I am trying now to remember when it was that I stopped thinking of myself as a new immigrant.
Was it after three years ? Five ? Fifteen ?
I have a narrative in my mind that is teleological—I think the word for this, from my graduate-student days, is “Hegelian”—and it culminates in my becoming a writer. A writer of immigritude. I cannot put a date to it, but I suspect that the rawness of always feeling out of place, of not belonging—that fighting sense I had of forever being on edge—diminished or even disappeared once I reached the understanding that I no longer had a home to which I could return. This went hand in hand (and this is part of the Hegelian schema I’m inhabiting here) with my finding a home in literature.
I arrived in the U.S., for graduate study, in literature, in the fall of 1986. I was twenty-three. After a year, I began to paint, even though I had come to the U.S. intending to become a writer. I painted small canvases, abstract forms that sometimes had words, often in Hindi, written on them. Why did this happen ? Maybe because one day, in the college bookstore, I had seen a coffee-table book that had the word “India” printed on it in large letters. It was an expensive book, but it was marked with a discount sticker, and I bought it. Inside were the expected photographs of the Taj Mahal, busy streets, people playing Holi, a Rajasthani shepherd wearing a bright turban. There was also a section on art. I saw the reproduction of a painting by S. H. Raza. On the left side of the canvas, at the bottom, were words in Hindi : “Ma lautkar jab aaonga kyaa laoonga ?” (“Ma, when I return, what will I bring with me ?”) Abstract art had never pierced me like that.
The real change, which happened soon after that time, was that I began writing poems. My poems were about India ; they were political and of little aesthetic value. But they allowed me to imagine scenes from the life and the landscape I had left behind. The moon, voices in the dark, a village path, a fire. Which is to say, I had carried my memories with me when I left home, and after a while they found expression on the page. I haven’t looked at these poems for a long time. They speak to me now of a missing wholeness. “I brought two bags from home, but I left a third behind. / Bags, passport, my shoes crossed the yellow lines, something was left behind. / Here I am, a sum of different parts. Travel agents sell ads for the parts left behind.”
In the poetry of immigrants, nostalgia is as common as confetti at parades or platitudes at political conventions. My nostalgia was simply the clear bottle in which I stored my explosive rage. This was a rage directed against the figure of the immigration official.
Other people, unluckier than me, have suffered definite traumas : famines, dictatorships, bombed cities, families wiped out. All I had experienced was ritual humiliation, at the American Embassy in Delhi, the immigration counters in several airports, and land crossings in the U.S. The poems I started writing after a few years in this country were accounts of such encounters. I wrote a series of poems offering vignettes that staged imaginary conversations between the narrator and the official at the visa counter.
“Did you, the first time you went there,
intend to come back ?”
“Wait a minute,” I say, “did you get a visa
when you first went to the moon ? Fuck the moon,
tell me about Vietnam. Just how precise
were your plans there, you asshole ?”
It was writing as revenge, fantasy in the purest form : fantasy tethered to the hurt of the real. Now, more than two decades later, I feel a distance from that rage. And I also feel some tenderness for the person who was trying so very hard to inscribe an idea of himself against nullity. My new novel had its early start in this mix of rage and emotion.
Amitava Kumar, "Amitava Kumar : Immigritude", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), octobre 2019. Consulté le 20/11/2019. URL : http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/amitava-kumar-immigritude