'Nepalis come across a huge wall that divides one part of the world from another'The presence of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at the helm has only made things worse. These people are bent on hardening borders, rather than dissolving them.
Born and raised in Bihar, Amitava Kumar is a writer, professor, and journalist whose books have long explored the immigrant experience. Combining storytelling with reportage, poetry, and photographs, Kumar multi-genre books take a multi-disciplinary view of migration. His books—Passport Photos, Nobody Does the Right Thing, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb and Immigrant, Montana—have been celebrated for their perceptive literary and artistic flair. A professor of English at Vassar College in New York, Kumar was part of a panel on memory, migration, and humiliation at the Jaipur Literature Festival last week. On the sidelines of the festival, the Post’s Avasna Pandey spoke to Kumar about his books, migration, shame and Kathmandu. Excerpts:
The figure of the immigrant looms large in your work. But I’d like to get your thoughts on a lesser-known category—the labour migrant. South Asians—Nepalis, Indians and Bangladeshis—are migrating in droves to countries in the Middle East and East Asia as labourers. Would it be fair to say that much of Western academia has ignored this specific type of migrant in lieu of the immigrant?
I do not know much about academia, let me tell you frankly. But my own consciousness, especially my book Passport Photos, is shaped by working-class realities. With the 1965 Immigration Act, the United States was trying to compete with the Russians—where they were trying to ‘put a man on the moon’—so what they allowed in was the educated elite—engineers, doctors. But more and more in recent decades, it is the working class that has been coming in. In Queens, New York, one sees many Nepalis, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. If someone like me could have been influenced by what were the emergent realities of the diasporic experience, then I think more and more work must be getting done in the academia too. For example, there is a woman called Sumati Reddy, who was doing work on the anthropology of the working conditions of Malayali nurses in New York. But again, has it touched the mainstream, that’s something I do not know.
The travel writer Pico Iyer became famous as a proponent of the ‘Global Soul’—a rootless, free-floating identity that is not bound by nation-states and boundaries, an identity particular to our current post-modern globalised condition. Your work seems at odds with this conception of identity; in fact, you seem to be saying that identity is something we carry wherever we go. How do you see identity in an increasingly globalised, post-modern world?
In my book Immigrant, Montana, in the author’s note, there is a reference to Pico Iyer in a footnote, with his quote from some review essay. His quote is a certain happy image of globalisation. So if one is at one place in the morning, at a different place by the afternoon having a different kind of meal and so on, its like you are choosing what jackets to wear from your closet at different times. But a different idea of globalisation emerges when you think of a kid in Kathmandu working in a tea shop who wears a t-shirt with Kendrick Lamar on it. Yes, he wears a certain mark of a certain culture on his body, but is it the same as Pico flying from a literary festival in Tokyo to a festival in Jaipur, wearing an Indian outfit? No. In other words, Pico Iyer paints a happy image of globalisation. He is viewing the world with rose-tinted glasses.
Nepal’s passport is one of the weakest in the world. Almost every country in the world requires us to get a visa and very often, that visa is denied. For us, migration is never easy, unless it is to work as a labourer in the Middle East. In your session, you said that we have to explore our shame, but how do we deal with the humiliation of migration?
What you are saying proves false what delusional proponents of globalisation like Thomas Friedman say when they say we inhabit a flat world. This is not a flat world. In fact, if it is a flat world, then Nepalis come across a huge wall that divides one part of the world from another. That vacuous talk in post-modern seminars about porous borders and border crossing is all a sham. Obstacles are real for poor people or people from poorer nations. For them, barriers automatically go up. But how do we deal with it? I think my more activist-minded friends would call for solidarity among nations to say we need equal rights and that’s perhaps the way to go. But I’m not an activist. I’m very much interested in telling the story, the drama—about the situation at the borders. I want to be a good, faithful observer.
So are you trying to say we should be at peace with this humiliation?
No, not at all. A writer should not be asked about a situation where a man is violent with his wife. Or what laws should exist. That’s for all of us to figure out. A writer is not excused from being a part of it, but that’s not their main responsibility. Maybe a better question could have been, is this depiction more real? Is it any different from what we have become familiar to? Is it calling for a different response? That’s where I pitch my tent.
If let’s say, the common part of depiction earlier was simply the pain of someone who is living abroad and sad, I want to have that replaced—transcend what has been done in literature and do something more pressing. But in writing, not necessarily in activism.
South Asians perhaps share more in common than Europeans and yet, we remain one of the most divided continents where movement from India to Pakistan and vice-versa can be nigh impossible. Despite our shared histories, we’ve remained closed off to each other. Do you see any possible thaw in these frozen relations?
This is a very depressing picture. The presence of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at the helm has only made things worse. These people are bent on hardening borders, rather than dissolving them. And they are not alone. That’s what Trump is trying to do on the US-Mexico border too. To underline the pessimism of the situation, let me add that Pakistani authors have been denied visas to come here. My friend Asim Naqvi, who had won the DSC Inaugural Prize in 2011, too was denied the visa.
Have you ever been to Kathmandu?
Many times. I had relatives, who I think in a very dubious move, acquired Nepali citizenship. I am from Bihar. So some of my relatives acquired Nepali citizenship so that they could then use the quota system for entry into medical and engineering college.
When I was around 19 or 20, I badly wanted a typewriter. So I got my first typewriter from Birgunj. You had to pay a carrier some money to bring it across the river. It was a Brother typewriter. Red. I even took it to America with me. But more recently, when I went to my village, I discovered that a couple of migrants who had been working as labourers on my grandfather’s fields were now engaged in taking forged currency across. It’s quite strange and new. But yes, I’ve been to Kathmandu many times, where I’ve had some experiences. I’d love to return.
Since you are so familiar with the city, do you think Kathmandu is quite an anomaly in South Asia. Many would argue that it is the most cosmopolitan and open space in all of South Asia. Would you agree?
I think the idea of Kathmandu as a space where Indians and Pakistanis and Sri Lankan could meet is a wonderful one. If it’s not problematic to say so, I almost want to call it the Switzerland of South Asia—where its neutrality could attract all kinds of relationships among countries. Unfortunately, I also think Kathmandu has been exploited. India has used it nefariously to send people to Pakistan that way or Pakistan has used Nepal to carry out operations. So that’s what comes out as the dark underside of such a situation. But then there is this overwhelming Hindu identity. Cosmopolitanism would come from the thriving of different religions as I often think of Nepal as a primarily Hindu nation. Maybe this could be my ignorance. That’s only my small note of caution there.
Are you familiar with any Nepali writing?
Yes, I am familiar with Manjushree Thapa’s writing. Samrat Upadhyay is also a good friend of mine. I used to write for Himal Southasian. So, I have always respected the kind of journalism Nepalis have been doing.
For example, Anup [Kaphle]—travelling and reporting about food. I liked that. And Kanak [Mani Dixit] and their struggle against orthodoxies, that sometimes seems to limit this freedom. I’ve been impressed by that and want to support it.
Your first book, Passport Photos, made use of prose, poetry, academia and photography to talk about the immigrant experience. I believe that was your first book and I don’t think you’ve published another similar multi-genre work. Why is that?
That book was remarkable because I look back and think if an untenured professor like myself should have taken such risks; especially as a debutante writer. I don’t think any academic work I have published since Passport Photos has that multi-genre nature. And I’m impressed by my younger self. But I have still tried to incorporate the multi-genre factor in my other works. They are made up of newspaper snippets, quotes, photographs, journalistic writing and a narrative, too.