| Home Products
by Amitava Kumar
The first epigraph to Amitava Kumar’s Home Products is as good an introduction to the book as any: “An intelligent man cannot turn himself into anything, only a fool can make anything he wants of himself.” The two men who lie at the heart of Kumar’s narrative are Binod, a journalist who has immense trouble turning himself into any kind of success, and his cousin Rabinder, who thinks far less and does far more.
The protagonists of two recent books, Siddhartha Deb’s Surface and Siddharth Chowdhary’s Patna Roughcut, were also journalists. These three books share a few other details, as well – they all belong to the Picador stable, for instance, and their settings are far removed from the metropolitan world of most of their readers. In some ways, both the Indian Northeast, where Surface is set, and Bihar, where the other two take place, are counterpoints to the very idea of ‘India’. The Northeast is where the idea dissipates into cynicism, while Bihar is where it is magnified into a mockery of itself, with every flaw seen larger than life. In such settings, a journalist brings a critical gaze.
Home Products’ title comes from its second epigraph: “…one relative or neighbour mixed up in a scandal is more interesting than a whole Sodom and Gomorrah of outlanders gone rotten. Give me the home product every time.” More than one of Binod’s relatives is mixed up in various scandals. Rabinder is in jail after having set out on the trajectory of a Bihar mafia don; his widowed mother, Binod’s ‘Bua’, is a politician in the midst of a very public affair with a minister in Lalu Prasad Yadav’s government.
Binod belongs to this world, but it is his years as a journalist that allow him the perspective of an outsider. But this is also where the trouble starts, for Kumar’s idea of what constitutes an Indian journalist reduces to an assemblage of whatever is convenient for his purpose. Binod, we learn, works for India’s largest-selling English-language newspaper; he has ostensibly been sent to Bombay to cover the film world, but is also often called upon to write editorials, or to be sent on outstation assignments to places such as Goa. We learn that one time, when he had been sent to Bihar for a story on the Mandal Commission, he managed to appease his editor by instead sending a piece on the first anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. For anyone with the slightest knowledge of the world of Indian journalism, all this is rather implausible.
Such difficult groundings for the story may explain why the character of Binod leaves a void at the very heart of Home Products. Binod may suffer from the intelligent man’s failure to make something of himself, but he also rarely puts his intelligence to good use. He writes an editorial on the death of a young woman in Patna, clearly modelled on the Madhumita Shukla murder – a poet involved with a senior state minister. When a well-known film director feels that there may be a script in the story, the suggestion sets Binod off on a journey to his hometown of Patna. But for someone who has often traveled as a reporter, he inexplicably lets a single brush-off by the murdered woman’s family halt his investigations. Instead, he heads to meet his cousin Rabinder in jail, who suggests that perhaps the story he should be writing is that of Bua. As suddenly as he took the trip to Patna to write one story, Binod is now ready to write another. The story of these ‘home products’ – Bua, Binod and Rabinder – is now the narrative that begins to unfold. In the end, when the film director actually wants to bring the story to life, it comes as no surprise to find which of the cousins ends up working with him.
Home Products is Amitava Kumar’s first attempt at a work of fiction, and in the early pages, it seems he may pull it off. There is a well-written sequence describing how the characters go on with their lives while the events of 11 September 2001 play out on a television in the background. But this balance does not hold throughout the book. Rabinder himself is a pastiche of news events that construct the Bihar of the larger Indian imagination. As a child, he manages to shoot and kill a little girl in a baraat while firing a gun in the air. As an adult, he takes to crime. On the way to becoming a mafia don, he lands up in jail, living and working out of prison much as news stories from Bihar would have you expect. But perhaps because too much of Amitava Kumar’s Bihar is as the newspapers play it, against this backdrop the characters fail to come to life.
Even the nonfiction-writer’s eye for detail seems to have escaped the author at a critical point. In an otherwise absorbing episode, Bua’s marriage is vividly described through the eyes of an eight-year-old Binod. A few pages later, we learn that Bua arrives in Patna with eight-year-old Rabinder, to live with Binod and his parents after her husband is sent away to an asylum. This should make Binod at least 17 at the time, yet the years do not add up; instead, we find him a 12 year old sharing a bed with Bua. The stirrings of illicit love are key to the narrative, forcing Bua to live alone in a hostel, and eventually leading to her involvement in politics.
Kumar has spoken of how he had started off wanting to write a nonfiction book about actor Manoj Bajpai, who indeed serves as a model for one of the characters in Home Products. Speaking of the transition to fiction, Kumar observed: “The fiction writer doesn’t have to explain everything. For a long time, I thought fiction meant that one needed to add dramatic details to what had already been collected through travel and research. But writing this, I learnt that it’s more about taking things away and letting the silences stand.” The character of Binod, however, could have done with a little less silence, and a little more attention to detail.
~ Hartosh Singh Bal is a freelance journalist based in Delhi, and co-author of A Certain Ambiguity, to be released by Princeton University Press.