Amitava Kumar on India, the U.S. and the indelible imprint of the immigrant experience

The academic and author spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about his provocative new novel, Immigrant, Montana.
Amitava Kumar is an author, journalist and academic based in New York. (Penguin Random House/Michael Lionstar)
Listen to the full episode53:39

Amitava Kumar's writing often explores immigrant life, and the feelings of guilt, loss and discovery that can come with relocating. Blending fiction and autobiography, his new novel, Immigrant, Montana, is a coming-of-age story about a young Indian man who goes to the United States for graduate school and engages in a series of failed romantic relationships. It's an exploration of home, memory and desire, the thirst for knowledge, and the pursuit of love.

Born in 1963, Amitava Kumar grew up in the Indian city of Patna. His nonfiction writing includes a short 'biography' of his hometown, A Matter of Rats; and his essay collections Husband of a Fanatic: A Personal Journey Through India, Pakistan, Love, and Hate and Lunch with a Bigot: The Writer in the World.

Amitava Kumar talked to Eleanor Wachtel from Vassar College, where he teaches creative writing, journalism and literature.    

Eager to shine

"I was eager to succeed in America, largely because I felt I was failing at every turn. I often felt like an impostor. I think many immigrants can relate to this; you feel like you have the whole might of the state bearing down on you.

"This is the reality for immigrants when they interact with border security, or face the custom agent at the airport. You feel like you are being scrutinized in the darkest corners of your soul.

"So there was always the desire, or the ambition on my part, to do the right thing — to remove doubt in the minds of the judging other. Because you begin to feel like you don't deserve the right to be here." 

The republic of love

"While writing Immigrant, MontanaI was thinking of how best to describe someone who is an immigrant and new to a country, but also someone who is an immigrant to this whole other world of sexual feeling. Coming from India, and being from a particular generation, the idea of human relations and sexuality was an unexplored country. It is an idea that was bewildering.

"Unlike the narrator of the book, I did not fall in love for the longest time. That was because in the back of my mind, I thought I was going to go back home. So I couldn't be attached to anyone in America." 

The immigrant's inner dialogue

"If I'm driving on the highway and happen to exceed the speed limit, I often have this response in my head where I'm thinking about what I might say to the cop who could stop me. That small, narrow experience is what I was also thinking about when describing the migrant or immigrant experience. One almost feels, when addressing authority, that they have to justify being in the country.  

"I have lived in America for a very long time. I'm very happy to be here. But that feeling has never really left me — that feeling of always being addressed by someone who wants to know what am I doing here." 

Amitava Kumar's comments have been edited and condensed. 

Music to close the broadcast program: Raaga Durga performed by Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia.