AmitavaKumar wears many hats: Vassar College English professor,literary critic, journalist, poet, and novelist. Duke University Press has justpublished two books by the prolific writer. NobodyDoes the Right Thing is arichly textured novel about a Bombay journalist struggling to reconcile hisidealism with his desire to write a Bollywood screenplay. A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb is animpassioned critique of the war on terror that focuses on the cases of HemantLakhani and Shahawar Matin Siraj, two men that the U.S. government, with thehelp of paid informants, convicted of plotting acts of terrorism.
Kumar uses the cases of the two men, whom he sees as”accidental terrorists” created by a government desperate forsuspects to prosecute, to argue that in the post-9/11 world, “publicinterest will need to be defined more boldly as the rights that offerprotection against the encroachments of a security state.” Ourwide-ranging email conversation covered the two books and also touched onKumar’s education in India, the role of politics in art, and the “groundzero mosque” controversy.
B&NReview: I thought I’d begin with A Foreigner. I’m wondering how the idea for the book was born andhow you ended up focusing on Lakhani and Siraj. What did you find particularlycompelling about their cases?
AmitavaKumar: I had just come out of Home Depot and turned on the carradio. On the news was Hemant Lakhani. His lawyer was saying how no realterrorist would have come to Lakhani. Lakhani was a bungler. And right there,in the parking lot, while loading boxes in my car, I thought I would write a storyabout it. This is because it wasn’t just Lakhani that interested me. Iremembered the story of my friend Aniruddha Bahal, who is a writer and ajournalist, donning a ridiculous disguise in Delhi to sell arms. He had a spycamera and caught on tape Army officials and politicians accepting bribes. Iwanted to write this story because all the characters were amateurs, including,I must emphasize, the State.
I pitched the story to Ian Jack, who was then the editorat Granta. To make my point aboutbunglers, and about the State, I included a third angle. This was the storyfrom a village some distance from Mumbai, where the police had arrested aMuslim man on terror charges because he had a missile in his living room. Theproblem was that this so-called missile was only a part of textile machinery.
Much later, I read in the New York Times about Matin Siraj. And that provided me anotherthread. Not only because it too had the same story of the informant runningthrough it, but also because of the way in which it spoke of the suspectedterrorist’s ineptness and arguably his innocence. I was touched by Siraj’sstatement, played on tape in court, that he first wanted to check with hismother [to see] if he could participate in a terrorist act.
BNR: Yourefer to the informant in the Lakhani case as “the mirror image of thedefendant: a man of small means, beset with difficulties, projecting himselfonto a grand stage.” Can you say more about the role of informants inthese cases?
Kumar: I’lltell you what I learned from following these cases. There has emerged what onemight call “an ecology of terrorism.” You go to attend the trial andyou see that not only is the terrorist a foreigner, say from India or Pakistan,but so is the informant, the junior defense lawyer, sometimes even theprosecutor. You find that the translators are also from the subcontinent, amongthem a failed actor, a retired clerk, a man who comes out during breaks toarrange on the phone singing gigs in Long Island. The war on terror is nothingif not a giant employment scheme for my people.
But with that statement you have quoted, I was making anarrower point. Like several of the convicted men, the informants too are oftenfellow immigrants who are down on their luck. Like the men accused ofterrorism, the people who have helped convict them are failed men, looking fora livelihood. In most cases, it is really an elaborate con game, the terroristas well as the informant trying to impress the other of what he has done, or iscapable of doing, in this foreign land. You wonder at what points one sawthrough the ruse of the other—but found only himself on the other side.
BNR: Here,as in the book, you manage to find some bleak humor in what you’re describing.In addition to some bitterly funny comments in the book, your personality comesthrough in other ways. You’re candid about your responses to those youinterview, admitting you find Lakhani’s wife bigoted and Siraj’s mothertiresome. You also describe an experience you have at a strip club across thestreet from the Missouri prison in which Lakhani is incarcerated. (I kept waitingfor you to explain that there was nowhere else in the area for you to get adrink.) Some of this struck me as unusual in a scholarly book. Do you give muchthought to how much of yourself to reveal in a book like this, or is theprocess more organic?
Kumar: A fewdays before the book came out, I told my wife, “Okay, I want you to knowthat I went to a strip club…” But, you know, the moment I stepped out ofthat prison after doing my first interview with Lakhani, I knew I’d find astory there.
Academic scholarship succeeds brilliantly at times becauseit is disinterested: you need not know why a scientist, for example, isstudying fruit flies. But I’m not interested in that kind of work. In myprofession, one of the great failings of literary theory has been that thewriting is not only impersonal, it also seeks mightily to be free ofcontradictions. How many university professors do you know who don’t presentthemselves as unimpeachable authorities? I have made a fairly consciousdecision to produce writing that is honest. And even as I say that, I realizethat one of the things I try to do is reveal the layers of honesty anddishonesty in what I’m writing.
So, as I was saying, I told my wife about the strip clubnear the prison, and she said, “Why didn’t you tell me that before?”
BNR: Isuppose your approach to scholarly writing is not surprising given that you’realso a novelist. Your protagonist in NobodyDoes the Right Thing, Binod, is also seeking truth in writing. He’s anIndian journalist struggling to write a Bollywood screenplay, and as he seeks agood story the reader is treated to many stories of life in contemporary India.What sorts of connections do you see between the novel and the themes youexplore as a scholar?
Kumar: Oh, Ido hope the beast of scholarship remains well-hidden in the foliage I’ve socarefully erected in the novel.
We throw around the word “globalization” in ourclassrooms on literature or cultural studies. The novel is a meditation, inconcrete terms, about how the phenomenon that we call globalization isexperienced unevenly in different parts of the world. The Starr Report, we learn, is sold as porn, in Hindi translation,on the streets of Delhi. That is not exactlyhow the report was read in Washington.
A term that is routinely used in our classrooms todescribe places like India is “postcolonial.” But what does that termreally mean? I don’t really get a grip on its meaning when I read all thetheoretical literature. This novel became a way for me to explore the livedcondition called postcoloniality.
I don’t know precisely when, but in one of the literatureseminars I attended in graduate school I learned that the novel was also a formof presenting news. The words share etymological roots. This fact entered my imaginationand I began to ask myself how is it that I could say something about the IraqWar but with the distance that would make clear that to present the news alsomeans to interpret it, and that this interpretation is carried out from theplace where you’re located. Location, location, location…
BNR: Icertainly didn’t mean to suggest that the novel’s prose was scholarly—I shouldmention that both books are eminently readable. But I wanted to circle back tothe parts of A Foreigner in which yousurvey artists’ responses to 9/11 and the war on terror. I particularly likethe work of Hasan Elahi, a conceptual artist who ended up on the government’sterrorist watch list and, in a move that you call “part performance, partprotest,” now documents nearly every aspect of his life, uploadingthousands of time-stamped photographs to his website, TrackingTransience.net. Asa novelist and an academic writing about art, what do you see as the role ofart and literature in terms of the political practices you’re critiquing?
Kumar: Do youremember a scene in the novel where Binod recalls the sight of fathers carryingsmall white bundles in their hands? They are taking their dead children to theburning ghat. When Binod sees this sight he is on the way to his classes at theuniversity. Nothing that happens in those classrooms bears any connection towhat he has witnessed on the streets. My education was like that. No, myrelationship to literature, for a long time, was like that. I came to politicalliterature with a great deal of hunger.
Having said that, I also don’t like art that comes to youwith the shine of earnest, good intentions on its forehead. Someone like HasanElahi is extremely appealing to me because he is not just political, he is alsosubversive and sly. In fact, you can’t ever be political unless you are alsosubversive and sly. I’m exaggerating, I think, but not too much.
BNR: You’verecently written about the proposed Islamic center near ground zero and thestabbing of a Muslim New York cabdriver forVanityFair.com. You say in your piece on the “ground zero mosque”that “What has really been happening in this debate is the annihilation ofthe individual. There is no longer a conversation about a particular person; wecan talk only about a faith.” This line made me think of your statement atthe end of A Foreigner aboutstereotypes and how they script people’s lives in defeating ways. You say weneed to “produce new stories.” Do you have hope that that can happen?It seems that the stories get narrower all the time.
Kumar: Willthe tide turn? I don’t know, I cannot say. My own inclination is not so much toask whether, say, investigative journalists will uncover new facts. There arevery good ones out there, including people like Jane Meyer at The New Yorker. Rather, my interest isin seeing how novelists and other creative writers make us face old facts in anew way. An example that comes to mind is J. M. Coetzee, who has been very goodat approaching questions of power and its complexities in a manner that I thinkhas kept pace with history. Your question remains, of course. Will these booksachieve anything? But that’s not how I evaluate them.