A young woman with blond dreadlocks skateboards past Twisted Soul Food Concepts, a gleefully international eatery near Vassar College. Inside, Amitava Kumar is ordering Asian dumplings and French fries for his daughter Ila and a Badass Rice Bowl for himself. He recommends the Ethiopian BBQ arepas and insists on picking up the check. Already, the world feels a little bit wider.
Crossing cultural boundaries, large and small, is a Kumar specialty. The Vassar professor’s books defy pigeonholing: he’s published nonfiction (A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, Duke University Press, 2010, winner of the Asian American Literary Award); fiction (Nobody Does the Right Thing, Duke, 2010); and hybrid literary memoir (Husband of a Fanatic, New Press, 2005; Bombay-London-New York, Routledge, 2002; Passport Photos, University of California, 2000). His just-released A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna also blends genres.
Biographers generally choose human subjects, but Kumar tells the life story of his hometown in the much-maligned state of Bihar, which seems to be India’s version of a New Jersey joke. “When you go to college in Delhi and say you’re from Bihar, people laugh at you,” he says, helping Ila adjust her earbuds; her mother, an economics professor at SUNY New Paltz, is picking her up after class. Kumar multitasks gracefully. His conversational style has a hummingbird brilliance, swooping from subject to subject with free-associative zest and high-octane intelligence. He gives the impression that everything interests him; it seems physically hard for him not to ask questions.