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Book Review

A rarefied self-search

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

A rarefied self-search

An intimate record of the heart of a vibrant writer-artist that will serve as an inspiration to other writers and artists.

Amitava Kumar has presented readers with an unusual journal. At first glance, it comes across as a collection of paintings, collages, line drawings, sketches, and so on, interspersed with running text. But go deeper and it reveals itself as a compilation of his inner workings: the methods he employs in the art of his writing and comments on the modes of writing of other writers and the working styles of other artists. The journal also contains memoirs of his growing-up years, which mention how he yearned to possess as his own a language after he was uprooted from his native Hindi in his early youth and spent most of his adult life in the US. He had initially struggled to find a foothold in English. There is also an extensive section on his creative activities during the pandemic-related seclusion and about his experiences in his official life as an English teacher in Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, in upstate New York, through 2020 to the present.

Kumar has begun the book with quotes from Susan Sontag, Judi Dench, and Pablo Picasso that are in-depth meditations on their own “journal entries”. Sontag talks about her journal writing as a vehicle for her sense of selfhood. Dench and Picasso dwell on how their paintings are their way of keeping a journal.

The Blue Book: A Writer’s Journal
By Amitava Kumar
HarperCollins Publishers India, 2022
Pages: 149
Price: Rs.699 (flexiback)

After the early few pages, the book has two paintings: the one on page (vi) is titled “Sunset Lake” and is dated December 17, 2020, and the one on page (viii) is titled “My Sleeping Kids” and is dated May 2020.

Then comes the author’s “Introduction” to The Blue Book. The right-side page has written material describing the way he wrote a book titled Immigrant, Montana, which he eventually finished and published in 2018. On the left-side page are reproductions of images from a notebook of his that he posted on his Instagram page, consisting of clippings, quotes, and sketches. This notebook had entries from the time he was working on Immigrant, Montana. However, the rest of The Blue Book contains “drawings and writings” that occupied his mind while he was writing a new novel, A Time Outside This Time. He states that the images and writings are around a newer history, the current period. He says: “For the past two years, I have been painting watercolours. Like my novel, these drawings are a response to our present world—a world that bestows upon us love and loss, travel through diverse landscapes, deaths from a pandemic, fake news and, if we care to notice, visions of blazing beauty.”

The book has five sections: “Residencies”, “Journeys”, “Writing a Novel”, “Postcards from the Pandemic”, and “Office Hours”.

“Residencies” begins with an account of the writing residency he had at Marfa, Texas, beginning in January 2020, with a painting spread over pages (xvi) and (xvii), a watercolour depicting a green garden view as seen through a window with tawny curtains hanging on either side, with the caption “I’m away on a MacDowell Residency/Writing about this rotten Presidency” and is dated “6/25/19”. Spread across pages 2 and 3 is again a landscape in watercolour probably depicting golden ripe wheat fields with the caption “Pinto Canyon Road, Early Morning...”. On page 4 begins the written part: “I arrived in Marfa in January for a writing residency; I was inhabiting this dream of creation….” Below it, is a line sketch in sepia depicting a wire fence running across a meadow. The sketch is dated “1/26/20”. There is a journal entry in hand that notes the deaths of Kobe Bryant and his eldest daughter in a helicopter crash and another entry about the progress of his work.

On page 5 is a watercolour sketch of the residency building at Marfa, dated “1/23/20”, and a journal entry in hand. On page 6 is a watercolour landscape of an asphalt road piercing the middle of a tawny earth-coloured plain with a grey blue, partially white-cloud-clad sky overhead, dated “Marfa, Texas, 2020”. On page 7 is a watercolour painting titled “Dried Yuasa and clouds, 6.05 pm, 1/27/20”.

I have given the above details of the first few pages of the book to give readers an idea of how Kumar composed the “journal”. The book proceeds this way, with paintings, sketches, and patches of running text in between. The text stands out for its seemingly disjointed nature—as indeed journal entries are—and for its poetic brilliance, too. From the prose pieces, one gets a feel for the capricious present as one is faced with a series of random experiences. For this very reason, laid-down structures are dispensed with in Kumar’s writing. This could well be a model for the way forward post-pandemic from a writers’ world stuck in the time-space of pre-pandemic life.

Poignant memories of his mother, who died while he was away in the US, haunt him in this section. Also, elsewhere in the book, are memories of his 86-year-old father dying in March 2020 of COVID-related complications. The author is immensely involved with his family, especially his children, and he reveals this with rare candour at every opportunity he gets.

Amitava Kumar, in New Delhi in 2017. “Journeys” is one of five sections of the book and has details of memorable journeys the author took within the US, Europe, Australia, and India, particularly his native Bihar and Delhi, where he had his early university education. 
Amitava Kumar, in New Delhi in 2017. “Journeys” is one of five sections of the book and has details of memorable journeys the author took within the US, Europe, Australia, and India, particularly his native Bihar and Delhi, where he had his early university education.  | Photo Credit: SUDERSHAN V

“Residencies” is followed by “Journeys”, his memorable journeys within the US, Europe, Australia, and India, particularly his native Bihar and Delhi, where he had his early university education.

“Writing a Novel” is about Kumar’s experience of writing. He begins the section with an epigraph describing his youth at a time when he was thirsting for a language of his own. Later in the section, he seems impassioned about mentioning how important it is for writers to know the names of trees, birds, and other living beings to be used in their writings, recounting his morning walks in Lodhi Garden, New Delhi, where the scientific and common names of trees are exhibited, and his wonder at discovering the English equivalents of Hindi names of the trees.

The next 32 pages are devoted to the section “Postcards from the Pandemic”. The impression this section leaves on the reader is very different from other pandemic-oriented creative writing, such as Sudeep Sen’s poetry collection Anthropocene or Singing in the Dark: A Global Anthology of Poetry under Lockdown edited by K. Satchidanandan and Nishi Chowla, in that Kumar’s paintings, drawings, sketches, and the personal account of how he and his near and dear ones fared during the pandemic resonate with us as more intimate and immediate. How several souls close to him became part of the body count that ran into hundreds of thousands remind many of us of our personal losses.

“Office Hours” is a description of his day job as professor of English at Vassar College after the worst of COVID was over and his life at Poughkeepsie. The section is dotted with watercolour landscapes and an impressive still life of a pair of his son Rahul’s boots, which he did in collaboration with Rahul.

Kumar’s strong feelings against the Donald Trump presidency and his total disillusionment about the right-wing upsurge in India and in several other countries find expression in this book: Fascism on the rise, the urge to purge minorities, all these topics are touched on in the sparse texts.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump at a rally. Kumar’s strong feelings against the Donald Trump presidency find expression in this book.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump at a rally. Kumar’s strong feelings against the Donald Trump presidency find expression in this book. | Photo Credit: REUTERS / KATE MUNSCH

The book is replete with terse anecdotes involving writers: for example, Ted Hughes grieving a badger he had inadvertently run over.

He describes precisely how he manages time and how he writes on a daily basis, using pencil on paper, in longhand! His modest goal is 150 words of excellent writing and 10 minutes of walking a day. “When I write, or read, or paint, I am more of a human than I am a gadget,” he said. His prayer is “Bring me quietness, bring me caring. Make of me a reader, a writer, an artist”.

What is special about this work is that it is straight from the heart, earnest, burning. It reveals the soul’s yearnings and resounds with an almost naive simplicity, but it is actually at the zenith of a rarefied self-search. Most importantly, this is an intimate record of the heart of a vibrant writer-artist, and will certainly serve as an inspiration to other writers and artists, beginners and seasoned ones alike.