In February, I posted a review of Amitava Kumar’s novel Home Products. That self-same book, with minor revisions, is now out from Duke University Press under the title Nobody Does the Right Thing. Below is an excerpt from the review; to read the whole thing, click here.
This past week, some years after hearing Amitava Kumar read excerpts from Home Products, I was finally able to read the book. I had remembered that there was something about its aesthetic that seemed very familiar to me. As I began to read, I knew right away what it was. Home Products feels like a Hindi novel. It even feels like a translation of a Hindi novel. I say this as someone who has translated substantial quantities of Hindi literature. In fact, the day before I began to read Home Products, I had been revising some old translations of Hindi short stories. As I read, I felt tempted to get out my red pen and cross out certain word choices as too close to the literal translation from Hindi.
The pace of the narration, the close attention to the mundane details of daily life, a certain reserved quality, a sense of connectedness to history, to human struggles, to politics, these are all markers that are ever-present in the Hindi novels of the mid-twentieth century novels. Kumar makes it clear through sections of dialogue and narration that this similarity is no accident. Characters make references to prominent Hindi authors throughout; some have degrees in Hindi literature. Binod’s family is solidly Hindi-medium, English literate. Though Binod writes for an English-language newspaper, he chooses to do so after some deliberation between Hindi and English.
The fact that Home Products has been written in conversation with Hindi literature is astonishing. I can think of no other English language novel that does this. Because of the hierarchy of language-medium education in India, it is rare for a writer in English to have read any literature in Hindi whatsoever. In my experience researching Hindi literature, I found that the English-educated classes outside of Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, people who could read, write and speak Hindi, had read virtually no literature written in Hindi and had heard of no Hindi author other than Premchand. The fact that I was studying Hindi literature at all was usually met with derisive laughter. What could there possibly be to read in Hindi?