The Demands of Honesty: on Amitava Kumar's "Nobody Does the Right Thing"

"Write what you know" is one of those creative writing class truisms that actually happens to be true, if our goal is to tell a realistic story about a society at a given moment in time. Writers want people to believe that the kinds of fictional lives they're asking them to live with and care about for a few hours, as they read, are actually plausible. Chances are, what makes a story seem plausible is the fact that it is based, even if only partially, on the truth.

But "write what you know" is also much, much harder than it might seem. At times, it can even feel like a chain around your neck -- though that doesn't mean you can just walk away from it. In his new novel, Nobody Does the Right Thing, Amitava Kumar acknowledges the problem directly in what might be my favorite line of the book: "If you could tell just any story you wanted, no demands ever needed to be made on your honesty." [Another favorite line: "Bihari society was conservative; it was also corrupt, hollow to its core; you put a finger on its thin, distended skin and it split under your touch, revealing white worms"]

For Amitava Kumar, who was born and raised in Patna, in the Indian state of Bihar, it's Bihar that encapsulates the memories and history that are what the author "knows," and what he returns to (always slightly differently), in book after book. "Honesty" and "Bihar" live in the same site for Amitava, and yet the content of that Honesty -- the Truth one seeks to represent -- remains stubbornly elusive. Kumar's recently-published novel Nobody Does the Right Thing, which was first published as Home Products in India in 2007, continues to develop this theme. It's a terrific novel, which I think will be challenging to many readers in the Indian subcontinent as well as the West, but many of the elements that make it challenging are also what make it great.

For the new Duke University Press edition of his novel, Amitava has produced a new edit of the book, and provided a little character guide to orient the reader, though he doesn't give a glossary, italicize Hindi words, or back away from naming concrete aspects of the material world: specific towns and regions all over northern India, the names of prominent politicians or common points of historical reference, and so on. In one sense, Amitava's novel might be seen as a translation of life in the Hindi belt to the medium of the English language, but it's a translation that leaves a certain level of opacity intact. (Still, it's not hard to put two and two together if you're willing to try. Look it up, baby.)

Readers may already have somewhat of a sense of who Amitava Kumar is, but I thought it might be helpful to briefly proffer my own re-introduction, as a long-time reader of Amitava's works.

Amitava Kumar has published close to a dozen books in a relatively short span of time, and is one of the most accomplished South Asian diaspora literary critics and journalists working today. I started hearing his name spoken of in awed tones by fellow-graduate students around 2000, the year he published Passport Photos, a breakthrough work that combined cultural criticism of the South Asian diaspora with literary theory, scraps of the author's own poetry, political interventions, and autobiography. I also heard good things about his documentary about the Indian community in Trinidad, Pure Chutney (1998), though I didn't end up seeing it until this summer. Another highly recommended early book is Bombay, London, New York (2002), which continues the trajectory set out by Passport Photos. There is a good deal we could say about these earlier books (as well as important collections and anthologies published more recently, such as World Bank Literature, and Away: the Indian Writer as Expatriate), but for now it might be sufficient to simply suggest that the 'collage' style of Kumar's writing, the diverse range of subjects he considers, and the emphasis on immediacy and first-person involvement, ought to make his writing appealing to people who read blogs like this one. Kumar's writing style was already somewhat "bloggy" even before the word "weblog" was coined.

As I understand it, Amitava was at work on this novel as early as 2004-2005, and published a longer version of Nobody Does the Right Thing in 2007 as Home Products -- only in the Indian market. Amitava shopped around amongst U.S. publishers looking for a home, but only succeeded in finding one this year, with Duke University Press. His essay on what it was like to write the novel, "How to Write a Novel," from conception to completion, might be inspiring to anyone who has had aspirations of publishing a novel themselves:

Amitava has also published a non-fiction work with Duke University Press this summer, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, which has been aptly reviewed by the website The Complete Review:

Also, see an excerpt from an early chapter, relating to the American government's case against Hemant Lekhani, at Guernica magazine.

This is an important book in its own right -- a must read for anyone who has had doubts about the "War on Terror," as prosecuted either by the Governments of India or the United States. I won't be reviewing that book here, however. (I may review it sometime soon.)

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The Novel Itself:

Nobody Does the Right Thing is a story about a young journalist named Binod Singh, who sets out, on the encouragement of a movie-producer, to write a screenplay based on a true event that he hoped would make him famous. The story at issue relates to a teenage girl named Mala Srivastava who had had an affair with a Patna politician, only to be mysteriously murdered. After Binod published the article in an English-language, Bombay-based daily newspaper about the murdered young woman, he gets a call from a movie producer, who wants him to turn it into a film script. But he finds writing that script much more difficult than he would have expected; among other things, her family are extremely suspicious of him and uncooperative. Binod turns to his own family-members, who are themselves bit-players in Bihari politics, for help, but finds himself growing increasingly involved in his family's story (which has its own bodies buried in various places), rather than the girl's. Over time, his subject seems to shift, and he grows increasingly aware that keeping his finger on the "truth" of the matter is a challenging proposition. Finally, he has to decide whether he wants to stay committed to finding and recording the truth and remain somewhat marginal, or take a much easier path to success through the preparation of fanciful melodramas, for which there is always a ready audience in the Indian media-sphere.

Earlier I stated that I see this novel as an attempt at a "translation of life in the Hindi belt to the medium of the English language"; this is not a trivial part of what Amitava is up to here. This is a novel that pays quite close attention to the intricacies of language -- the different registers of Hindi. It comes up again and again with Binod:

When he had come out of university, he wrote in both Hindi and English. He used to file all news reports in English, but his more reflective essays on Sunday were for the siter paper in Hindi. These essays were filled with nostalgia and protest, and reflected perhaps the loneliness he had felt while living away from home in Delhi.

[...] The essays appeared under the heading Aayeena, which means "mirror" in Hindi. After a few months of this, Binod's editor told him that he needed to look in the mirror and decide what he wanted to be, a journalist in English or Hindi. The choice was easy. There were more readers for the Hindi papers but the money was in the English.

Nevertheless, while writing entirely in English, Binod found that he could not talk very easily about villages and small towns. He lacked the idiom to express his feelings directly about harvests or heavy rains that led to flooding, the excitement and then the numbing that followed the news of another caste massacre, the familiar bare roads that cut through fields and shone at night under the moon's light, the sounds of a woman's bangles coming across a pond in the dark. He wanted to talk about the routine of travel during Holi and Diwali in the unreserved compartment of third-rate trains like the Shram Jeevi Express -- but who among the readers of English newspapers in Delhi would find any appeal in such things? There were only so many times that he could remind his reader that you could not understand the pain of the man who brought your milk or drove your car unless you too needed to go back to your village every six months to find out whether the child who had four milk teeth last time had now learned to call your name when shown your photograph. (9)

The idea that Binod's writing in English feels somewhat disconnected rings true, from my experience reading of some of India's English-language newspapers. (Amitava also hints that journalistic writing in the Indian media comes alive in a different way in print in Hindi and other Indian languages -- though liveliness of the non-English presses can also pose some problems. Still, it's worth remembering that the circulation of Hindi language newspapers in particular dwarfs that of English, even at a moment when people are alternately celebrating and bemoaning the rise of Global English.)

Interestingly, the issue of the relationship to English seems to be one moment in the novel where Amitava's protagonist does not seem to be an autobiographical proxy. Though Amitava has himself come out of the Hindi belt to write exclusively in English, his own writing in English has never seemed to lack expressiveness or a sense of personal engagement.

I have described Nobody Does the Right Thing as a novel engaged in a kind of cultural translation of life in urban Bihar at the present moment in Hindi-inflected English. But one shouldn't be confused by that description into thinking that the novel is some kind of 21st century sequel to Premchand's Godaan. To get today's Bihar right, you cannot merely write about shady small-town politics, farmers, and village caste grievances, and leave it at that. (Not that Godaan was limited to that either -- in fact, even that village novel was cosmopolitan to a considerable extent.) Kumar's characters in Patna in Nobody Does the Right Thing are deeply impacted by events around the world: 9/11, the war on terror, and Indian national politics (the setting is 2004, a national election year). And yet those broader events and crises do not seem to alter certain fundamental dynamics: a way of living, a culture, and a set of social relationships remains basically intact.

The novel also expresses a more than passing passion for Hindi films, both classic and contemporary. There is quite a bit of discussion of films, from Mother India and Do Bigha Zameen, to the films of the 2000s. Real Bollywood stars make cameos in the novel from time to time, and there is a definite awareness of the financial and cultural dynamics of the Bombay film world in the novel, including even a brief reference British woman writing a dissertation about Bombay cinema -- a young woman to whom the stars seem to pay just a little too much attention.

Scattered through Kumar's novel are some great meditations on the way commercial Hindi films work in everyday life in India's small towns and villages. One of the characters in Kumar's novel describes it as follows:

Small-town people tear their shirts open when they are felling very excited. They do that when a hit song is on the screen. When some titillating dance is going on, you see coins being thrown at the screen. It's madness. They don't hold back any emotion, they don't care a damn what people think. If they want to cry, they cry or howl in the theater. In cities, audiences go to the theater with expectation, they come to enjoy the film and if you betray them, and you let them down and you can't hold them, then you'll see empty theaters the next day. They are extreme in their emotions; the city people aren't--I would say they don't know how to enjoy a Hiindi film."

This is also a novel deeply engaged with British and American literature, and intellectual life. So Amitava also works in references to George Orwell (who was born in Bihar, though few people are aware of that fact), Jean-Paul Sartre, Tennessee Williams, and many others. In short, the characters in Kumar's novel are pretty thoroughly cosmopolitan, without its characters ever having left India. (That said, it's a somewhat different kind of comopolitanism than that expressed by the writers of the 'Doon School Mafia'; the key difference here seems to be the closeness to Hindi, and the fact that the main characters remain regionally and ethno-linguistically marked.)

Finally, this is a novel that aims to reflect globalization, liberalization, and the revolution in everyday life brought about by the technological changes of the past two decades -- from cell phones to the internet. The Starr Report makes an appearance -- though in Kumar's account it's sold in bootleg Hindi translations as a pulpy paperback kind of pornography (with some completely fictional material by a translator inserted for 'paisa vasool'). Along the same lines, one of the main characters runs a cybercafe in Patna that is busted for promoting obscenity, since its clients primarily use it to look at porn in closed cubicles (sometimes as couples). And the legacy of the Tehelka arms scandal -- an internet era event, provoked by a website, rather than a conventional news source -- is not far in the background either.

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Revisiting the Authenticity Debate (briefly)

A couple of years ago, I contrasted Home Products to Aravind Adiga's Booker-Prize winning novel, The White Tiger. Both are novels in English with protagonists who are from Bihar (though the state is not directly named in Adiga's novel, the location is clearly implied). Both are also novels written by diasporic journalists who had been inspired by their journalistic work. I won't rehash all of it all over again, though let me recommend an article Amitava himself wrote, mentioning The White Tiger as part of a survey of the "authenticity" debate in the Indian English novel.

Amitava's assessment lines up pretty closely with my own, though he goes in a somewhat different direction with his piece. For reference, one of my posts about Adiga's novel is here:

One could, of course, observe that it's a little dangerous for one aspiring novelist to be dismissing another novelist's work (with a superficially similar profile and theme), and to his credit Amitava readily acknowledges that potential conflict of interest in his essay, after quoting a slightly slapdash passage from Adiga's novel on the relations between men and women in a Bihari village. Here is Kumar's response to Adiga (for the passage in question, click on the first link above):

I have witnessed such men, and sometimes women, coming back to their village homes countless times. The novelist seems to know next to nothing about either the love or the despair of the people he writes about. I want to know if others, who might never have visited Bihar, read the passage above and recognize how wrong it is, how the appearance of verisimilitude belies the emotional truths of life in Bihar.

As I continued [to read Adiga's book], I found on nearly every page a familiar observation or a fine phrase, and on nearly every page inevitably something that sounds false. I stopped reading on page thirty-five.

I was anxious about my response to The White Tiger. No, not only for the suspicion about the ressentiment lurking in my breast, but also because I was aware that I might be open to the same charge of being inauthentic. My own novel Home Products, published last year, has as its protagonist a journalist who is writing about the murder of a young woman. The case is based on a well-known murder of a poet who had an illicit relationship with a married politician. Kidnapping and rape and, of course, murder, feature quite frequently in the novel's pages. By presenting these events through a journalist's eye, I tried hard to maintain a tone of observational integrity. At some level, realism had become my religion.

Incidentally, Amitava also spells out his dislikes in greater detail in an article in The Hindu from November 2008:

Another way of making this complaint: Adiga's novel claims to be a wake-up call to the "World is Flat"/"India Shining" triumphalists. But The White Tiger's anti-elitist stance is more a rhetorical pose than anything else, not really borne out by any strong familiarity with the world it describes. The fact that it is a pose is not to say that it is entirely false. But it is considerably more limited; the book is more like an Op-Ed and less like a substantial portrait of a society.

Are there flaws with Nobody Does the Right Thing? Maybe. The condensed format of the American version of the novel has slightly reduced the amount of time we spend with each character, with the result being that we don't have a very fully developed picture of some of the secondary characters in the book.

The novel also opens with an intriguing mystery regarding the murdered poetess Mala Srivastava, suggesting that it might turn out be a page turner. In fact, Nobody Does the Right Thing is more a reflective character study than a thriller, and readers looking for the excitements of a Stieg Larrson type book, full of clearly-delineated victims and scheming perpetrators, may be disappointed. Kumar's world is much grayer, with a largely sympathetic blackmailer/pornographer in Binod's cousin Rabinder.

Overall, Nobody Does the Right Thing should provoke a lively debate about life in contemporary India for readers -- both those with personal connections to the Indian subcontinent and those who don't know it very well. It has the ambitions and themes one sees in "big novels," though it comes in a pretty modest package. It admittedly doesn't give you a clean "takeaway" -- a buzzword or easy moral that can become a Tweetable tagline (i.e., "All is well!") -- but then, that's exactly the point.