Saturday, March 19, 2005

Husband of a Fanatic review in the Times

Amitava Kumar's new book is out in the U.S. (as of a month ago), and there's a review of it in the Times.

The review is a little lukewarm, but balanced on the whole; Bellague describes well what Kumar's style of writing does best. The following paragraph is pretty complimentary:

At its best, Kumar's reportage has the immediacy and respectful attention to detail of a well-turned Granta essay (it is no surprise to see Ian Jack, Granta's editor, cited in the acknowledgments). Picking his way through lives distorted or destroyed by hatred, Kumar alleviates his own -- and the reader's -- gloom by drawing attention to the fanatics' mordant eccentricities. In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where Hindu nationalist cadres called kar-sevaks destroyed the Babri mosque in 1992, Kumar discovers that children now learn math by answering questions like, ''If it takes four kar-sevaks to demolish one mosque, how many does it take to demolish 20?'' He is dismayed that the nationalists have succeeded in making millions of Hindus feel embattled in a country where they form an overwhelming majority. But he is painfully aware that he himself is the anachronism, one of a dwindling band clinging to the secular ideals of India's first prime minister, Jawarharlal Nehru.

To which the joker in me adds: How many kar-sevaks does it take to go screw themselves?

But here is one of Bellague's criticisms:

Kumar the professor has an unfortunate way of intruding on Kumar the reporter. Thus he unnecessarily supplements his own neat description of Hindu political symbolism with the (borrowed) observation that televised Hindu epics had created "a shared symbolic lexicon around which political forces could mobilize communal praxis."

We learn much more when Kumar is describing small things impenetrable to outsiders, like the pungency of a communal slogan, the paradoxes and passions of South Asian cricket and the nuances of an Urdu story. Under the kitchen sink of his parents' home, one memorable childhood vignette runs, there was "a dirty glass and, beside it, a ceramic plate that was white with small pink flowers," reserved for a tubercular uncle. "The only other occasion when the plate and glass were taken out was when a Muslim driver who sometimes ate at our house needed to be fed."

Hm... I for one don't object to "Kumar the professor."

More comments once I've read the book.

3 comments:

Ms. World said...

I read the NYT review too. I like Amitava Kumar's work. I'm a a great fan of "Bombay London New York." But I haven't read "Husband of a Fanatic."

"At its best, Kumar's reportage has the immediacy and respectful attention to detail of a well-turned Granta essay (it is no surprise to see Ian Jack, Granta's editor, cited in the acknowledgments)."

That comment made me laugh out loud! I honestly don't know if it is a compliment or put-down from Mr. De Bellaigue. I love Granta but I don't know if I would want a reviewer comparing my book which I've put a lot of hardwork and time into with an essay. I almost think it is a put down though.

I agree with you that the review was lukewarm. I wonder if a lukewarm NYT review is better than a bad NYT review or no NYT review.

How is your book coming along? Are you working on any books for laymen? :)

Amardeep said...

Ms. World,

Alas, my book on secularism is still trying to find a publisher. It's a tough business! When I get a contract, I'll probably post news of it to the blog...

It is an academic book. I try as hard as I can to write clearly and without excessive jargon, but in the end it will probably be mainly of interest to people who are academics in the social sciences and humanities... You might want to take a crack at it when it's out anyways!

Varun Singh said...

I recently finished the book and I think it's very meticulously researched book. I can't agree to you when you say "in the end it will probably be mainly of interest to people who are academics in the social sciences and humanities". I've spent my childhood in towns of Rajasthan and I can very easily relate to the observations made by Kumar. This book doesn't talk about the solution of the hindu-muslim friction in the subcontinent but delves deeper into the problem and provides many new pespectives. This book should interest anyone & everyone who ponders over this clash between religions & the psyche of people of sub-continent.