“I want to proclaim my allegiance to the nation of hybrids!” This sentence captures well Amitava Kumar’s credo behind The Yellow Book: A Traveller’s Diary. Like its predecessor The Blue Book, it is a hybrid work, containing text — as diary entries, letters, essays — and images — as drawings, paintings, and photographs. Both books have been marvellously produced by HarperCollins India. It’s good to see that there is space in our literary culture for such experimentation, such hybridity, and such — on the part of the publisher — indulgence.
My experience with the blue and yellow books has been hybrid too — jaw drops and eye rolls. There is brilliance in them, there is intimacy too, but there are also many pages of artsiness that can land this way or that, depending on what kind of reader you are. You may find it noteworthy here or exquisite there, but for the most part, the impact stays in the range of a well-curated Instagram page.
Pretty and personal
In its middle, where the diaristic mode dominates, The Yellow Book wants to be two things: a document of Kumar’s days and a sort of soft guide to artists (mostly writers). The aims mingle well as Kumar, a professor of English at Vassar College in upstate New York, is teaching American students in London and proposing exercises for them to tap into their creative cores. Familiarity — with Kumar and his work, with writing as practice, with writers’ affinities and their ways of friendship — increases the reward for the reader. There is a dash of the presumptuous in the telling, though. We witness Kumar’s good friendships, all the brilliance he’s surrounded by or can summon or approach. The casual reader may have trouble staying impressed. Keep a journal, the nub of it all seems to be, because journals can be this pretty, this personal, this generative. Once we get the concept, and that happens early, the pages tend to seem like superfluous exhibits.
The thing with images is that they can expand; a drawing of a tote bag hanging on a doorknob can fill a whole page. There were times when the writing left me wanting more. Kumar mentions, for example, talking on Zoom for an hour about how his work is in dialogue with Arundhati Roy’s. But he doesn’t detail how so for us. What does this diaristic ellipsis serve, one wonders, when the book has essays elsewhere?
Things improve as the London class ends. In Enemy of the People, an essay about Salman Rushdie and his attacker Hadi Matar, we get eight pages with no images, and The Yellow Book was nowhere more riveting for me than here. That said, there is indeed a part where Kumar’s hybrid approach reaches its pinnacle. This is in the essay titled ‘Host Country/Lost Country’, where Kumar writes of visits to his father in Patna and their village of Jadopur, and of his father’s deteriorating health.
The essay is deeply moving, and the images add to the poignancy of the material in choking ways.
The Yellow Book: A Traveller’s Diary; Amitava Kumar, HarperCollins, ₹699.
The reviewer’s latest book is the novel Manjhi’s Mayhem.