Amitava Kumar

Amitava Kumar wears many hats: Vassar College English professor, literary critic, journalist, poet, and novelist. Duke University Press has just published two books by the prolific writer. Nobody Does the Right Thing is a richly textured novel about a Bombay journalist struggling to reconcile his idealism with his desire to write a Bollywood screenplay. A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb is an impassioned critique of the war on terror that focuses on the cases of Hemant Lakhani and Shahawar Matin Siraj, two men that the U.S. government, with the help of paid informants, convicted of plotting acts of terrorism.

 

Kumar uses the cases of the two men, whom he sees as "accidental terrorists" created by a government desperate for suspects to prosecute, to argue that in the post-9/11 world, "public interest will need to be defined more boldly as the rights that offer protection against the encroachments of a security state." Our wide-ranging email conversation covered the two books and also touched on Kumar's education in India, the role of politics in art, and the "ground zero mosque" controversy.

                                                                                              --Barbara Spindel

 

 

B&N Review: I thought I'd begin with A Foreigner. I'm wondering how the idea for the book was born and how you ended up focusing on Lakhani and Siraj. What did you find particularly compelling about their cases?

 

Amitava Kumar: I had just come out of Home Depot and turned on the car radio. On the news was Hemant Lakhani. His lawyer was saying how no real terrorist would have come to Lakhani. Lakhani was a bungler. And right there, in the parking lot, while loading boxes in my car, I thought I would write a story about it. This is because it wasn't just Lakhani that interested me. I remembered the story of my friend Aniruddha Bahal, who is a writer and a journalist, donning a ridiculous disguise in Delhi to sell arms. He had a spy camera and caught on tape Army officials and politicians accepting bribes. I wanted to write this story because all the characters were amateurs, including, I must emphasize, the State.

 

I pitched the story to Ian Jack, who was then the editor at Granta. To make my point about bunglers, and about the State, I included a third angle. This was the story from a village some distance from Mumbai, where the police had arrested a Muslim man on terror charges because he had a missile in his living room. The problem was that this so-called missile was only a part of textile machinery.

 

Much later, I read in the New York Times about Matin Siraj. And that provided me another thread. Not only because it too had the same story of the informant running through it, but also because of the way in which it spoke of the suspected terrorist's ineptness and arguably his innocence. I was touched by Siraj's statement, played on tape in court, that he first wanted to check with his mother [to see] if he could participate in a terrorist act.

 

BNR: You refer to the informant in the Lakhani case as "the mirror image of the defendant: a man of small means, beset with difficulties, projecting himself onto a grand stage." Can you say more about the role of informants in these cases?

 

Kumar: I'll tell you what I learned from following these cases. There has emerged what one might call "an ecology of terrorism." You go to attend the trial and you see that not only is the terrorist a foreigner, say from India or Pakistan, but so is the informant, the junior defense lawyer, sometimes even the prosecutor. You find that the translators are also from the subcontinent, among them a failed actor, a retired clerk, a man who comes out during breaks to arrange on the phone singing gigs in Long Island. The war on terror is nothing if not a giant employment scheme for my people.

 

But with that statement you have quoted, I was making a narrower point. Like several of the convicted men, the informants too are often fellow immigrants who are down on their luck. Like the men accused of terrorism, the people who have helped convict them are failed men, looking for a livelihood. In most cases, it is really an elaborate con game, the terrorist as well as the informant trying to impress the other of what he has done, or is capable of doing, in this foreign land. You wonder at what points one saw through the ruse of the other—but found only himself on the other side.

 

BNR: Here, as in the book, you manage to find some bleak humor in what you're describing. In addition to some bitterly funny comments in the book, your personality comes through in other ways. You're candid about your responses to those you interview, admitting you find Lakhani's wife bigoted and Siraj's mother tiresome. You also describe an experience you have at a strip club across the street from the Missouri prison in which Lakhani is incarcerated. (I kept waiting for you to explain that there was nowhere else in the area for you to get a drink.) Some of this struck me as unusual in a scholarly book. Do you give much thought to how much of yourself to reveal in a book like this, or is the process more organic?

 

Kumar: A few days before the book came out, I told my wife, "Okay, I want you to know that I went to a strip club..." But, you know, the moment I stepped out of that prison after doing my first interview with Lakhani, I knew I'd find a story there.

 

Academic scholarship succeeds brilliantly at times because it is disinterested: you need not know why a scientist, for example, is studying fruit flies. But I'm not interested in that kind of work. In my profession, one of the great failings of literary theory has been that the writing is not only impersonal, it also seeks mightily to be free of contradictions. How many university professors do you know who don't present themselves as unimpeachable authorities? I have made a fairly conscious decision to produce writing that is honest. And even as I say that, I realize that one of the things I try to do is reveal the layers of honesty and dishonesty in what I'm writing.

 

So, as I was saying, I told my wife about the strip club near the prison, and she said, "Why didn't you tell me that before?"

 

BNR: I suppose your approach to scholarly writing is not surprising given that you're also a novelist. Your protagonist in Nobody Does the Right Thing, Binod, is also seeking truth in writing. He's an Indian journalist struggling to write a Bollywood screenplay, and as he seeks a good story the reader is treated to many stories of life in contemporary India. What sorts of connections do you see between the novel and the themes you explore as a scholar?

 

Kumar: Oh, I do hope the beast of scholarship remains well-hidden in the foliage I've so carefully erected in the novel.

 

We throw around the word "globalization" in our classrooms on literature or cultural studies. The novel is a meditation, in concrete terms, about how the phenomenon that we call globalization is experienced unevenly in different parts of the world. The Starr Report, we learn, is sold as porn, in Hindi translation, on the streets of Delhi. That is not exactly how the report was read in Washington.

 

A term that is routinely used in our classrooms to describe places like India is "postcolonial." But what does that term really mean? I don't really get a grip on its meaning when I read all the theoretical literature. This novel became a way for me to explore the lived condition called postcoloniality.

 

I don't know precisely when, but in one of the literature seminars I attended in graduate school I learned that the novel was also a form of presenting news. The words share etymological roots. This fact entered my imagination and I began to ask myself how is it that I could say something about the Iraq War but with the distance that would make clear that to present the news also means to interpret it, and that this interpretation is carried out from the place where you're located. Location, location, location...

 

BNR: I certainly didn't mean to suggest that the novel's prose was scholarly—I should mention that both books are eminently readable. But I wanted to circle back to the parts of A Foreigner in which you survey artists' responses to 9/11 and the war on terror. I particularly like the work of Hasan Elahi, a conceptual artist who ended up on the government's terrorist watch list and, in a move that you call "part performance, part protest," now documents nearly every aspect of his life, uploading thousands of time-stamped photographs to his website, TrackingTransience.net. As a novelist and an academic writing about art, what do you see as the role of art and literature in terms of the political practices you're critiquing?

 

Kumar: Do you remember a scene in the novel where Binod recalls the sight of fathers carrying small white bundles in their hands? They are taking their dead children to the burning ghat. When Binod sees this sight he is on the way to his classes at the university. Nothing that happens in those classrooms bears any connection to what he has witnessed on the streets. My education was like that. No, my relationship to literature, for a long time, was like that. I came to political literature with a great deal of hunger.

 

Having said that, I also don't like art that comes to you with the shine of earnest, good intentions on its forehead. Someone like Hasan Elahi is extremely appealing to me because he is not just political, he is also subversive and sly. In fact, you can't ever be political unless you are also subversive and sly. I'm exaggerating, I think, but not too much.

 

BNR: You've recently written about the proposed Islamic center near ground zero and the stabbing of a Muslim New York cabdriver for VanityFair.com. You say in your piece on the "ground zero mosque" that "What has really been happening in this debate is the annihilation of the individual. There is no longer a conversation about a particular person; we can talk only about a faith." This line made me think of your statement at the end of A Foreigner about stereotypes and how they script people's lives in defeating ways. You say we need to "produce new stories." Do you have hope that that can happen? It seems that the stories get narrower all the time.

 

Kumar: Will the tide turn? I don't know, I cannot say. My own inclination is not so much to ask whether, say, investigative journalists will uncover new facts. There are very good ones out there, including people like Jane Meyer at The New Yorker. Rather, my interest is in seeing how novelists and other creative writers make us face old facts in a new way. An example that comes to mind is J. M. Coetzee, who has been very good at approaching questions of power and its complexities in a manner that I think has kept pace with history. Your question remains, of course. Will these books achieve anything? But that's not how I evaluate them.

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