A writer’s diary | Book review: ‘The Blue Book’ by Amitava Kumar

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By Ashwani Kumar

Have you ever written a novel through drawings? Or have you ever read a ‘painted diary’ as an elegiac montage of memories? The Blue Book by Amitava Kumar, one of the most acclaimed novelists of contemporary times, is a landmark work of ‘self-writing’, or what Michael Foucault would have called ‘hypomnemata’—a memory book with hybrid literary and artistic parentage. Though the art of writing a diary is considered a literary anomaly, Kumar’s The Blue Book is a rare species of magical realism where words become paintings, and paintings turn into a beguiling literary anthropology of ‘reality and surreality’ that leaves us stunned. Known for his visceral post-colonial novels of exile and homelessness with shape-shifting itinerant memories of cities, places and people, Kumar uses the alchemical power of the drawings in his genre-defying diary to evoke a world that is together redemptive and regressive in the most frightening times of a global pandemic. So, no prizes for guessing why Kumar writes about residencies, ‘rotten presidency’, Gulmohar trees, Alok Dhanwa’s train poem, migrant labourers walking back home, Gauri Lankesh’s killing and also about the recent Delhi riots.

Unmistakably, we all have suffered catastrophic personal and political effects of coronavirus-induced lockdowns in many ways. Wittingly or unwittingly, we have not only been quarantined into new-age gulag camps of solitude and social distancing but have also entered into ‘an age of diaries’— coronavirus diaries, quarantine diaries and Wuhan diaries—which have become new mythologies of truths and lies in the increasingly nihilistic liquid modernity. In this familiar sense, The Blue Book is, indeed, a pandemic diary. But let me tell you frankly, The Blue Book is not just about pandemic pangs; it is actually about unforgettable stories of hidden forms of languages and landscapes speaking to us in a meditative and subversive voice of drawings and words.

In other words, The Blue Book is neither a decaffeinated self-documentation of personal loss nor a narcissistic journal of selfie-monologues. In fact, Kumar paints words with such deftness of a lyrical language of emotions and colours that memory of everyday ordinariness or oddities of friends and family becomes “a living thing that changes shape, expands, shrinks, and expands again, an amoeba-like creature with powers to make us laugh, and cry, and clench our fists”, in the words of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus.

It is this ‘malleability of memory’ that defines Kumar’s The Blue Book and his journey as a writer. Every painting in the journal, suffused with sensual allusions and allegories, offers fascinating glimpses into the inner workings of a writer’s mind. And every painting, whether it’s his son Rohan’s Timberland’s Boots, Faces from the Coronavirus Pandemic, Government Trees in a Patna Park or Delhi Riots, leaves traces of erasure of memories, like the drip of paint down a canvas.

Written as ‘isolation notes’ in a three-dimensional cubicle prose while writing his new novel A Time Outside This Time during the MacDowell residency in Marfa, Kumar’s The Blue Book is filled with presences and absences of seasons, sounds, sketches, quotes, throwback postcards—anything that captures multiple registers of his memory of ‘residencies’, journeys’, ‘writing a novel’, ‘postcards from the pandemic’ and ‘office hours’ in the book; much like a beautifully produced five-act luxurious legato in an opera.

Following his favourite author John Berger and his ‘briefs as photos’, Kumar also fuses photos, paintings, poetry and memoirs into prophecies of mortality and materiality. No wonder, Kumar’s The Blue Book is a sublime muse of a painter-writer during the most troubled times of our life.

In other words, Kumar has also surpassed himself in his authorial choices and literary imaginations in The Blue Book. Whether we admit it or not, novelists are often strange creatures living the paranormal double lives of engagement and estrangement. That’s why flowers in Kumar’s paintings represent death and Pyre—a memorable piece about his mother’s death—in a Bakhtinian sense reveals not only the fear of death, but also the loss of his mother tongue and loss of his native home in Patna.

Central to Kumar’s writer’s journal in watercolours and also in words is his artistic “response to our present world— a world that bestows upon us love and loss, travel through diverse landscapes, deaths from a pandemic, and fake news” in his own words.

Let me also caution here. If you are only looking for factual details of pandemic times, and gossips about literary festivals, or embarrassing personal details of friends and families, you will be disappointed. But if you are a connoisseur of spotlighting inner recesses of creativity, then The Blue Book is a deceptively pure literary delight with politics and art interwoven. Consider Kumar’s conversation with writer Amit Choudhury during a chance encounter in Paris. After usual bonhomie, culinary relish, and wanderings on the street, they dipped into decoding the reasons for the stunning rise of Hindu nationalism in the parliamentary elections. While Choudhury wanted a direct answer to gradual ineffectiveness of dissent in India, Kumar admittedly preferred to “address such questions obliquely or even directly only in fiction”. It is this inventive, fictional grammar of politics that inhabits his paintings, like the ‘humming noises’ of deaf and dumb girls he had met on a bridge near the Norte Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Believe it or not, the chapter Writing a Novel in The Blue Book could become quite addictive for budding writers of fiction or non-fiction. For Kumar, “writing begins with waiting”, and “when there is nothing to write, one must observe the world and record its ways in a diary”, he avers approvingly. For him, a novel is made up of diary entries because “there are only two plots in all of literature; you go on a journey or a stranger comes to town” in the words of late John Gardner. I am sure not many people know that Kumar keeps photographs or drawings of his children in his notebook, for he believes that “it is a superstitious act born out of the belief that love will save me”. So, writing is a deeply idiosyncratic practice for him. In short, writing, for Kumar, is like an everyday ritual of storing memories through a primitive form of record-keeping rather than making instant clicks on a smartphone. If you don’t believe that ‘writers exist in two worlds’, then read what Kumar says: “I am a writer; so every day I write. The days I am given are only for writing. May be you are a writer, too; may be you are not. The point still stands. The mark you make in your journal is more important than whatever comes of the daily task whose completion you’re recording. The first represents actual living; the second merely a life.” Wow, what a mesmerising finishing passage from the master story-teller. Hope, millennials and senior writers, together, are listening to him.

By the time you finish Kumar’s The Blue Book, you are bound to be under the magical spell of the purity of self-awakening of a writer, his memories and his drawings smelling like the ittar (perfume) gifted to him by a Rajasthani folk musician at Colorado literary festival.

Thus, after reading The Blue Book, I absentmindedly travelled to my ‘typewriter’s cottage’ in the hills to inhale the imaginary smell of utterly intoxicating poppy flowers from Motihari in my native Bihar. Does it sound whimsical enough? I am not sure.

In the end, being a poet, allow me to indulge in delectable idiosyncrasies of poetry and painting. Maybe Kumar can tell me why when, like painter Salvador Dali, I ask for a grilled lobster in a restaurant in Patna, I am always served ‘a cooked telephone’, not the rats. Ah, reading someone else’s personal diary is like revealing our secret desires and fantasies to search for a language, “language to name emotions, people and places”. And I won’t lie—reading The Blue Book feels like it’s your own diary, letting you feel strangely enlightened without any guilt or remorse.

Ashwani Kumar is a poet, writer & professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He is also the author of widely acclaimed poetry volume Banaras and the Other, the first of a trilogy on religious cities in India

The Blue Book: A Writer’s JournalAmitava KumarHarperCollinsPp 176, Rs 699