Amitava Kumar begins his new book of essays with the inevitable question about contemporary Indian literature: “Is there any reason why, when it comes to any fiction in English, there should be an obsession with the issue of its Indianness?” Of course, he writes, there isn’t. His subjects—Arundhati Roy, V.S. Naipaul, and Hanif Kureishi, among others—would surely agree. The labels that bind them say little about the writers, and even less about their work.
But for their readers in India and the diaspora, this literature shapes the idea of their own “Indianness.” These readers form the center of this thoughtful but uneven collection, and Kumar enthusiastically counts himself as one of them. A professor of English at Penn State, Kumar abandons academic detachment and writes affectionately about the writers he admires.
Through them, he traces his intellectual journey from a sleepy village in north India to the hothouse of India’s capital and the progressive promised land of New York City. (His book would more accurately be titled Patna-Delhi-Park Slope.) At its best, the book takes one thread from several novels—the depiction of small-town Indian life or the alienation of the just-arrived immigrant in a lonely city—and measures it against Kumar’s own biography. What a relief to read criticism of South Asian fiction that is immune to “the desperate grasping for authenticity that produces . . . the mistress of spices, the heat and dust, the sweating men and women in lisping saris, brought together in arranged marriages, yes . . . and the whole hullabaloo in the guava orchard.”
Kumar falters, though, when he veers into memoir, revealing too much and too little. He details his awkward relationship with an aunt and uncle who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s while leaving the emotional core untouched. Most disappointing is Kumar’s sketchy treatment of his transformation from repressed bumpkin to “committed leftist.” These two identities inform every stroke of his criticism, but he fails to explain how one begat the other. “An important intellectual change had come over me,” he writes. “I had begun to read. I am unable to recall why this should have happened, but it might have been because I needed better English in Delhi.” Fortunately, Kumar interrogates books more rigorously than his life.