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Review: The Blue Book – A Writer’s Journal by Amitava Kumar

At the opening of Amitava Kumar The Blue Book – Diary of a Writer, I was filled with a sweet desire. The desire aroused by Kumar’s drawings and paintings that adorn the book and for me, also constitute its primary strength. Envy also because of his talent for painting and the image that I admire a lot but which is personally lacking. Kumar’s drawings and paintings exude a remarkable spontaneity and purpose that words often fail to capture. Pictures are text after all and in Kumar’s diary, pictures speak more eloquently than the little notes that accompany them, which also sometimes feel disjointed.

153pp, Rs.699; Harper Collins

I’m not trying to imply that the text accompanying the image should explain the image or have a direct correlation. It is a misleading undertaking, to say the least. Images don’t need text. Images are text in themselves. Images don’t need words to guide their viewing. At this point I would also like to disagree with Ian Jack who is quoted in the book as saying, “Writing is the hardest and most honest endeavor” (compared to painting or creating pictures ). One can think of several painters whose paintings speak more honestly and earnestly than writing or what writing has been able to accomplish. Gauguin, Matisse, Arpita Singh, Neelima Sheikh… The list is endless. Aperture works very differently with images; maybe even more than writing.

Here I remember John Berger, a rare master who understood both image and word. His writing about pictures is so easy and that ease translates into his prose as well. Berger’s fluency also results from long, deep meditation and an understanding of both worlds. Remember At the wedding? If you read it carefully like many of his other novels, you will see how the prose has become the image. Kumar is also an admirer of Berger, as he mentions in the book.

The author’s images could help us understand the making of fiction. (Amitava Kumar/The Blue Book – A Writer’s Diary)

Several of the images used in Kumar’s book were created during a writing residency in Texas to which he was invited. The others record his observations during a walk, travels, objects around the house, contemporary events in India, among others. These images could help us understand the making of fiction – how a story is born, where the plot comes from, how a writer sees the world. They may not appear directly in the novel Kumar is writing, but they could offer a prompt or guide a certain way of seeing and looking at the world. I would like Kumar to tell us a bit more about what a visual is for him? How does a view turn into a visual or a drawing? Is each visual a stimulus?

Let’s not forget, this is Kumar’s diary and a reviewer can’t dictate how it should be written, but diaries are messy too. There’s a lot of cutting and crossing, scribbling, scribbling, weeding out the unwanted, finding a voice. I missed this mess in the images and accompanying text. This disorder is also linked to the inner world of the artist to which we do not have access. We only see the fine work of art – the book, the film, the exhibition but not the disposal that contributed to the creation. Journal, for me, is this space. Often at art exhibitions or retrospectives, the painter’s diary or diary is displayed so viewers understand the process. By comparison, Kumar’s diary produced in book form is clean, orderly, factual.

Amitava Kumar (Michael Lionstar)

That said, Kumar’s designs are beautiful. Especially when Kumar attempts landscape drawings and paintings. In a way, they remind me of David Hockney and his fascination with landscapes. Kumar is not an imitation but perhaps a shared sensibility. I was also thinking what would this book look like without text? What if there were only images? Would that be too experimental for a mainstream publisher like Harper Collins? Would readers confuse it with an art catalog?

Maybe it would have been a different book entirely with pictures without the interference of text. The book could then potentially turn into some sort of exhibit – an exhibit that you could house on your shelf, in your office. You can display the images in any order you want – start and close as you wish. For me, it would have been a more rewarding visual expedition into the mind of the writer, his laboratory.

Kunal Ray is a cultural critic. He teaches Literary and Cultural Studies at FLAME University, Pune

Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson