Writing a Novel With Pictures

Smuggling contraband in from the realm of the actual.

Amitava Kumar at Hazlitt: I was sitting on a train, travelling from my home in Poughkeepsie to New York City, when I saw a note on my phone asking me to write the piece below. I began thinking of a painting, a portrait of his father painted by the Indian artist Atul Dodiya, but the other memory that came to me was that I had long ago been sitting in the same Metro North train bound for New York City when the idea for my new novel, My Beloved Life, had been conjured in my mind. During that journey—I’m talking now of something that happened nine or ten years ago—I was reading Denis Johnson’s marvellous novella Train Dreams. It tells the story of an American railroad worker at the start of the last century. Train Dreams is a slim book but it has the feel of an epic. Maybe that fact had also inspired me.

I asked myself, what would the story be like if this ordinary man had been born not in Idaho but in India? My father was a small boy when India became independent from British rule. He had been born in a hut in a village in India’s poorest province. His life had gone through many changes, and it struck me that in telling the story of a single, seemingly unremarkable life, one could possibly be narrating the story of nation or an entire century. The idea formed in my mind even before I had left the train that I would one day write about my father.

1. A novel is by its nature fiction but what happens when you put a photograph in it? A photograph is seen as having a documentary status, and it could be argued that it introduces the sense of the real, or of the non-fictional, in a novel’s pages.

Near the beginning of my novel Immigrant, Montana, a young immigrant from India in the 1980s hears Dr. Ruth on the radio. My narrator was new not only to America but to that foreign land called adult sexuality. The first photographs in the novel were the twin portraits of the sexpert Dr. Ruth and her Indian counterpart Dr. Watsa.

My caption for the photographs returned the reader to what is the work of fiction, a certain play, creating a world of make-believe. My protagonist’s declaration that Dr. Ruth and Dr. Watsa were, in a sense, his real parents was a work of imaginative refashioning.

2. By the time my next novel, A Time Outside This Time, came out, I had been making watercolours. I had been moved by a photograph I had seen in an Indian newspaper—moved enough to want to paint it. The newspaper photograph showed a man kneeling in the dirt, begging for his life. Half of his vest—and his face—is soaked in blood. He is surrounded by onlookers—we see their legs, not their faces. The man on the ground, who has not been lynched yet but will be soon, is Mohammed Naeem. He is suspected of being a kidnapper. He is asserting his innocence, because that is the truth, but it is already too late for the truth.

In making a painting from the photograph in the newspaper, I was trying to look at the scene more closely. And perhaps make others do the same.

The above words belong to my narrator but, of course, they are also mine. That novel was about the spread of misinformation. In trying to understand the role of fiction in the age of fake news, I didn’t think novelists needed to go back to facts. Instead, we had to alter our relationship to what is taken as the truth. Introduce ambiguity where there is a terrible, authoritarian certitude. My narrator asks a question: “Why must one slow-jam the news?” and his answer is: “Because all that is new will become normal with astonishing speed.” It is my opinion that W.G. Sebald’s use of old, smudgy photographs and postcards that had been Xeroxed and made less legible was aimed at this ambiguity. He was destroying the link between visuality and truth even as he was reaching for and employing the visual artifact in his work.

3. In recent times, when I visited my hometown, and went for a walk near the house where I had grown up, I could see from the startled expressions of people that they had mistaken me for someone else. No, not someone else—they had mistaken me for my father. My hair had turned greyer than my father’s and, for a moment or two, such was the degree of resemblance between us, it was easy to confuse one for the other. I had a sharp sense that I had grown old and that my father would soon die. Maybe this was only a fear but it had settled as a preoccupation. Then I happened to see a painting by the well-known Indian artist Atul Dodiya, a portrait of the artist’s father. And my first thought was, When I write a book about my father, this will be the cover!

In Dodiya’s striking painting, simply titled “This Is Father,” the painter’s gaze is direct and the subject returns the look with equal directness. I say that the painter’s gaze is direct because his look is unsparing, he paints his shirtless father in a naked light, as it were. He captures his age, his gauntness, his paunch. Even the choice of his palette, a near-depiction in black and white, seems designed to promote a way of seeing that is starkly real. The father’s look is equally direct, he meets the painter’s eye in a straightforward way. The father doesn’t smile; he isn’t here to charm or seduce. What you see is what you get. We could say that his look is accepting, neither aggressive nor evasive. The painting shows us a man who is looking with a calm objectivity not at us but at death itself.

A remarkable feature of the painting is the tube that extends out from the father’s abdomen. When Dodiya made this painting his father was in his early eighties and suffering from an enlargement of the spleen. His belly would get bloated and Dodiya would take his father to the hospital to get the fluid sucked out.  When I first saw this painting, my father was also already in his eighties. I was very conscious of his mortality. Recently, Dodiya told me that his father was a civil contractor. He used to say that to construct something is difficult and takes time while to destroy takes no time at all. The most tragic event of his life, Dodiya’s father believed, was the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1999, Dodiya started work on a series of paintings about Gandhi called “An Artist of Non-Violence.” His painting of his father was executed in 2002.

4. A friend made a post on Facebook about a book he was reading. Ashok Lavasa, a top bureaucrat in India, the head of the national election commission, had written a book about his father. The book was titled An Ordinary Life. My friend’s post asked, what was it that made ordinary lives worth telling? Lavasa’s book hadn’t engaged in any name-dropping, it had no stories of decisive moments in a nation’s life and his own role in them; it only offered stories about the father, stories that had passed unnoticed by all. An example presented by my friend in his Facebook post: the father is standing at a railway platform with his young son, the author of the book, who is only nine years old. The father is anxious because his other child, his thirteen-year-old daughter, has been admitted to the local hospital. She is suffering from pneumonia and her life is in danger. The boy is to be dropped off in another town at a boarding house; that is the reason why they are at the railway station. The father resolves his dilemma by asking a stranger, a fellow passenger on the train, if he will please take the child to the boarding house. The stranger says yes and the father rushes back to the daughter. The boy who grows up to become the head of the election commission is telling the story of his father’s faith in humanity. This is one meaning of an ordinary life. I copied down this post and read it over and over again. I was thinking about my own father. Even if you come from a poor background and you have led a life of limited means, do you not deserve a story of your own?

More here.

AMITAVA KUMAR was born in Ara, India, and grew up in the nearby town of Patna. He is the author of the novel Immigrant, Montana, as well as several other books of nonfiction and fiction. He lives in Poughkeepsie, New York, and teaches at Vassar College.