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?”)

In Poughkeepsie that evening, Kunzru read to a college audience from his novels. The first extract that he read was from his debut novel, The Impressionist, about his protagonist Pran Nath Razdan passing as a white man in colonial India. “They hear an accent and see a face and a set of clothes, and put them together into a person.” The theme could be read as an indictment of racist prejudice, about how easily or arbitrarily people were categorised, but it was also as much about the current interest in fluid cultural identities.

While introducing his 2004 book, Transmission, Kunzru said it is often assumed that movement under globalisation is “friction free,” but the reality comprises of both “speed and slowness.” Often, there are barriers to movement, of people even if not of capital, and these “barriers are almost insuperable.” Transmission is the story of an Indian software programmer named Arjun who is adrift in Silicon Valley; he is someone who is exploited and often feels alone, and in the end wreaks havoc on the world in the only way he can.

When Kunzru read about Arjun walking beside the highway in California, he revealed his gift for keen observation and wry social commentary: “Anyone on foot in suburban California is one of four things: poor, foreign, mentally ill or jogging.” The paragraphs detailing Arjun’s discovery of America brilliantly expose the faultlines of class and cultural differences:

The new specificities were absorbing. The bass pumping out of the lowrider cars was an inversion of India’s screaming treble. Grown men wore short pants like children. Behind the 7-Eleven, feral-looking kids, surely the poor, rode battered skateboards, kicking them up against kerbs and railings to go airborne in flurries of baggy cotton. Not for American shoppers the bustle and haggling of the marketplace. Inside a sepulchral Safeway the air-conditioning played icy breath on his neck as he padded down aisles where the produce was lit like a film set and sprinklers sprayed cricket-ball-sized tomatoes with a fine mist of water. In every parking lot men and women dressed in pastel lycras and cottons pushed staggering cubic volumes of merchandise toward their cars — and what cars!  Mythical chariots gleaming with window tint and metallic paint, vehicles built to transport whole clans, entire communities, from one place to another. The first time he saw an RV he actually forgot to breathe.

My Revolutions (2007), Kunzru’s latest novel, is about a middle-aged man named Mike Frame who has tried to erase his past, in the turbulent 1970s, as an armed revolutionary in England. One cannot easily say that this is the most political of Kunzru’s books, but it is the one that most explicitly addresses the subject of politics, especially militancy in the post-1968 generation. The novel might well be a response to a curiosity about the wellsprings of 9/11, but its genius lies in addressing a prior historical moment and, within it, the presence of idealism as well as violence that had nothing to do with Islam or the East.  Kunzru said that this book was a way of approaching the old question of “what had been done in the name of revolution” but he was also interested in the “holding open of sympathies.” Even while we witness Mike Frame’s growing opposition to violence, the reader is invited to share his skepticism about what is being offered by the other side. A man named Miles who turns out to be an informant tells Frame that he didn’t seem to be like his comrades, that he wasn’t an extremist, and here is Frame’s response: “I had to smile at that. Miles was still the same, untroubled by doubt or hope and incapable of understanding it in others. He could live in the world as it is, which (depending on your point of view) is either pragmatism, coarseness or a particular kind of heroism. Whatever it is, I’ve never been able to do it. The world has always seemed unbearable to me.”

Kunzru was asked what had made him a political writer. Kunzru said he had a privileged childhood in England. His parents had a mixed marriage. His father, a Kashmiri Pandit, is a doctor; his mother, who is white, was working as a nurse when his parents met. But when Kunzru was quite young he made a discovery when he proposed that the family travel to South Africa on a holiday. This was back when the apartheid regime was still in power and received the support of the ruling conservative government in Britain. Kunzru’s parents explained to him that if they went for their vacation to South Africa they would not be able to stay together in the same place. Not only would they have to spend their days apart, his parents’ marriage would actually be considered illegal in South Africa. This discovery was a shock to Kunzru and it also made him think of himself and also his place in the world in a new way.

In 2002, after The Impressionist had been published to considerable acclaim, Kunzru was awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, which is given annually to the best work of literature by a writer under 35 from a Commonwealth nation. At that time, the award was sponsored by the Mail on Sunday. Kunzru turned down the prize because he was opposed to the paper’s “editorial policy of vilifying and demonising refugees and asylum-seekers.” In a statement read on this behalf by his agent Jonny Geller at the award ceremony, Kunzru said, “As the child of an immigrant, I am only too aware of the poisonous effect of the Mail’s editorial line. The atmosphere of prejudice it fosters translates into violence, and I have no wish to profit from it.” He recommended that the award money be donated to the charity called Refugee Council.