I met Amitava Kumar for the first time when he was doing a reading from his book, Husband of a Fanatic, at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York City. After his reading, as he started mingling with the audience, we got talking. We discovered that we are both from Bihar, India. And his parents live in the same neighborhood as my parents in Patna, the capital of the state.
Given my nomadic life of growing up across three continents, boarding school, and hostel life, I have never had a defined sense of roots. So I was thrilled to meet a writer who acknowledges his Bihari roots in a very unpretentious way.
The topic of books on Bihar came up, and Amitava Kumar told me about his novel Home Products, which was published in early 2007 by Picador-India. It has been published in the United States in 2010 by Duke University Press under the title Nobody Does The Right Thing.
Binod, a Mumbai journalist with high scruples, is hired by a movie director to write a screenplay about a murdered poet, Mala Srivastava, from a small town near Patna. Her politician-lover murdered Mala, a small town-modernist, after a controversial affair. In order to conduct research for the film’s script, Binod makes a trip back to Bihar. But when he arrives there, Mala’s family isn’t helpful.
Mainly set in Mumbai, Delhi, and multiple regions of Bihar, the novel is a voyage into the different layers, textures, and flavors of modern India, which are rarely written about. Given his knowledge about Bihar, Kumar accurately, but casually, drops in names of neighborhoods (Fraser Road) and restaurants (Amrapali) throughout the novel. Also, it helps that he has an understanding of the culture, tradition, and political situation of Bihar. Be it the case of Mala Srivastava’s murder or Binod’s behavior when he goes on his first date with his ex-wife Arpana, nothing reads as an exaggeration.
Kumar’s writing reveals the nuances attached to the political scene, crimes, obsession with films, interpretation of modernism, and social complexities occupying the lives of people in these places. The people, their emotions, and actions feel real.
A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb is a thought-provoking, engaging, and scary narrative of the global outcome of the war on terrorism post 9/11.
Expressed through Kumar’s personal reflections and factual data, it brings to light the event’s impact on humanity worldwide, especially on the two largest democracies in the world: India and the United States.
The book is essentially centered on two men, Hemant Lakhani, a 70-year old London clothier with a heart condition, and Shahawar Matin Siraj, a 20-year old Pakistani immigrant living in Queens, NY. They were both convicted in U.S. courts for facilitating terrorist attacks in the United States.
Lakhani was accused of selling a fake missile to an FBI informant Rehman. Siraj, baited by an informant for the New York Police Department, who was paid more than $100,000, was found guilty of participating in a conspiracy to bomb a prominent subway station in New York City.
Kumar, who is a professor at Vassar College, “teaches classes that mainly deal with: reportage; the essay-form, both in prose and film; literatures describing the global movement of goods and people; memory-work.” Kumar gathered a lot of his information on the two men in A Foreigner.. through primary data. He interviewed Lakhani and also met with his wife. Though he was unable to personally meet Siraj, Kumar spoke with his family. The stories shared by Lakhani’s wife and Siraj’s mother weave a disturbing picture for the reader, leaving them to wonder if and how men like Lakhani and Siraj were trapped. And if that was the case, did the government, determined to fight terror, make scapegoats of them?
Through commentary, opinion, social analysis, and true-life accounts, Kumar introduces the reader to what the governments in both countries are capable of and can get away with. There is the story of Kashmiri Muslim, S.A.R. Geelani, arrested for his involvement in the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, brutally tortured, and finally acquitted and released. Or the story of 37-year old conceptual artist, Hasan Elahi, a teacher of art and visual theory at San Jose State University in California, who was repeatedly interrogated by the FBI after 9/11. Elahi, since, has started documenting and uploading his every single movement on to his website.
Kumar shows the reader that the fear of suspicion, ever-expanding claustrophobia, and the license to stereotype and make generalizations is prevalent in the world we live in today. It is a potent reminder.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram is a multi-genre writer and marketing professional based in New York City. www.swetavikram.com