The Blue Book — A Writer’s Journal review: Portrait of a writer as an artist

Amitava Kumar’s diary intersperses his musings with drawings and paintings

April 30, 2022 04:04 pm | Updated May 01, 2022 04:11 pm IST

It is said that writers reveal themselves in their works. No doubt, they reveal themselves much more profoundly in their diaries and journals. The Blue Book: A Writer’s Journal by Amitava Kumar does not disappoint on that count. It offers gleanings from his writing life, giving us glimpses into Kumar’s mind, his musings, his quiet introspections. However, what strikes one most about this slim volume is Kumar’s felicity with art.

Interspersed with the text are his drawings and paintings, and they point to another facet of the portrait of the artist as a writer. Though their inclusion is somewhat self-indulgent, The Blue Book is the richer for it.

The journal was penned during the pandemic, although Kumar, who has written several books of fiction and non-fiction, eschews any form of chronology here. The text, which has a ruminative, unhurried quality, is an agglomeration of his meditations on disparate subjects, his memories and encounters — literary or otherwise. He talks about his conversations with writers like Michael Ondaatje, Amit Chaudhuri, the poet Mary Ruefle, and many others. And he dwells on the writers he has never met, but whom he admires and anoints as his mentors — John Cheever, Joan Didion, and, especially, John Berger.

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It’s not just his writing that influenced Kumar — Bento’s Sketchbook, a work where Berger’s writing is dotted with his drawings, gave Kumar the inspiration for the format of The Blue Book.

Nostalgia and loss

Much of this book is, of course, about writing and writers, but it is equally about Kumar’s umbilical ties with India. Though he has been based in the U.S. for many years, his thoughts are never far from the land of his birth. He harks back to the memories of his native Patna and of the time when he was a student in Delhi — his ardent desire to be a writer, the long walks in Lodi Gardens, catching a bus from ISBT and heading off to the hills. His is the nostalgia of the immigrant and it’s tinged with a palpable sense of loss. In another place, Kumar gently mourns the fact that he is losing touch with his mother tongue: “The loss of the mother tongue is one of the consequences of this loss of home. My Hindi is now like an old Ambassador car. It can still cover distances, but the speed isn’t there.”

The Blue Book does offer some specific advice on writing, or rather, the discipline of writing. “A modest goal of 150 words daily and mindful walking for 10 minutes” is Kumar’s mantra for becoming a productive writer. He also stresses the importance of keeping a diary. “This book that you hold in your hands” he tells the reader, “is both a diary and a work made up of diary entries.”

But more than the details of Kumar’s own writing rigour, the real delight of The Blue Book is to be found in the author’s musings on the things that have touched him — people, places, events, birds, trees, the pandemic... There is beauty in his spare sentences. And there is illumination in the words of the masters he invokes: “All you have to do is write one true sentence,” said Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. “Write the truest sentence you know.”

Perhaps keeping a journal can bring you closer to that goal.

The Blue Book: A Writer’s Journal; Amitava Kumar, HarperCollins, ₹699.

The reviewer is a journalist and author.

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