April 06, 2020
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Small Town, Big Heart

The book is about the adrenaline rush of humdrum survival eked out within the casually chaotic, blood-drenched mobocracy of today's India.

Small Town, Big Heart
Home Products
By Amitava Kumar
Picador Pages: 332; Rs: 495
On the very first page of Amitava Kumar’s Home Products, there’s a scene which exemplifies what I liked so much about this first novel. An elderly woman opens her front door to the protagonist, a journalist called Binod. As she did so, she "began to cover her head with her cotton sari when Binod introduced himself". It is a gesture so slight and so familiar that it might easily go unnoticed. Yet by noticing it, Kumar instantly conveys so many messages about the relative positions of the two characters: that the woman is conservative and middle-class, that the young man is a stranger to her and that she is uneasy but not afraid by his presence at her door. It’s a fragment of visual poetry which, like the best documentary films, allows us to forget the camera, lights and sound recordist, so that we enter the situation unaware of the craft that has brought us there.

The narrative shifts back and forth between small-town Bihar and the big city—specifically Bombay-Delhi. Binod is the main actor in this drama, but three members of his family share the stage with him: his father Baba, his father’s sister-turned-politician Bua, and Bua’s son, the colourful jailbird Rabinder. The cousin spends much of the novel’s pages behind bars, yet dominates the story with his larger-than-life presence. He is more passionate, more vital and ultimately more successful than Binod. But this book isn’t about cousin rivalry, sizzling romance, dazzling success or terrifying despair. It’s about the adrenaline rush of humdrum survival eked out within the casually chaotic, blood-drenched mobocracy of today’s India.

The novel is shot through with cinematic moments. I have many favourites but one sharp-etched in memory is the journey in a hired jeep through the streets of a small hamlet during a power cut. "In the vivid darkness of the night, their presence was an intrusion. Lives had been carefully constituted...around a routine of darkness.... Again and again, they surprised people who were eating or resting. Women turned their faces away and men shaded their eyes...."

Kumar’s credentials as a non-fiction writer stand him in good stead: real-life events and real names enter the novel with unselfconscious ease. Laloo Prasad Yadav and Ajay Devgan, Bill Clinton and 9/11—they’re all there and many others besides—but this book is about the supporting cast, not the stars. Binod yearns to write a workable screenplay for (fictional) Bollywood director Vikas Dhar, but he can’t make himself turn tricks for the industry. His own love of classic cinema, for elegance and honesty over cheap melodrama makes it painful. His father was once a documentary filmmaker, who used to make the flickering black-and-white films in which footage of smiling peasants winnowing wheat were once the absolute image of Eternal India.

Binod’s vision is at once lyrical and dispassionate. He sees the filth and corruption that define the lives of so many millions of citizens, including members of his own family, but he neither winces nor retreats into fantasy. He holds the camera of his heart steady as he teaches us to see the truth with our moral compass intact, and yet not hate what we see.

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