- Bombay-London-New York
The slickly designed cover of Amitava Kumar's Bombay-London-New York features an image of three South Asian-looking cab drivers standing amid a blur of urban traffic. This, along with the title, suggests the book is a contribution to academic work on globalization and "global cities." And it is—but in a much different way than one might expect. Instead of an expert typology of globalization, Kumar offers a meandering literary exploration of these cities as lived and imagined in the work and movements of diasporic colonial and postcolonial writers. Like Kumar's first nonfiction book Passport Photos (UC Press, 2000), Bombay-London-New York is a multiple-genre text, incorporating Kumar's own autobiographical ruminations, poetry, and photographs with criticism of literary texts. The book's ostensible scholarly topic is diasporic "Indian writers in English," yet to Kumar "it is also, I have found out, about how and why we read" (1). Specifically, it is about how and why—and where—Kumar reads: what different texts have meant to him at different times and places in his life, and by extension, what books written in the colonizer's tongue can mean in a postcolonial diaspora.
As in Passport Photos, in which sections are labeled as the different sections of a passport, the structure and style of Bombay-London-New York are central and not incidental to the book. Kumar interweaves accounts from his own life into his readings of work by diasporic South Asian writers such as Amit Chaudhuri, Pankaj Mishra, Hanif Kureishi, V.S. Naipaul, and Arundhati Roy, among a host of others, thus placing his own journey from India to the United States into this broader context of a diaspora of South Asian intellectuals. Several poems by Kumar, as well as a poem by Hindi poet Alokdhanwa, end chapters and sections, and numerous black-and-white photographs also by Kumar appear uncaptioned in the text. While the poems and the photographs would perhaps be unremarkable on their own, incorporated together they create spaces to breathe in the text—to [End Page 95] think differently, for a moment. Kumar's willingness to experiment with multiple genres in one text is still rare enough in scholarly work to be respected for its intent and the effect of the whole, even if the quality of the individual pieces is uneven. Perhaps more importantly, Kumar's pleasure in engaging with and producing different kinds of texts shines through consistently. This is most apparent when he mixes his own words with skillfully culled, pithy quotations from the writers whose work he critiques. For instance, about V.S. Naipaul's autobiography Finding the Center, "I too wanted that life of hopes and fears about putting words on a page, the life that Naipaul had described in a single phrase in the book that I was reading: 'such anxiety, such ambition'" (107). Or, quoting E.M. Forster while Kumar describes the "unsentimental education" he received from "Raj fiction": "'I think that most Indians, like most English people, are shits, and I am not interested whether they sympathize with one another or not'" (149).
Kumar organizes Bombay-London-New York into three sections divided by city and bracketed by an introductory section, a conclusion of sorts, and an epilogue. Part I looks inward at India, beginning with an exploration of Bombay as a center for Indian bids for modernity. In the past Bombay was "paraded as the prime example" of a "cosmopolitan hybridity" which has since been sullied by "the brazen ascent of a hybrid alliance of capital and the lumpen underclass" (56). Kumar employs Arundhati Roy's critiques of hybridity and cultural nationalism, praising Roy's work as an example of a more admirable kind of hybridity—that of a writer-activist—but concluding that "there is no golden hybridity. The only standard to work by has to be, to use Roy's phrase, 'the greater common good'" (57–8). Kumar uses Roy's novel The God of Small Things as a bridge into the remainder of Part I, which engages with...