An intrepid and thoughtful traveller, Amitava Kumar is the author of seven works of non-fiction, among them A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna, and two novels, most recently, the critically acclaimed Immigrant, Montana (published as The Lovers in India). Always guided by a sensitive understanding of context and place, Kumar is one of the most interesting contemporary writers we have writing about the different worlds we inhabit. Born in Ara and raised in Patna, he lives in Poughkeepsie, New York and teaches English at Vassar College.
What do you love and hate most about travel, today?
I like that travel gives you new eyes. When I arrive in a town, and am taking pictures, I realise that most often my best pictures are the ones taken on the first day. Intimacy is overrated; newness is everything.
What do I hate about travel? How much time do you have? The presence of large crowds in packed enclosures, waiting to criss-cross the earth, makes me think of what we are doing to the planet. I’m put in this mood to entertain pessimistic thoughts because I feel my age when I travel. My body aches, I want to lie down. I crave silence.
Your books bring alive small towns as much as big cities. Do you prefer one over the other?
When I was a student in Delhi, I would go to the ISBT and catch a bus that would take me out to the small towns. The trip was inexpensive and I relished the feeling of freedom. What matters in the end, however, is the stories that people offer you. I value that encounter more than the place.
I love the road trip in Immigrant, Montana (The Lovers, in India). What have road trips meant to you, personally?
Growing up, I travelled by car, bus, train, a ferry over the Ganga, and even a bullock cart. The bullock cart journey lasted several hours, from a small train station to our village in Champaran. But these were familiar journeys. The real rite of passage was the trips across India that my siblings and I undertook with our parents. My father was a bureaucrat and there is a provision in the Indian government for civil servants to take their spouses and small children on a “Bharat-darshan” every few years. I must have gone on three of these trips. Those were real adventures, my own discovery of India.
Given the time limits on your book touring, do you manage to get in personal travel?
Book tours don’t allow for much else. Maybe a trip to the museum, if you are lucky. Even worse is when I’m doing work, interviewing or researching. Time is so limited. I once glimpsed the sea on the Konkani coast as I raced in my car to my destination. I was on way to a village to interview a terror suspect. The sky hung like a watercolour between buildings. Then, it was gone. I have returned to that scene repeatedly over the years. Such regret.
Does the physical aspect of travel still hold appeal? And do you have a favourite destination and a worst trip ever?
I don’t generally enjoy the journey as I do finding leisure at my destination. But even as I say that, I realise that it’s just not true. Often, especially during a comfortable train ride, I begin to take notes about writing. It’s a luxury, this gift of isolation.
My best such journey was a trip to London from New York. I was serving on the jury for a literary prize. The ticket was for business class. I sank into the rare luxury of the moment and began work on a story. I think it was done by the time we arrived.
My worst journey has been on an Air India direct flight from Delhi to New York. The flight attendants were spraying freshener into the damp carpet in the aisles because the smell of shit was so strong. Both toilets at the back were clogged. The amazing thing was that there was such a thick collection of Not Working stickers on the toilet doors that you knew this problem had lasted for weeks.
I’ve read that you write during commutes. Are you often able to write while travelling?
Yes! If there is any upside to long taxi rides in Delhi, and to being stuck in traffic for long, it is that I have had a chance to compose brief essays. I have made this a regular practice. If there are old songs playing on the radio then it’s even better. My sentences acquire a tilt like Dev Anand’s walk and the words just dance across the page.
Your perception of what movement does to people often informs your writing. Is an immigrant ever done with the journey?
Journeys are rewarding but they can also be exhausting. The immigrant can be forgiven for wanting to find rest, sometimes in bouts of nostalgia that are only attempts to stay in place. This is a danger. I try to remind myself to keep moving. Seeking newness amidst stasis and the slowing down of the body.
How valuable is travel to people who also actively crave peace?
You have to get away from the clamour of the everyday. I love hotel rooms. They are the nearest I come to a monastic experience. I arrive with few belongings and am usually alone.
How do you read while travelling?
I love reading novellas on train rides. My favourite has been reading Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams during one such ride, on Metro North from Poughkeepsie to New York. Many days ahead of any longer travel, I will start making a small stack of books to read. I always read at least one novel, and sometimes two during one flight to, or back from, India.
Love and travel are often bound up with each other—like Kailash’s journey with one of his lovers. Is this something you continue to observe?
I haven’t done much travelling with a lover. My narrator does—and good for him! My wife and I travel sometimes, as on family visits, and I can’t say we are always relaxed. You know, travel is just like life: there are ups and downs. My wife and I will enjoy something one minute, and then we’ll fight over something the next. Idon’t like it. It doesn’t fit my ideal. During my travels with her, I want that feeling of perpetually having a drink in my hand and the wind in our hair.