Politics and art come together in a literary delight that’s an elegiac montage of memories
By Ashwani Kumar
Have you ever written a novel through drawings? Or have you ever read a “painted diary” as an elegiac montage of memories? The Blue Book by Amitava Kumar, one of the most acclaimed novelists of contemporary times, is a landmark work of “self-writing”, or what Michael Foucault would have called “hypomnemata”, a book of memory with hybrid literary and artistic filiations. Although the art of diary writing is considered a literary anomaly, Kumar’s The Blue Book is a rare species of magical realism where words become paintings, and paintings turn into a seductive literary anthropology of “reality and surreality” which leaves us amazed. Known for his visceral postcolonial novels of exile and homelessness with shifting itinerant memories of towns, places and people, Kumar uses the alchemical power of the drawings in his genre-defying diary to evoke a world that is both redemptive and regressive in the most chilling times of a global pandemic. So no prizes for guessing why Kumar writes about residences, ‘rotten presidency’, Gulmohar trees, Alok Dhanwa train poem, migrant workers returning home, Gauri Lankesh murder and also recent Delhi riots.
Undeniably, we have all suffered in many ways the catastrophic personal and political effects of the coronavirus-induced lockdowns. Consciously or not, we have not only been quarantined in new-age gulag camps of solitude and social distancing, but we have also entered the “era of diaries” – coronavirus diaries, quarantine diaries and Wuhan diaries – which have become new mythologies of truths and reside in increasingly nihilistic liquid modernity. In that colloquial sense, The Blue Book is, indeed, a journal of the pandemic. But let me tell you frankly that the Blue Book is not just about the pandemic pangs; they are in fact unforgettable stories of hidden forms of languages and landscapes that speak to us in a meditative and subversive voice of drawings and words.
In other words, The Blue Book is neither a decaffeinated self-documentation of personal loss nor a narcissistic diary of selfie-monologues. In fact, Kumar paints words with such dexterity of a lyrical language of emotion and color that the memory of everyday mundanity or the oddities of friends and family becomes “a living thing that changes shape, expands , shrinks and expands again, an amoeba-like creature”. with powers to make us laugh, cry and clench our fists,” in the words of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus.
It is this “malleability of memory” that defines Kumar’s The Blue Book and his journey as a writer. Each diary painting, steeped in sensual allusions and allegories, offers fascinating insight into the workings of a writer’s mind. And every painting, whether it’s his son Rohan’s Timberland’s Boots, Faces from the Coronavirus Pandemic, Government Trees in a Patna Park or Delhi Riots, leaves traces of erasing memories, like drops of painting on a canvas.
Written as ‘notes of isolation’ in three-dimensional cabin prose while writing his new novel A Time Outside This Time during MacDowell’s residency at Marfa, Kumar’s The Blue Book is filled with presences and d absence of seasons, sounds, sketches, quotes, flashbacks. postcards – anything that captures multiple records from his memory of “residences”, travels”, “writing a novel”, “pandemic postcards” and “office hours” in the book; much like a beautifully produced, luxurious five-act legato in an opera.
Following his favorite author John Berger and his “briefs as photos”, Kumar also fuses photos, paintings, poetry and memoirs into prophecies of mortality and materiality. No wonder, The Blue Book of Kumar is a sublime muse of a painter-writer at the most troubled times of our lives.
In other words, Kumar also outdid himself in his author choices and literary imaginations in The Blue Book. Whether we admit it or not, novelists are often strange creatures living the paranormal double life of commitment and estrangement. This is why the flowers in Kumar’s paintings represent death and Pyre – a memorable piece about the death of his mother – in a Bakhtinian sense not only reveals the fear of death, but also the loss of his mother tongue and the loss of his birthplace in Patna.
At the heart of Kumar’s writer’s diary in watercolors and also in words is his “artistic response to our current world – a world that grants us love and loss, travels through diverse landscapes, pandemic deaths and fake news” in his own words.
Let me also caution here. If you’re only looking for factual details about pandemic times, gossip about literary festivals, or embarrassing personal details about friends and family, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re a connoisseur of shining a light on the inner recesses of creativity, then The Blue Book is a deceptively pure literary delight with politics and art intertwined. Consider Kumar’s conversation with writer Amit Choudhury during a chance encounter in Paris. After the usual bonhomie, culinary tastes and wanderings in the street, they immersed themselves in deciphering the reasons for the meteoric rise of Hindu nationalism in the legislative elections. While Choudhury wanted a direct response to the progressive ineffectiveness of dissent in India, Kumar admittedly preferred to “address these issues obliquely or even directly only in fiction”. It is this inventive and fictitious grammar of politics that inhabits his paintings, like the “buzzing” of deaf and dumb girls he had met on a bridge near the Norte Dame cathedral in Paris.
Believe it or not, the Writing a Novel chapter in The Blue Book could get quite addictive for budding fiction or non-fiction writers. For Kumar, “writing begins with waiting”, and “when there is nothing to write, you have to observe the world and record your ways in a journal”, he admits with approval. For him, a novel is made of diary entries because “there are only two plots in all literature; you go on a trip or a stranger comes to town,” in the words of the late John Gardner. I’m sure not many people know that Kumar keeps pictures or drawings of his children in his notebook, because he thinks “it’s a superstitious act born out of the belief that love will save me”. Thus, writing is a deeply idiosyncratic practice for him. In short, writing, for Kumar, is like a daily ritual of storing memories through a primitive form of record keeping rather than instant clicks on a smartphone. If you don’t believe that “writers exist in two worlds”, then read what Kumar says: “I am a writer; so every day I write. The days given to me are only for writing. Maybe you are also a writer; maybe you are not. The point still stands. The mark you make in your journal is more important than anything that stands out from the daily task whose completion you record. The first represents real life; the second simply a life. Wow, what a fascinating finishing passage from the master storyteller. Hope, millennials and senior writers, together, listen to it.
By the time you finish The Blue Book of Kumar, you are bound to be under the magical spell of the purity of a writer’s self-awakening, his memories and drawings smelling of the ittar (perfume) given to him by a musician. Rajasthani folk. at the Colorado Literary Festival.
So, after reading The Blue Book, I absentmindedly wandered to my “typewriter house” in the hills to inhale the imaginary smell of the utterly intoxicating poppy flowers of Motihari in my native Bihar. Does that sound fancy enough? I am not sure.
In the end, being a poet, allow me to indulge in delightful particularities of poetry and painting. Perhaps Kumar can tell me why when, like the painter Salvador Dali, I ask for a grilled lobster in a restaurant in Patna, I am always served “a cooked telephone”, not the rats. Ah, reading someone else’s diary is like revealing our secret desires and fantasies to search for a language, “a language to name emotions, people and places”. And I won’t lie – reading The Blue Book feels like your own personal diary, leaving you feeling eerily enlightened without any guilt or remorse.
Ashwani Kumar is a poet, writer and professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He is also the author of the widely acclaimed poetry volume Banaras and the Other, the first in a trilogy on religious towns in India.
The Blue Book: A Writer’s Diary
Pp 176, Rs 699