Novelist, poet, and essayist Amitava Kumar has often pondered the differences between a writer and a rioter.
The Indian-born Vassar College professor of English is well aware of how demagogues can provoke violence.
It’s occurred on several occasions in his country of origin: in 1984 with a pogrom targeting Sikhs, in 1992 with communal riots following the demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya, and in 2002 with a massacre of Muslims in the western state of Gujarat.
“What sets people’s imagination afoot so that they go crazy and burn down a neighbourhood?” Kumar asked in a recent phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “What is said by the person holding a megaphone inciting a crowd, or what is said by someone who incites a rumour? And what is the difference between that person and me, sitting in my room imagining something, telling a story?”
He cited one particularly deadly rumour that surfaced last year in the Indian state of Jharkhand, which used to be part of his home state of Bihar. The Hindustan Times reported that hundreds of tribal people lynched seven people in two incidents—and at least six escaped with injuries—because of a false message about child abductions being spread over social media on WhatsApp.
Kumar, whose latest work is Immigrant, Montana: A Novel, hopes to explore the issue of fake news in a discussion at this year’s Indian Summer Festival, which takes place from Thursday to next Sunday (July 5 to 15) in Vancouver. He pointed out that fake news is on display in America every time Donald Trump opens his mouth and utters a lie.
“Is he a fiction writer? Nooooo,” Kumar said. “What is the difference between the novelist and the liar? At some moments, I have often wondered.”
But in a way, Trump is still telling stories.
As one example, Kumar mentioned how he recently appeared alongside a so-called "angel family", who had a loved one killed by an undocumented immigrant.
This came shortly after images were beamed around the world of immigrant children being callously separated from their parents by U.S. border officials.
"I thought to myself, 'think of this as a structure of a story,' " Kumar said. "Who dreams up this turn in the plot? And would it be considered a good turn—the idea of countering what seems inhuman now by presenting to everyone an example of poor parents holding up a picture of their child that they have been separated [from] forever?
"I thought that was a vulgar appeal to realism instead of an expansive appeal to realism," Kumar concluded.
This kind of out-of-the-box thinking permeates Immigrant, Montana, which is Kumar’s 10th book. It tells the story of a young man who moves in the 1990s from India to America, where he becomes infatuated with women and is mentored by a man who conspires to kidnap Henry Kissinger.
Kumar said that his novel embraces “full-bodied cosmopolitanism” in opposition to narrow nationalism.
It’s not the first time he’s examined this dichotomy between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. His collection of essays, Lunch With a Bigot, caused controversy in India, according to Indian Summer Festival artistic director Sirish Rao.
“He got put on a blacklist by a right-wing Hindutva [a militaristic ideology promoting India as a Hindu nation] group that he sat down to lunch with,” Rao revealed in an interview in his Vancouver office.
Kumar sees “a lot of parallels” between Trump and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, whom he accused of using “crass dramatic powers of oratory” to incite crowds.
This oratory, according to Kumar, has encouraged Hindu fanatics to attack and sometimes kill Muslims as despised “beef eaters”—at the same time as Modi is protecting corporate power.
Both Trump and Modi specialize in promoting hatred of journalists as enemies of the nation. In India, it has led to the murder of journalists.
Two days after the Straight spoke to Kumar, a gunman barged into a Maryland newspaper and murdered five staff members.
“Philip Roth, who died recently, had a statement about how every day what happens in America is a challenge to the imagination of the novelist,” Kumar noted. “Because no imagination of the writer can compete with how reality—really, every day—presents itself to our baffled, bewildered minds.”