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Published on: 02/27/22 4:08 AM

Book review: The Blue Book by Amitava Kumar

Looking within, looking without

Amitava Kumar`s writings are usually ruminative, thought-provoking. This one, The Blue Book,  is both, as also something of  an indulgence. It is a non-linear collection of his thoughts, interspersed with some striking colour sketches drawn by the author. The result is an introspective look at the writer`s convictions, motivations, inspirations.

Journaling has long been touted to be many things to many people: a record of happenings, a way to vent, a destresser, a way to refine one`s language and writing style. In Amitava Kumar`s hands, journaling is a steady account of the world around us, faintly tinged with melancholia and poignancy.

The drawings in the book, Kumar says, are a response to our present world, a world that bestows upon us love and loss, travel through diverse landscapes, deaths from a pandemic, fake news, and visions of blazing beauty. Interestingly, he sounds out Ian Jack about including  these drawings of his in a book,  and Jack is not enthusiastic about anything that `calls attention to the writer`s imagination.` The reader should  be glad that Amitava Kumar went ahead and put the  illustrations in the journal, they complement the text beautifully. Most of them are vivid splashes on the page; the skies are bluer than blue, the land below is sometimes a stretch of burnt brown, sometimes a swathe of emerald; a bunch of poppies are a patch of brilliant scarlet; trees cast pale  shadows on snow; days are crossed out in red on a calendar with brown squares. The drawings might  announce their message with a trumpet-like clarity, as Ian Jack feared they would, but they are, in Kiran Desai`s words, just the solace  the reader needs.

A bit of everything

A host of well- known names walk in and out of the pages. Kumar doffs a hat to Ian Jack`s sharp writing, John Cheever`s `supreme style,` to Jonathan Franzen, writer of big novels, to his early heroes  Hanif Kureishi and V S Naipaul. He shares a postcard from Cheryl Strayed, discusses Indian politics with Amit Chaudhuri,  roams the Colorado wilderness with Suketu Mehta and Kiran Desai, tells us about Mary Ruefle`s erasure books, where she takes old novels or books of poems and puts most of the words on any page under erasure, leaving just a few visible words that make their own poetry. He talks cricket with Sonny Mehta, shares his artwork with Michael Ondaatje and in return, gets a Ted Hughes story from Ondaatje. He tells us how, unbeknownst to them, he turned Joan Didion and John Berger into his mentors. He  writes of trees, of crows, of Ismat Chughtai, Vinod Kumar Shukla, of Nirbhaya`s father.

Ultimately, Kumar says,  it is always about the sentences, likening good writing to the work of an expert mason intuitively fitting bricks to build an elegant wall.   As always,  he adopts a matter- of- fact tone but oftentimes the emotion breaks through, like when he is looking at  jewellery that belonged to his late mother and chooses to keep a crystal necklace which `was light enough not to add to the burden of my sorrows.’ Elsewhere,  he is explaining what duniya means to his son, and gives the reader a glimpse into the soul of a permanent exile when he writes: it means the world, the world I have lost. The world of Hindi.

There are political passages where Kumar touches on the migrant workers and their long march home during the first pandemic lockdown, the assassination of Gauri Lankesh, the lynching of Mohammed Naeem near Jamshedpur, police brutality in the US, the Shaheen Bagh protests, the farmers protests, and more.

In a lighter moment, he also gives us a pro-tip: literary festivals cannot compete with literature—stay at home and read a good book!

When Kumar comes across  his early diaries, he rues that there was no picture there of a writer in the world. Well, this `diary as well as a work made up of diary entries` gives readers a very clear picture of a writer —  this writer —  in the world.

The Blue Book, A Writer`s Journal By Amitava Kumar. HarperCollins Books. Pages 154. Price: Rs 699.

This appeared in the Sunday Herald magazine of 27 February 2022.


Amitava Kumarbook reviewHarperCollins BooksjournaljournalingThe Blue Book

Sheila Kumar • February 27, 2022

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