The writer Amitava Kumar was a student in Delhi in the early 1980s when he first encountered the phrase “history from below”. His friends were taking classes in the new field of subaltern studies, and though he didn’t fully grasp all that they were absorbing, it was impossible to miss their excitement. “Something new had come into their syllabus,” he remembers. “Something new had come into their world.” This was different to history as they’d learned it in school, all dry celebrations of national unity and reverential accounts of the Great Deeds of Great Men. These new histories documented and investigated uncelebrated and marginal lives: of the poor, the indigenous, the illiterate, the obscure, men and women whose voices left little or no trace in the official records. For Kumar, the impact of all this was electric. In the years that followed, as he emigrated to the United States and built a career writing about India in novels and political journalism and personal essays, he began to wonder: What would happen if he used those ideas to structure a work of historical fiction?

A cut-out of a male head against a bright yellow background, the facial features blank and replaced by a snow-capped mountain landscape. The title reads My Beloved Life. The author name is Amitava Kumar

The result, published earlier this year, is My Beloved Life, a novel that explores the arc of contemporary Indian history through the eyes of a superficially unremarkable man. It tells the story of Jadu Kumwar, born in Bihar in 1935 to a family of illiterate farmers, who moves to the nearby city of Patna to gain an education. It’s a pivotal moment in the national story. India has just gained independence, and a Nepalese Indian has just conquered Mt Everest: Tenzing Norgay, who served as sherpa on Edmund Hillary’s 1953 expedition and who in Kumar’s novel visits Jadu’s school in Patna the following year. For Jadu, this is the moment when his real life as a modern Indian promises to begin. But things don’t work out quite as he had hoped. Though he marries, has a daughter, and builds a career as a historian, he finds it hard to shake off the imprint of his humble beginnings. When he dies in 2020 of COVID-19, the narrative turns to his daughter, Jugnu, a journalist who has emigrated to the US and who begins to write about her father, trying to make sense of her loss and to bear witness to a life that now threatens to vanish, “like a brief ripple on a lake’s surface.”

A childlike painting of an aerial view of a rural village, with bright green and yellow fields criss-crossed by yellow roads.
Kumar’s painting of an Indian village mapped from childhood memories, part of his process in writing My Beloved Life. This image first appeared in the online journal Hazlitt and is courtesy of Amitava Kumar.

Like his protagonist Jadu, Amitava Kumar was born in Bihar and grew up in the town of Patna. He now lives in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he is the Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English at Vassar College. He is the author of several works of nonfiction and four novels. His book Immigrant, Montana: a Novel was named a notable book of the year by the New York Times and a book of the year by the New Yorker, and it was listed by Barack Obama as one of his favourite books of 2018.

When we spoke to Amitava Kumar, he had just returned from a trip India to witness and assess the recent general election. Our conversation touched on that journey; more broadly, it focused on the roles of history and fiction in chronicling seemingly ordinary lives. Along the way we explored how he draws upon his own family story, how he fuses history and imagination, and the politics of the novelist’s, the historian’s, and the journalist’s crafts.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay after ascending Mt Everest in May 1953. Wikimedia Commons

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