Amitava Kumar’s new novel maps the journey of a young man, Kailash, in “Reagan’s America” as he searches for love and meaning in life. Woven within the fabric of a larger political narrative, Kumar calls The Lovers (Aleph Book Company, Rs 599), an “in-between novel” — somewhere between fiction and non-fiction. “It speaks about the current situation, in the sense that it gives immigrants a voice. Not just a voice but a voice on their own terms. My narrator doesn’t simply declare his right to live there, he wants the right to love too,” says Kumar, who recently launched the book in Delhi.
In The Lovers, Kumar says, he has written about love and desire like never before. “I am getting old and I thought the body forgets. Through this book, I wanted to remember who I was. When I went to the US, I always thought that I would come back soon, but time kept passing. So I also thought that I must write about my life in the US, the 30 years that I have been there,” says Kumar, whose previous books include Home Products (2010) and non-fiction works such as Husband of a Fanatic (2004) and Passport Photos (2000), among others.
In the novel, Kailash’s professor and mentor, Ehsaan Ali, plays a pivotal role. Ali’s character was inspired by political scientist and anti-war activist Eqbal Ahmad, who was born in Bihar and moved to Pakistan after Partition. Ahmad studied in the US and ended up teaching there. “I never met him, but he has been an inspiring figure for me, not only because he was born in Bihar but because he embodied a radical cosmopolitanism,” says the Arrah-born author.
In the US and the UK, the book has been published with a different title — Immigrant, Montana. “I think it was David Davidar who chose this title (The Lovers). I like it because my narrator says he tore out a page from a magazine in the library that had Picasso’s The Lovers printed on it. This was the painting that Picasso did after first making love,” says Kumar, 54, who is currently the Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English at Vassar College in New York’s Poughkeepsie.
As a graduate student in the US in the late 1980s, Kumar maintained a journal that has served as inspiration for the novel. “I saved many letters from that time, some of them were written by women, which I was surprised to discover. It also includes some letters by my mother. But reading those letters was depressing — the past coming back at you like that. So I left those. Instead, I used to read the book My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, a collection of short stories. I read one story each day and wrote the next day. In other words, I used literature to call back some memories and also imagine other things,” he says.
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