by Monica Arora
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Duke University Press Books (May 15, 2015)
In this day and age, when nearly everybody is churning out a book whether they have a book in them or not, here are these 26 essays by Amitava Kumar, compiled under the title Lunch with a Bigot. In his note as a preamble to the book, the author states that when he encountered a judge at a poetry competition, he was asked by him, “If you have nothing to say, don’t write. Please.” That itself is enough compulsion for a reader to attempt going through this eclectic collection of essays that the writer has meticulously divided into four sections: Reading, Writing, Places and People.
In the first section, namely “Reading”, the author specifies how “paper was to be worshipped, like money or the Gita”. Perhaps, the paperless internet generation will find this rather difficult to relate, but old school connoisseurs of good, old-fashioned writing may be able to connect with the sentiments resonating within the potent essay. Amitava speaks about his life-changing interviews with eminent names in Indian literature such as Hanif Kureishi and Arundhati Roy, both of whom shaped and influenced his early years in writing.
Sample this gem by Arundhati narrated during an interview with the author. She states, “Language…takes a while to become yours, to listen to you, to obey you and for you to obey it. I have a clear memory of language swimming towards me. Of my willing it out of water. Of it being blurred, inaccessible, inchoate…and then of it emerging. Sharply outlined, custom-made.” Such are the little pearls that the reader may encounter in this oysteresque collection.
With a rather vociferous tonality of candid descriptions of the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in light of the Godhra riots or reportage of burning current issues that have captured mass imagination such as the Arushi murder case, Amitava’s essays have a pulse on topics that have social relevance and have been widely discussed and dissected.
His tryst with authors who have influenced his writing at different stages of his life, such as Salman Rushdie or Hanif Kureishi, offer an insight into personal beliefs, even prejudices and how influences get transformed and reformed over a period of time and how we take up to or wean away from a particular author’s style in sync with our own evolving sense and sensibilities.
In the section on “Writing”, the author offers little tips and cues for those wishing to pursue writing as a vocation from the point of view of a reader, father and so on. Particularly endearing is the section “Places” which bring out the best of Amitava’s work over a decade and a half, right from the stark violence amidst the backdrop of the silent angst of those afflicted by the phenomenon in the Vale of Kashmir to his colouful visit to the first ever Jaipur Literary Festival, and from recollections of his childhood years in Patna to the “Bookstores of New York”. Each essay transports the reader bang into the middle of the action and leaves the reader with a carefully stroked masterpiece akin to a painting of the place in question.
The final section on “People” comprises of delightful gems which are rather comical yet somewhat eye-opening such as “The Boxer on the Flight”. The title essay “Lunch with a Bigot” wherein Amitava visits a Hindu fundamentalist’s home for lunch despite the former’s overt disgust at Amitava’s marriage to a Pakistani Muslim makes for extremely powerful reading that has much relevance in the contemporary “intolerant” agenda generating much hype in contemporary Indian society.
It is not very easy to go through all of these essays in one read as they make for some compulsive observations but all in all, it is an important repertoire of Amitava Kumar’s work over many, many years and engage the reader through the astute observations of the author’s discerning eye.