Kuano nadi, satilcri, need, shaantljaane kab hogi aachitij, laal, uddhaam, Bahut gareeb hai yeh dharti/Jahan yeh behti hai.
Kuano river, thin, blue, calm/Whets will it spread to the horizon, turn red, turbulentivery poor is this land where it flows.
– translated by Amitava Kumar
I remember the first time I came into the USA. It was also the first time 1 had ever boarded an airplane. The immigration officer looked at the visa page on my passport. Then he looked up and asked what I was in the US for. I am going to graduate school, I tell him. He turns around and shouts to the officer in the next cubicle, “Looks like the whole world is going to school in America.” It may have been his attempt at livening up a boring day but to me it did not sound welcoming at all. And then he proceeds to write F-1 on the immigration form. I froze. I had a J-1 visa. I had been warned—any mistakes could have serious repercussions. After a moment’s hesitation, I piped up: “Excuse me, I have a J-1 visa.” “Smart aleck, huh!” he comments. “Yes, a darned sight smarter than you,” I felt like screaming but didn’t. What would he know of my plans, my hopes and my fears. All he knew about me was what was in my passport.
It is what is missed out in one’s passport that Amitava Kumar explores in his Passport Photos. The book is a charming, exhilarating, thought-provoking attempt at understanding and speaking about the immigrant experience in an “undeniably personal and political way”.
In the author’s own words, “The book is a forged passport. It is an act of fabrication against the language of government agencies.” The book, therefore, is structured into sections that correspond to the categories in a real passport. Name, place of birth, date of birth,… This novel format when interspersed with evidence of Kumar’s multiple talents and occupations—mellifluous poetry, skillful language, great photographs—and his passion makes for a great read. Each section shuttles the reader between the diaspora and the home country, between literary theory and political economy, between Bertolt Brecht and Gulzar. Kumar follows (and quotes) Edward Said’s suggestion that “since the main features of our present existence are dispossession, dispersion, and yet also a kind of power incommensurate with our stateless exile, I believe that essentially unconventional, hybrid and fragmentary forms of expression should be used to represent us.”
Passport Photos is a refreshing read in today’s world of identity politics. He clearly subscribes to (and quotes) the view exuberantly captured in Subcommandante Marcos’s response to a question about his identity: “Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, … a Jew in Germany … a Communist in the post-Cold War era…and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains of south-east Mexico.” Nor is Kumar’s conception of desi immigrants limited to ones that end up in Silicon Valley or in the emergency rooms of small town hospitals. Taxi drivers and restaurant workers, activists and poets rub shoulders in the book. Why and how these people came to be in the US and what they do here forms a major part of the book The book does have some distracting and bothersome features. Despite a structure that allows the author to weave in outpourings from his multiple talents, it is clear at various points that a certain detour in the narrative is occasioned only by the fact that the author has written a newspaper article on that subject. That these newspaper articles are often hint) read is a different matter. Another problem is, poor indexing. After having read it, one cannot find where some particular subject is discussed, on which page a certain poem is. But these are quibbles, really.
Kumar’s spirited response to “a set of pressing concerns in two nations and one world” is extremely timely. At no time in the history of this planet has the world been “one” as much as it is now. The forces of globalisation—or, to call a spade a spade, global capitalism have made sure that no part of the world are left alone ,i n the never ending search for “new markets.” Nothing—food, dress, culture—is immune to becoming a commodity. As Kumar writes in one of his poems entitled “India Day. Parade on Madison Avenue”:
I have lost India. You have lost Pakistan. We are now citizens of General Electric. In this country, there are no new words for exile. And if you have nothing to sell, you have nothing to say that this, or that, is indeed you.
Kumar is too clever to offer a simple solution to this predicament. But it is dear that his hopes are set on a range of progressive movements, both in the first and the third world, and solidarity between them. Immigrants are, of course, usually good activist-material. As Isabelle de Courtivron pointed out in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Having a deep experience of two cultures is to know that no culture is absolute; it is to realise that social, political, and linguistic realities could be arranged in numerous other ways.” It is perhaps appropriate that Passport Photos ends with a list of immigrant organisations, many of which are at the forefront of the struggle for other ways of arranging these realities.
Aao ab milkar badhe, adhikar apne chheen lain Kafila ab chat pada hai, ab na roka jayega
– Safdar Hashrrui
Come let’s advance together,
let’s take back our rights
The procession is now afoot,
now it cannot be stopped.
– translation by Amitava Kumar