Immigrant, Montana, page 1
ALSO BY AMITAVA KUMAR
Nobody Does the Right Thing (2010)
Lunch with a Bigot (2015)
A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna (2014)
A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb (2010)
Husband of a Fanatic (2004)
Bombay-London–New York (2002)
Passport Photos (2000)
No Tears for the NRI (1996)
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2017, 2018 by Amitava Kumar
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Originally published in hardcover in India as The Lovers by Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, in 2017.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Kumar, Amitava, [date] author.
Title: Immigrant, Montana : a novel / Amitava Kumar.
Description: First edition. | New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017054030 (print) | LCCN 2017050682 (ebook) | ISBN 9780525520757 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780525520764 (ebook) |
Subjects: LCSH: East Indians—United States—Fiction. | College students—Fiction. | Self-realization—Fiction. | Young men—Fiction. | Immigrants—Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Literary. | FICTION / Coming of Age. | FICTION / Cultural Heritage. | GSAFD: Bildungsromans.
Classification: LCC PR9499.4.K8618 (print) | LCC PR9499.4.K8618 I47 2018 (ebook) | DDC 824/.92—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017054030
Ebook ISBN 9780525520764
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Janet Hansen
The Revolution smells of sexual organs.
—BORIS PILNYAK, “Ivan and Maria”
Oh, he loves her: just as the English loved India and Africa and Ireland; it is the love that is the problem, people treat their lovers badly.
—ZADIE SMITH, White Teeth
Also by Amitava Kumar
Part I: Jennifer
Part II: Nina
Part III: Laura and Francis
Part IV: Wolf Number Three
Part V: Agnes Smedley
Part VI: Cai Yan
Part VII: Peter and Maya
A Note About the Author
Reading Group Guide
Researchers found that people are attracted to people who are attracted to them. This from a clipping pasted in a notebook kept while writing this book.
I was a new immigrant, eager to shine, and if self-abuse were to be omitted from the reckoning, pure of body and heart. The letters I sent my parents in India were full of enthusiasm for the marvels of my new life. To those who welcomed me to America, I wanted to say, without even being asked, that E.T. ought to have won the Oscar over Gandhi. I had found the latter insufficiently authentic but more crucially I felt insufficiently authentic myself. Not so much fake as insubstantial. I understood that I needed a suitable narrative to present to the people I was meeting. There was only contempt in my heart for my fellow Indian students who repeated stories about trying to educate ignorant Americans in barbershops who had asked how come they spoke such good English or if they belonged to tribes or grew up among tigers. The nostalgia I had come to treasure was a hypertrophied sense of the past as a place, a place with street signs and a figure atop a staircase that I recognized. This desire had nothing to do with the kinds of claims to civilizational superiority that make men demolish places of worship or want to bomb cities into oblivion. I knew this and yet I was uncertain about my story. I lacked calm self-knowledge. If a woman spoke to me, particularly if she was attractive, I grew excited and talked too much.
I’m talking of what happened more than two decades ago; my first years here and my first loves. But the reality of my becoming who I am now, this evolution, as it were, goes back in time to the monkeys that surrounded me as an infant. This is my own, personal Origin of Species. The red-bottomed monkeys of my childhood would leave the branches of the big tamarind tree and peel the oranges left unattended on the balcony of Lotan Mamaji’s house. This was in Ara, in eastern India, in the late sixties. A war with Pakistan was over and another loomed in the future. Prime Minister Nehru had been dead only a few years. In the language of the history books, the nation was in turmoil.
Lotan Mamaji was my mother’s younger brother. A giant of a man, immense and bearded, paan tucked under one dark cheek like a secret that he didn’t want to share. One winter morning, while everyone on the balcony sat listening to the radio, following the cricket commentary from Eden Gardens, a monkey stole into Mamaji’s room. He climbed on the huge white bed and finding Mamaji’s pistol brandished it—they say—at my cousin who was born two months after me and still in her crib. No one moved. Then, turning the pistol around, the primate mind prompting the opposable thumb to grasp the trigger, the monkey blew his brains out. He was a medium-size young male. Bits of flesh, bone, hair, and gray matter had to be cleaned from the pictures of the long-dead family patriarchs hanging on the wall.
There were so many lies repeated in the family, so many half secrets, I don’t know why I never asked anyone if the monkey story was true. For a long time, it had been lodged in my mind as a baptismal tale that taught me the nature of fear, or maybe provided a lesson about fate. But then the past lost its authority and the meaning of the story changed. I had by then come out of my teen years. The main questions now were about the fiction of the past, the idea I had of myself as a person, and what it meant for me to become a writer.
For so many years, the idea of writing has meant recognizing and even addressing a division in my life: the gap between India, the land of my birth, and the United States, where I arrived as a young adult. If and when I imagine an audience for my writing, it is also a divided one. But the two places are connected, not only by those histories that cultural organizations celebrate through endlessly dull annual gatherings but by millions of individual yearnings, all those stories of consummated or thwarted desire.
Consider the monkeys in Ara, the Rhesus macaques. They were not just visitors to my maternal uncle’s home. They have a place in my imagination because they too were unheralded immigrants in America. A few years ago, I read in a newspaper report that the problem Delhi residents were having with monkeys went back to the early years of Indian independence, when thousands from that region were sent to America for scientific purposes. As many as twenty to fifty thousand monkeys were exported each year. A newly independent India was in need of foreign exchange. The Americans needed middle-aged male monkeys for their experiments. The result of the selective trapping, according to a primatologist interviewed for the report, was the disruption of the ecological balance. The disruption took place because the family unit was broken and the monkey groups entered a process of division that the primatologist termed chaotic fission.
But let’s take a step back from the political and enter the riskier domain of the personal. I want to focus on
* * *
In America, the land of the free and home of the brave, it was possible, figuratively speaking, to discuss genitalia in public.*1 I discovered this when I turned on the radio one Tuesday night in my university apartment in Morningside Heights and heard a woman’s voice. A foreign accent, except the surprise was that she was talking about sex. She sounded like Henry Kissinger. Her name was Dr. Ruth. Unlike Kissinger, she wanted us to make love, not war.
In India, the only public mentions of sex were the advertisements painted on the walls that ran beside the railway tracks. I read the ads when I traveled from Patna to Delhi for college and was filled with anxiety about what awaited me when, at last, I would experience sex. On the brick walls near the tracks, large white letters in Hindi urged you to call a phone number if you suffered from premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction or nightly emissions. A nation of silent sufferers! Men with worried brows holding their heads in their offices during the day and, back at home, lying miserably awake beside quiet and disappointed wives in the dark.
But not in America, where Dr. Ruth was talking to you cheerfully on the airwaves. I had no accurate idea of what epiglottis and guttural really meant, but those words vibrated in my mind when I listened to Dr. Ruth. Her voice on the small black radio in the privacy of my room offering advice to the males among her audience. Even if they themselves had already climaxed, they could help their female partners achieve orgasm.
—You can just pleasure her.
I hadn’t heard that word used as a verb before. I also spoke in an accented English; I wondered if Dr. Ruth’s usage was correct.
—And for women out there, a man wants an orgasm. Big deal! Give him an orgasm, it takes two minutes!
Such relief. For more than one reason.
There were details about her that I discovered later. Dr. Ruth grew up in an orphanage. Her parents perished at Auschwitz. She was very short but had fought in a war. She was once a guerrilla in the Haganah, and now, in this country, she was famous for talking about masturbation and penises and vaginas on the radio. She was on her third marriage.
Listening to Dr. Ruth on the radio that Tuesday night in upper Manhattan I was transported in my mind back to a morning in Delhi earlier that year when we were enjoying three days of spring. The year I left, 1990. My friends were in my room in the college dorm. The daughter of the warden walked past the window on her way to work, her hair still hanging damp on her yellow dupatta. She was a postdoc in history and would become a lecturer soon. And then we were running to the end of the corridor to watch the warden’s daughter open the little wooden gate on her way to the bus stop. Her prepossessing calm, her very indifference to the existence of gawking others, was an incitement to collective lust. She was soon gone, and still excited but also somewhat let down, the group returned to my small room with its dirty, whitewashed walls.
—There is nothing purer than the love for your landlord’s daughter, said Bheem.
—No, said Santosh, after an appropriate pause. If you are looking for innocence, the purest gangajal, you have to be in love with your teacher’s wife.
As if to sort out the matter, we looked at Noni, a Sikh from Patiala. He was the only one among us who wasn’t a virgin.
Noni took off his turban and his long hair fell over his shoulders.
—You bastards should stop pretending. The only true love, true first love, is the love for your maidservant.
This was duly appreciated. But Noni was not done yet.
—She has to be older than you, though not by too much, and while it’s not necessary for you to have fucked her, it is important that she take your hand in hers and put it on her breast.
There was the usual silence that greets the utterance of grand truth. Three of us were sprawled next to each other on the bed, our heads pillowed against the wall. Dark, oily smudges behind us indicated where other heads had pressed in the past. Then someone started laughing.
—You are a bunch of pussies, Noni said, to dismiss the laughing. When you went back home during the winter, did any one of you get laid?
He smiled and announced his own success with another question.
—Has anyone slept with a friend’s mother?
—I have, Bheem said. He had light-colored eyes. He was smiling a soft, secret smile.
—Whose mother? Noni asked.
Noni was my Dr. Ruth before Dr. Ruth. My naïveté was the price of admission I paid for his tutorials. Noni had discovered that the medical definition of a kiss was the anatomical juxtaposition of two orbicularis oris muscles in a state of contraction. This made the unfamiliar even more unfamiliar. He told me that the word fuck was an acronym derived from for unlawful carnal knowledge; this terminology was itself a rewriting, Noni said, of the medieval rule to which fuck owed its origins, fornication under consent of the King. Noni was completely wrong; at that time, however, I marveled at his knowledge of sex.
Until I met Noni in Delhi, my familiarity with sex was limited to what I had learned from the censored movies screened on Saturdays in Patna. I’d be sitting with others in the dark, the air warm, the smell of sweat around me, and somewhere a cigarette being smoked. There were probably two hundred others in the theater, almost all men and most of them older than me. In the local paper the theater advertised itself as “air-cooled,” but what you breathed was the effluvia of restless groins being shifted in fixed seats that had coir stuffing poking out of torn imitation-leather covers. It was no doubt cooler in the apartment in Prague where the on-screen action was taking place. A middle-aged man had unclasped the hook on the bra that an impossibly young woman was wearing. She turned to face him, her breasts milk white, with pale pink drowsy nipples. There was a cut and a jump in the film there—the duo now in an open car on an empty road, driving under leafy trees, in bright sunlight.
But a child had started crying in the audience near me.
—Scene dikha, baccha ro raha hai, a man shouted from a further seat, wanting us to return to the bedroom. “Show a breast. Because if you don’t, the baby will cry.” The rough remark, bewildering at that time, soon lost its confusing aspect: glinting like mica in a piece of granite, it sat for a while in the nostalgic narrative about my late teenage years.
* * *
Ten years later, for the benefit of a later generation, a sex advice column in Mumbai Mirror had become popular in India. I made this discovery during a visit to India when my laundry came back to my hotel room wrapped in newspaper.
Q. My girlfriend kissed the tip of my penis and the next day she suffered a stomachache. Could she be pregnant? Should she take some pills?
A. She must have had dinner afterward and that probably led to the stomachache. Oral sex does not cause pregnancy and she need not take any pills.
Q. I am a twenty-five-year-old man. Please tell me if regular masturbation can increase the size of one’s butt.
A. Just as your nose, fingers, and tongue will not increase in size, neither will the butt.
Q. When it comes to sex, my partner allows me to use only a finger for just a few seconds. Please tell me why. Also, when I hold my bowels for too long, my testicles swell and hurt. What could be the reason for this?
The good doctor, the Sexpert, had once again exercised a grim matter-of-factness, the humor in his eyes hidden behind the thick glasses he wore in the grainy photograph.
A. She is probably scared by your intentions—pregnancy or an infection. Why not ask her? And, do you mean “balls”? “Bowels” refers to the intestines. Why would you
In 2014, The New York Times ran a story on the Sexpert, introducing Dr. Mahinder Watsa to the United States. Watsa’s editor said the doctor had received more than forty thousand letters seeking advice. He had tried to promote sex education but many of his own colleagues said it was pornography. Dr. Watsa was the first to use words like penis and vagina in the newspapers. A reader filed an obscenity suit against the doctor, charging that the editors fabricated letters to increase readership. In response, the editor delivered a sack of unopened letters at the judge’s table. He read them over the lunch hour and dismissed the case. Dr. Watsa recently turned ninety-one.
Not my parents, but my forebears nonetheless. Dr. Ruth and Dr. Watsa, who ushered me into a world lit with the light of new knowledge.
The Sexpert column can now be read on the Internet. There was nothing like this when I was growing up in India. At that time, if I could have written one, which letter would have been mine? The range of problems people present to the doctor is stunning but yes, this one:
Q. In the last semester, I failed one subject. My parents were worried and took me to an astrologer. He asked me to remove my pants. He said the ejaculate after masturbation is equal to 100 ml of blood, hence my weakness. I am regretting showing him my penis. Please help.
A. The astrologer is a hoax and completely ignorant of sexual matters. Masturbation is completely normal. Visit your college counselor instead to discuss your not doing well in one subject.
* * *
After arriving in New York, I would have a constant conversation in my head with a judge who was asking me questions. I had been called an impostor; I was told that what I wanted was not mine. This was my true, secret life, where I was witness to a courtroom interrogation during which another me, more articulate and unafraid, delivered long, defensive soliloquies about who I was, my reasons for being here, and why I liked what I did. The imaginary judge was white; we were in a court for those accused of false pretenses and indecent acts. Standing quietly in a dock, I recalled lines that had been spoken by others. Sisters and Brothers of America, I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects, Swami Vivekananda had said, in Chicago in 1893, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Unlike Vivekananda, I addressed the judge from a less exalted place but I wasn’t lacking in conviction. I am telling you all this in Immigration Court, Your Honor, because I want to assert that I knew about sex, or at least discoursed about sex, prior to my arrival on these shores. I have chosen to speak in personal terms, the most intimate terms, Your Honor, because it seems to me that it is this crucial part of humanity that is denied to the immigrant. You look at a dark immigrant in that long line at JFK, the new clothes crumpled from a long flight, a ripe smell accompanying him, his eyes haunted, and you wonder whether he can speak English. It is far from your thoughts and your assumptions to ask whether he has ever spoken soft phrases filled with yearning or what hot, dirty words he utters in his wife’s ear as she laughs and embraces him in bed. You look at him and think that he wants your job and not that he just wants to get laid. I offer you the truth without shame and thank you, Your Honor, in the name of the dark hordes that have nothing to declare but their desire.