21st Century Everyman

Mixed ethnicity, travel, and keen observation make Hari Kunzru a political writer

01 April 2010

THE WRITER HARI KUNZRU recently took a train on the Metro North line to Poughkeepsie from Grand Central Station. He arrived in the early evening, after a journey that had lasted less than two hours, and which he had used to dip into the proofs of a collected book of short stories by Hanif Kureishi.

Kunzru was born in London and grew up in Essex but has been living in New York City for the past few years. He is very tall and lean; he exudes an air of intellectual seriousness, thin glasses sitting on an impressively elongated face topped by a shaven head. In 2002, when he was about to publish his first novel, an article in TheNew York Times had described Kunzru as one “whose English mother and Indian father bestowed upon him a nonspecifically exotic appearance that marks him as a potential native of about half the world’s nations.”

But not everyone finds his looks ambiguous. In India, during his first book tour, a man who had introduced himself as a poet stood up drunkenly at a reading to ask Kunzru: “Why are you being writer? You are looking more like a wrestler!” Kunzru good-humouredly recounts the questions that were asked of him by audiences (“Sir, what is your credit card balance?”) and interviewers who were “often a peculiar combination of a college girl in a salwar-kameez and a photographer-peon.” (“Do you have sex tips for ladies?”)

Amitava Kumar is a professor of English at Vassar College in upstate New York, USA. His latest book, A Time Outside This Time: A Novel, will be published by Aleph next year.

Keywords: mixed ethnicity Poughkeepsie Hanif Kureishi Kunzru Hari Kunzru Amitava Kumar The Impressionist