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CULTURE & SOCIETY   Literature

‘Bihar is India’s Future’

Amitava Kumar talks to Lakshmi Indrasimhan about Bihar, his home state and the setting of his soon-to-be-published novel, Home Products

 
‘There’s an easy appeal to pathos made by writers writing about people they meet only as servants’
You’ve said somewhere that Home Products grew out of reading an interview with Manoj Bajpai.

Well, I was greatly struck by his candour. I interviewed him over several days: we’d talk for hours. It seemed to me there was a book there, and then I decided, not without help from David Davidar, that I should turn it into a work of fiction.

There is a stereotype in India that Bihar, despite its history, is currently at the nadir of civilisation. How, if at all, will this book change perceptions of Bihar?

Well, in some respects, Bihar really is the nadir of civilisation. And therefore it is the future that awaits the rest of India. This is not a future of only lawlessness and chaos. Rather, it is an already existing present where even inside the worst, you see a possibility of the best. And vice versa. The problem with stereotypes is not that they are false, but that they are static. And that is why Bihar is interesting. It defeats expectations. I hope my book promotes that view of Bihar.

It seems we are in the midst of a Bihar Renaissance with Siddharth Chowdhury, Tabish Khair and yourself. There are even several websites that aim to show Biharis as achievers.

I like Siddharth’s writing because it is daringly original. And Tabish is the better kind of scholar-writer that India somehow seems very good at producing. But I doubt they would identify with the Biharis who run the kind of website you’re referring to. I certainly don’t. I don’t write to furnish a better image of a place or a person. Writing for me is a way of finding out what is hidden from the world. All declarations of superiority are also symptoms of real inferiority. I know what is inferior in myself. I want to be honest about it.

You’ve said it would be great if your writings let Bihari students see themselves reflected in their textbooks. Have you considered writing in Hindi?

I have lost any ability to write in Hindi with any competence. But I’ll admit that when I read some translations of my own writing in Hindi, I find the hair at the back of my neck standing up. This has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of my prose. It has everything to do with the sounds of words in your mother tongue and the associations they carry.

How has the village been treated in Indian literature?

More popular than the pathologising of the village, particularly in metropolitan fiction, is a misleading romance about the village. It’s all folkloric, with no sense, really, that people are shitting in the fields or dying of cholera. Or dying to get away and become a badly-paid security guard in a Delhi suburb.

How do you read the recent killings of Biharis by ULFA militants in Assam?

It reminds me of the ways in which Bihari workers provided fodder for the terrorists in Punjab. They were the easiest targets and the most powerless to resist. Of course, the killers aren’t very privileged or rich either. This story is of the vengeance of the less powerful against the least powerful.

You’ve mentioned the middle class writer’s impulse to speak in an underclass voice.

There’s an easy appeal to pathos made by writers writing about people who in real life they meet only as servants. I can’t do it. The novel I’ve written is about the middle-class in its middleness, unable to resolve what it means to succeed.

Any final thoughts?

Well, this is the place to reveal that Tehelka plays an important role in the novel. One of the central characters observes that Tehelka reporters are able to bribe Army officers and politicians with very little — it doesn’t take much to strut in the corridors of power. He too wants to become a player. He knows he can’t change the nation’s fate, but he begins to wonder whether he can’t change his own.

Feb 10 , 2006
 

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