Material Witness

The novelist and the liar

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This was a few years ago. A publisher called from Delhi to ask if I would write a short book about my hometown, Patna, in eastern India. I thought of the rats that had carried away my mother’s dentures and said yes.

My model for the book about Patna, a book about a city, was E.B. White’s classic essay Here is New York. “This piece about New York was written in the summer of 1948 during a hot spell.” The first sentence of White’s foreword: a promise that my book, too, could be done quickly. When summer came, I went to Patna. Each day I would step out of my parents’ home, a little Moleskine notebook in my pocket, and return at night with stories.

When my book was about to be published, a newspaper editor asked me to write a piece about the process of putting the book together. Using my notebook number eighteen as an example, I simply described a day, starting with a 9:00 a.m. visit to the railway station and ending with me coming home at 10:00 p.m. after watching a rehearsal for a play about caste. I’m telling you all this because this is what my newspaper piece had gleaned from my notebook about what happened at 10:00 p.m.:

My sisters are talking in the room that is at the far end of the house. This used to be my room when I was a boy. I’m downloading photographs on my computer, but I eavesdrop on their conversation. My elder sister is a doctor, married to a doctor. He has a sister, who is a doctor—and her husband, also a doctor, is having an affair. The woman with whom he is having the affair is not a doctor. She is the receptionist at his hospital. They meet for sex at a gym that is across the street from the hospital.

The newspaper in which this essay appeared is a national daily; on the morning of its publication, my elder sister called me. She was upset. I was in Delhi on my book tour and she was in Patna. She said that her brother-in-law would be furious. I laughed. I said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry, he’s not a reader. I doubt he reads an English newspaper anyway.” I was laughing, but I was also nervous. I hadn’t calculated the fallout from my revelations. I didn’t want to.

The truth is that I had decided I was going to write honestly about Patna and its inhabitants. I wasn’t going to hold back. In Here is New York, White had written, “New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation.” But Patna wasn’t New York. It was much smaller and my connection to it was rooted in my having grown up there and the lives of my family members. I was going to open the neatly wrapped gift of privacy and hope to share with readers the excitement of participation.

Just before I left for Patna I had come across an interview with the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, who revealed that he told a class he was teaching that “you have to be a terrible monster to write.” Everything is material, the writer was saying, even confidences that someone has indiscreetly shared with you. Tóibín’s advice to writers was to go ahead and use the story, even if readers were going to identify the person you were writing about. The writer’s credo must be: use it because it will make a great story.

With Tóibín in mind, I made several trips to the house in Patna where a Hindi poet I admired lived. He was a local legend. A revolutionary poet. He didn’t so much write loud anthems of resistance as he did lyrical reports seeded with memories in such a manner that he made politics personal. I had translated some of his poems into English. Once I had even tried, disastrously, to get him married to a woman whose ad in a Patna newspaper had caught the poet’s attention. Later, I heard that he had married the daughter of a communist leader. She was an actress. During a visit to Patna I had met her, and then again in Delhi. Some time before I started work on my Patna book, I found out that the actress had published a long, damning account of her marriage to the poet. That summer, when I went to Patna to write, I resolved to interview both of them—they had separated by now—and give them a place in my book. The account I wrote, which was also published in a popular magazine in India under the dramatic title, “An Explosive Sorrow,” didn’t show either of them in a good light. And yet, it showed quite accurately, in my admittedly biased view, their individual strengths not just as people but as oppositional artists.

The poet’s real name, which I didn’t use in my book, is Alokdhanwa. The actress’s name is Kranti. I also gave her a different name in my book. Why did I disguise their identities? Why did I hold back?

I hadn’t thought of it as a desire to protect their privacy. Nor was I protecting myself. It was just that I had been left uncertain by my interviews, and, unable to believe either of them completely, I thought I’d add a touch of fiction to the story. I gave the two of them made-up names and, not without a sense of excitement, I even gave fictional names to the poems written by my former friend. (Former friend? I read a journalist’s account of a conversation he had with the poet about my book. Most people who knew his poetry had recognized the poet’s identity. The poet was angry with what I had written. But he came to my mother’s funeral in Patna, and we embraced. Recently, I met my elder sister’s brother-in-law at a wedding. He must still not have heard about what I had written about him, or didn’t care, because he was his old cheerful self with me.)

I live in upstate New York and teach writing classes at Vassar College. When I teach journalism courses, we read interviews with writers of nonfiction. Often a journalist will repeat Janet Malcolm’s famous opening line from The Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” But I don’t think my students get it. Their convictions are protected by their untested morality. They believe in their ethics. I don’t think they have endeavored in any strong or severe sense, as writers, to get at their truths. Or, more importantly, their lies.

“If you see this man again,” I heard the voice say, “please tell him that if he really is a friend of mine, he will not tell anyone else what he told you.”

I might sound brazen here, but what I’m actually calling for is greater vulnerability. Even shame. And carrying that shame in our hearts as we go to work. As my students haven’t in a real sense questioned a stranger—much less a stranger grieving beside the body of a loved one killed in battle or in a case of police violence—their own sense of privacy remains intact. I respect the ethical bent, but am impatient with it. In fact, I see it as privilege. It is easy to be righteous; much more difficult, but also preferable, in my opinion, to be real.

I have told my students the story of a man I never met, and whose only memory I have is his voice on the phone. This was in Ahmedabad in Gujarat after the horrific riots—many have called it a state-supported pogrom—in which rampaging Hindu mobs killed and raped Muslims. I had gone there while working on a book. At a dinner at the home of a human-rights activist, I asked for names of people who were married to someone from another religion, particularly Hindus married to Muslims. In a widely reported incident, a Hindu woman named Geetaben had been beaten to death with bricks for trying to protect her Muslim husband. A journalist at that dinner gave me a number but he said that under no circumstances was I to reveal his identity. The phone number belonged to a Muslim man married to a Hindu woman.

The next morning I called the number. A woman answered. I only knew her husband’s name and asked for him. She said he was in his office and I said I had that number too and would try him there. When I called the second number, and explained my purpose, the man who answered asked me in a level, serious tone, “Who told you about me?”

I told him I was new in the city and had been at a party where a man, a friend of his, I believed, gave me this number. (“In strict confidence, of course.”) I mentioned that I myself was married to a Muslim. I was calling from a public phone booth; it was hot and I was sweating. “If you see this man again,” I heard the voice say, “please tell him that if he really is a friend of mine, he will not tell anyone else what he told you.” Then he hung up.

The next day I called the man’s number again. I said I just wanted to apologize for having breached his privacy and his sense of security. But he didn’t want my apology. He only wanted the name of the person who had given me his number. Once again I said I didn’t know and I was certain the man knew I was lying.

I had felt bad about calling the man, I felt worse having to lie to him. Yet, I would do the same again. I guess I’m stating my credo: you can lie to get access to someone, but you must tell the truth on the page.

A few months after my return from Gujarat, I did a reading at a university in California. I was talking about the weddings I had seen taking place in the derelict camps in which Muslims had been put. Families were getting their daughters married so that they wouldn’t be abducted and raped. In the course of my presentation I mentioned the calls I have described above. I was being considered for a job at that university. After the reading, an objection was raised to my hiring. The professor of film studies who objected said, “He publicly admitted that he lied.”

At this late stage may I clarify that I wasn’t engaged in a confessional? I was lighting the path that I had taken, removing some of the mystery. Perhaps I was exposing a vulnerability. I was telling my readers that there was doubt in the process, and stumbling, and confusion. And that the act of writing was a dive into my private world, an effort to find clarity. A writer’s task isn’t so much to hoard one’s privacy, but to share the shame and the glory with your readers in the world. My friends on Facebook warn about the harvesting of data. But Facebook knows nothing about my dreams or lies. It hasn’t found a way to commodify my doubts or contradictions. I have written a bunch of books—there’s your competition, Facebook—in which I’ve made my privacy public.

Recently I finished work on a novel. My editor said that I would need to meet with the in-house lawyer. The edited manuscript had been sent to her but we couldn’t proceed further without her vetting. We met in a restaurant. My manuscript and the questions were on the lawyer’s iPad. The lawyer was well-read, warm, even sympathetic. She asked if I had any questions. I said I had stolen a line from Joseph Heller: “Even that fat little fuck Henry Kissinger was writing a book!” Was that libelous? She said no. The lawyer herself had many questions. She asked if the characters, especially the narrator’s lovers, were based on real people? All of them? What about the love-letters I had quoted? The accounts of the public trials? I answered all the questions. And my mind wandered between fact and fiction.

Amitava Kumar is a writer and journalist. He was born in Ara, Bihar, India and grew up in the nearby town of Patna, famous for its corruption, crushing poverty and delicious mangoes. Kumar is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels. He lives in Poughkeepsie, in upstate New York, where he is the Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English at Vassar College.

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