All 26 pieces collected in Amitava Kumar's Lunch with a Bigot—essays, memoir, criticism, and reportage—are travel writing, either literally or metaphorically. Kumar, a professor of English at Vassar, divides the book into four parts, Reading, Writing, Places, and People, but no matter the heading, his rhythms and insights beguile, and the trip itself is as rich as the destination. The reader returns with a broader sense of power, religion, oppression, familial love, censorship, and the power of the written word, to name but a few.
Kumar sets the wayfaring tone in the first autobiographical essay "Reading": "The act of opening a book or entering a library," he asserts, "produces results akin to travel." He's telling you what to expect in his collection, while also talking about his personal reading journey, which begins in the Indian state of Bihar. Authors like A. K. Ramanujan captivate young Kumar with both style and journalistic information, helping him better understand his birthplace, his fellow humans, and himself. Although he moves stateside in the late '80s, the charged atmosphere of India's contentious cultures—Muslim, Hindu, pro-US, anti-US—informs the entirety of Lunch with a Bigot.
Kumar can be comprehensive with detail, and direct in his expression, but in "The Poetry of Gujarat Riots," one of the most intense pieces, he is elliptical, to great effect. To convey information about the 2002 slaughter of Gujarat Muslims, he converses with a writer who suffered after protesting the atrocities; through revelations of personal detail and quotes, as opposed to polemic, Kumar awakens us to the bravery of artists, the savagery of the power-hungry, and the potential of words to create action, for good and for ill.
In his Q&A with best-selling author Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things) Kumar shines light on her writing process: "I have a clear memory of language swimming toward me," Roy says. "Of my willing it out of the water. Of it being blurred, inaccessible, inchoate . . . and then of it emerging. Sharply outlined, custom made." He also makes note of Roy's insistence that he text her pre-interview, so she'll know it's him coming to the door and not a reporter from Delhi's ultraconservative Times Now, which she calls "Fox News on acid," and which considers her an enemy of the state.
Of course, Kumar gets in trouble. In his essay "Salman Rushdie and Me, " he and some colleagues protest Rushdie's exclusion from the 2012 Jaipur Literary Festival by reading aloud from The Satanic Verses, banned in India since 1988. Cops stopped them. But rather than dwell on censorship, Kumar detours into how his enjoyment of Rushdie had waned over the years, how they'd feuded, and how Twitter—on which Rushdie is a star—reunites them (sort of).
The titular essay, "Lunch with a Bigot," reads like a short story, but is actually Kumar's account of seeking out and trying to understand a powerful anti-Muslim fanatic, who despairs that Hindu-raised Kumar, has, among other things, married a Muslim. Kumar wants to understand this hatred, rather than blindly react to it. And to a degree, he does, even noting similarities "between the rioter and the writer. There could be more in common between the two than either of them might imagine—for example, that vast hinterland of public memory and shared prejudice that make us cultural citizens." Where can we go to experience such an opening of the heart? Lunch with a Bigot is an excellent travel guide to that place.
Appearing 5/9 at 7pm, Oblong, Rhinebeck; 5/17 at 7pm, Inquiring Minds, New Paltz.