Two nations and one world
Passport Photos: Amitava Kumar
(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000)
reviewed by M.V. Ramana
Kuano nadi, sankri, neeli, shaant/Jaane kab hogi aachitij, laal,
uddhaam, Bahut gareeb hai yeh dharti/Jahan yeh behti hai.
Kuano river, thin, blue, calm/When will it spread to the horizon,
turn red, turbulent/very poor is this land where it flows.
- translated by Amitava Kumar
I remember the first time I came into the USA. It was also the
first time I had ever boarded an airplane. The immigration officer
looked at the visa page on my passport. Then he looked up and
asked what I was in the US for. I am going to graduate school,
I tell him. He turns around and shouts to the officer in the next
cubicle, “Looks like the whole world is going to school
in America.” It may have been his attempt at livening up
a boring day but to me it did not sound welcoming at all. And
then he proceeds to write F-1 on the immigration form. I froze.
I had a J-1 visa. I had been warned—any mistakes could have
serious repercussions. After a moment’s hesitation, I piped
up: “Excuse me, I have a J-1 visa.” “Smart aleck,
huh!” he comments. “Yes, a darned sight smarter than
you,” I felt like screaming but didn’t. What would
he know of my plans, my hopes and my fears. All he knew about
me was what was in my passport.
It is what is missed out in one’s passport that Amitava
Kumar explores in his Passport Photos. The book is a charming,
exhilarating, thought-provoking attempt at understanding and speaking
about the immigrant experience in an “undeniably personal
and political way”. In the author’s own words, “The
book is a forged passport. It is an act of fabrication against
the language of government agencies.” The book, therefore,
is structured into sections that correspond to the catego-ries
in a real passport. Name, place of birth, date of birth, …
This novel format when interspersed with evidence of Kumar’s
multiple talents and occupations—melli-fluous poetry, skillful
language, great photographs—and his passion makes for a
great read. Each section shuttles the reader between the diaspora
and the home country, between literary theory and political economy,
between Bertolt Brecht and Gulzar. Kumar follows (and quotes)
Edward Said’s suggestion that “since the main features
of our present existence are dispossession, dispersion, and yet
also a kind of power incommensurate with our stateless exile,
I believe that essentially unconventional, hybrid and fragmentary
forms of expression should be used to represent us.”
Passport Photos is a refreshing read in today’s world of
identity politics. He clearly subscribes to (and quotes) the view
exu-berantly captured in Subcommandante Marcos’s response
to a question about his identity: “Marcos is gay in San
Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano
in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel,
… a Jew in Germany … a Communist in the post-Cold
War era…and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains of
south-east Mexico.” Nor is Kumar’s conception of desi
immigrants limited to ones that end up in Silicon Valley or in
the emergency rooms of small town hospitals. Taxi drivers and
restaurant workers, activists and poets rub shoulders in the book.
Why and how these people came to be in the US and what they do
here forms a major part of the book.
The book does have some distracting and bothersome features.
Despite a structure that allows the author to weave in outpour-ings
from his multiple talents, it is clear at various points that
a certain detour in the narrative is occasioned only by the fact
that the author has written a newspaper article on that subject.
That these newspaper articles are often fun to read is a different
matter. Another problem is poor indexing. After having read it,
one cannot find where some particular subject is discussed, on
which page a certain poem is. But these are quibbles, really.
Kumar’s spirited response to “a set of pressing concerns
in two nations and one world” is extremely timely. At no
the history of this planet has the world been “one”
as much as it is now. The forces of globalisation—or, to
call a spade a spade, global capitalism—have made sure that
no part of the world are left alone in the never ending search
for “new markets.” Nothing—food, dress, culture—is
immune to becoming a commodity. As Kumar writes in one of his
poems entitled “India Day Parade on Madison Avenue”:
I have lost India. You have lost Pakistan. We are now citizens
of General Electric. In this country, there are no new words for
exile. And if you have nothing to sell, you have nothing
to say that this, or that, is indeed you.
Kumar is too clever to offer a simple solution to this predicament.
But it is clear that his hopes are set on a range of progressive
movements, both in the first and the third world, and solidarity
between them. Immigrants are, of course, usually good activist-material.
As Isabelle de Courtivron pointed out in a recent article in The
Chronicle of Higher Education, “Having a deep experience
of two cultures is to know that no culture is absolute; it is
to realise that social, political, and linguistic realities could
be arranged in numerous other ways.” It is perhaps appropriate
that Passport Photos ends with a list of immigrant organisations,
many of which are at the forefront of the struggle for other ways
of arranging these realities.
Aao ab milkar badhe, adhikar apne chheen lain
Kafila ab chal pada hai, ab na roka jayega
- Safdar Hashmi
Come let’s advance together,
let’s take back our rights
The procession is now afoot,
now it cannot be stopped.
- translation by Amitava Kumar, Source: http://www.himalmag.com/jan2001/kunau-nadi.html
Amitava Kumar, Associate
English Professor, Penn. State University, USA received his Ph.D.
in Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature from the University
of Minnesota in 1993. Currently, he teaches in the English department
at Pennsylvania State University.
In addition, he is the editor of Class Issues (New York University
Press, 1997), Poetics/Politics (St Martins Press, 1999), and
World Bank Literature (forthcoming from the University of Minnesota
Press). He serves on the editorial board of Rethinking Marxism,
Minnesota Review, and Cultural Logic; he also co-edits the online
journal, Politics and Culture. Kumars writings have appeared
in several anthologies and the following journals: Critical Inquiry,
Cultural Studies, Critical Quarterly, College Literature, Race and
Class, American Quarterly, Rethinking Marxism, Minnesota Review,
Journal of Advanced Composition, Amerasia Journal, and Modern Fiction
Studies. He has been awarded fellowships from the NEH, Yale University,
SUNY-Stony Brook, and Dartmouth College.
Kumars non-fiction and poetry have recently appeared in The
Nation, Harpers, The New Statesman, Transition, Toronto Review,
Civil Lines, Biblio, Outlook, Frontline, India Today, The Hindu,
Himal, Herald, The Friday Times, The Times of India, and other publications.
He is the author of a book of poems No Tears for the NRI (Writers
Workshop, Calcutta, 1996). In addition to being a literary columnist
for Tehelka.com, Kumar is also the script-writer and narrator of
the prize-winning documentary, Pure Chutney (1997).
He has been awarded a Barach Fellowship at the Wesleyan Writers
Festival, and an award from the South Asian Journalists Association.
His short-story The Monkeys Suicide was chosen
by Khushwant Singh as the best short-story of the year for the Asian
Age Award. His new short-story Indian Restaurant has
been published recently in Civil Lines 5. Kumar is also the editor
of a volume of writing by Indian expatriate writers, Away (forthcoming
from Penguin-India). He is the author, most recently, of Passport
Photos (University of California Press, 2000) and is currently working
on a book project entitled Bombay-London-New York.
While in residence at the Center, Professor Kumar will focus on
a project that he has been developing. India and Pakistan fought
their last war around the Himalayan region of Kargil. But this war
was only a return to an earlier conflict. The partition of British
India in 1947 leading to the creation of independent India
and Pakistan that had led to the largest migration in human history.
The exodus went on for months, even years, across the hastily drawn
borders. At least a million died in riots. In his proposed book-project,
Husband of a Fanatic, the exodus of 1947 serves as the
point of departure for a journey into the written literature as
well as the psychology of relations between the two warring neighbors.