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Bombay-London-NewYork by Amitava Kumar
- 11/20/2009             
Reviewed by Oindrila Mukherjee (Edior's intro: Oindrila Mukherjee, MFA, is a Florida-based writer.-- c. j. s. wallia)

Time would pass, old empires would fall and new ones take their place. The relations of classes had to change before I discovered that it's not the quality of goods and utility that matter, but movement, not where you are or what you have, but where you come from, where you are going and the rate at which you are getting there - quoted by Kumar from CLR James' 1993 memoir, Beyond a Boundary.

Mobility works as both cause and effect in post-colonial writing. The need to leave one's place of origin and move from the periphery towards the centre, combined with the compulsion to look back and travel; homewards in a bid to understand one's history, is the force that drives much of recent Indian writing in English. The title Kumar has chosen for his book signifies the journey that both he and his fellow writers havemade, the distances they have traversed and the literary signposts they have passed.

Like his earlier book, Passport Photos, this one is a multi-genre celebration of the fascinating literary journey that Kumar has undertaken as a reader and critic of Indian fiction. His own fiction and poetry, along with personal accounts, make this an imaginative exercise that explores many of the impulses that have helped create contemporary Indian fiction in English.

Kumar emphasises at the very beginning that his pages are to be read merely as "marginal entries in a book written by others." He quotes generously from novels and short stories, newspaper articles, reviews and interviews, and uses photographs to convey a sense of contemporary India and the Indian writer's experience. His canvas is as immense ahis "reading practice" which he claims to have recorded for the purpose of this book. The issues he deals with are, likewise, numerous.

One of the first questions he addresses is that of language, of "choosing" to write in English. He says, "In India, the phrase 'Indian writer in English' seems to have been easily adopted as a name. But there is nothing natural in this naming. A well-known critic, Meenakshi Mukherjee, has commented, "If I were to write a novel in Marathi, I would not be called an Indian writer in Marathi, but simply a Marathi novelist, the epithet Marathi referring only to the language....No one would write a doctoral dissertation on the Indianness of my Marathi novel." Is there any reason why, when it comes to any Indian fiction in English, there should be an obsession with the issue of its Indianness?"

Much of Indian fiction in English is informed by an acute self-consciousness about the use of this particular language for composition, with writers feeling compelled to explain or defend -- through characters such as Amit Chatterjee in Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, or Agastya Sen in Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August -- their positions in response to charges that their use of English denies them access to Indian reality. Kumar allows that those who write in English (both in India and elsewhere) "remain several worlds away" from thosewho write in other languages, despite all the movement that is taking place across the globe and between cultures. But that he sanctions the new hybrid idiom's effort to express the new hybrid experience is clear when he discusses that all-important question of audience, celebrating the "desperate grasping for authenticity, which produces... the mistress of spices, the heat and dust, sweating men and women in lisping saris, brought together in arranged marriages, yes, the honking traffic, and the whole hullabaloo in the guava orchard. In short, the sound of yakking Indians."

The amalgamation of all these and numerous other literary influences since childhood is reflected in the structure of Kumar's own book, which often seems chaotic as he rushes from genre to genre, book to book, author to author, issue to issue and memory to memory. This is a heady mix, often dizzying, but then so is the hybrid concoction of a billion people and, most importantly, so is movement, especially the kind with which Kumar engages.

At a recent reading from his book in Gainesville, Florida, Kumar made a distinction between "cosmopolitan cosmopolitan" writers and "provincial cosmopolitan" ones like himself. His intense awareness of a difference between his own origin in the small, backward town of Patna and a Westernised megapolis like Salman Rushdie's Bombay is significant, not only because he sub-divides the so-called exclusive realm of Indian writing in English into a more exclusive category and a less exclusive one, but also because this book is as much about Kumar's own history as about anything else.

Unlike Rushdie, Kumar's journey begins pre-Bombay-London-New York. The opening chapter provides an account of his childhood home and of the rituals in his grandmother's house, "that small town in India's most

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