A murder of crows circles around the denuded branches of a tree against a background of the grey sky, portrayed in spare strokes. The sketch, titled Crows, was made by Amitava Kumar in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 2019. The professor of English at Vassar College had been preparing to rush to class, when the crows, uncommon in those parts, had appeared out of nowhere and started wheeling and cawing outside the window of his house. He decided he could not go to campus without attempting a sketch. As a draughtsman, such moments are gold and he can’t resist translating them on paper. “I work quickly and try to catch a feeling or mood that keeps that particular moment alive,” Kumar tells me when we meet in Delhi.
Crows is among a clutch of drawings and paintings tucked between the pages of The Blue Book: A Writer’s Journal (HarperCollins India), Kumar’s ‘panoramic portrait’ in watercolours and words of how he experienced the pandemic. The accompanying text narrates the story of how the sketch came into being. It also includes a short commentary on the importance of having specific knowledge (of birds and trees, for instance) in order to write well. William Maxwell wrote: “After forty years, what I came to care about most was not style, but the breath of life.” When people ask Kumar about his favourite pieces of writing advice, he remembers this, always. In Crows, he was not bothered about style. He just wanted to catch “life on the wing, as it were.”