When There's a Fine Line Between Surveillance and Intimacy

In 'The Lovers', Amitava Kumar seeks to engage us in an intimate relationship with the narrator – but one that we end up questioning.

You can find Hasan Elahi anytime you choose. You don’t have to be in the government, you don’t even have to go to the trouble of being friends with him on social media. Doesn’t matter if you don’t know him, he doesn’t care. Elahi has been posting regular updates on his whereabouts, his meals, their cost, his location at any given moment since 2005 – well before social media made this the new normal. Elahi started to surveil himself as a retort to the US government’s growing obsession with brown men in the aftermath of 9/11. Who could have guessed then that this form of ‘knowing everything about each other’ would become another way to denote intimacy? The line between the two is increasingly blurry, demarcated more by intention than anything else. What’s meant for the state’s viewing is surveillance, and what’s meant for a lover is intimacy.

Amitava Kumar wrote about Elahi years ago, in A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb. That was a journalistic project which examined the changing relationship between Western governments and their brown subjects. Kumar’s latest novel, The Lovers, examines the relationship between surveillance and intimacy in a more writerly fashion. From the get go, Kumar seeks to engage us in an intimate relationship with Kailash, the narrator, whose intimate voice is enhanced by the subject of the book, the titular lovers, as well the as inclusion of a third dialogue that Kailash has with himself.

Amitava Kumar. Credit: Twitter/Amitava Kumar

Amitava Kumar. Credit: Twitter/Amitava Kumar

Soon after arriving in New York, AK, as Kailash’s friends come to call him, conjures up a white judge in his head, conversing with him constantly, using him as a venue for self-reflection. Far along in the book, AK notes, “I have chosen to speak in personal terms, the most intimate terms, Your Honour, because it seems to me that it is this crucial part of humanity that is denied to the immigrant.”

AK is correct in his assessment: The Lovers is intensely personal and he wastes no time in taking you into his confidence, plunging straight into a memoir of his first few years as a student in the US. AK unabashedly narrates his relationships in those early years, recalling his trysts with three different women, Jennifer, Nina and Cai Yan, as he navigated his newfound immigrant identity and his entry into the world of academia.

Like most 20-somethings, especially displaced ones, AK is guided by “the desire for love and the hankering for home”. And like most of his ilk, he searches for it in the women he dates, hoping not just for sex, but also a sense of belonging. The book’s jacket carries a quote that sums up AK’s quest for a cohesive idea of himself, “I wanted very badly to be in love with intelligent, well-read women.” His attraction to all of his lovers hinges on their ability to help him accomplish an ideal identity of his own. AK’s search extends to his professor Ehsaan Ali, a mentor figure of sorts, along with college peers; and gradually expands to incorporate the literature, theory, art and politics he consumes in the course of his academic work and life in general.

For a writer, everything is fodder. Most fiction walks a tightrope between setting up a world and littering the narrative with cumbersome references. Some novels, like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, are powerful in part because they have been scrubbed clean of any explicit historical specificity. The Lovers’ greatest accomplishment is that it does the opposite. The narrative often takes on the confidential tone of a journal. Scraps from newspapers, pictures from art exhibitions and other such trivia demarcate the book’s sections. Footnotes are scattered throughout the novel, offering detours into tangential memories, cultural and literary insights intermingling with personal ones, along with more traditional references to academic papers and books. My favourite footnote occurs early in the novel and encapsulates AK’s self-awareness about being an immigrant in the US perfectly:

Nearly all the graduate students in the department were teaching assistants: our tuition fees were waived because we were more than willing to serve as anxious, often unconventional, perhaps overqualified, certainly underpaid, but also otherwise employable, conscripts in the army maintained by academia. Like many others before me for the past hundred and fifty years, I couldn’t have made it out of India without this readiness on my part to be an indentured labourer.

Amitava Kumar <em>The Lovers</em> Aleph Book Company, 2017

Amitava Kumar
The Lovers
Aleph Book Company, 2017

In other footnotes, Kumar plays with the autobiographical quality of the novel. AK refers to previous works of his in footnotes, works that you know actually belong to Kumar.

Early on in the narrative, AK says the “main questions” concerning him in those early years in New York 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”. The Lovers’ takes the great abstract jumble of thoughts, ideas, impressions, memories that goes into the labour of writing and puts it on full display, enveloping you in its mess. And since AK is writing a memoir, it starts to feel like the book, in addition to being a novel about love, is about the process of writing itself. It exposes the intellectual aerobics involved in producing lucid narratives as well as the internal transformations we go through as we narrativise our own selves.

Elahi’s project is a compelling performance of intimacy – how can we not feel close to someone when they are sharing the ins and outs of their life with us? But closer inspection reveals big gaps in our knowledge – is Elahi married? Does he have children? What’s he reading, watching, listening to these days? What would we talk to Elahi about if we ever met? There’s much he keeps from us, all the while implying the opposite via his constant sharing.

Towards the end of The Lovers, AK brings the reader up to the present, wrenching us out of his memories with the revelation that he is in disgrace, exiled by his peers. He explains the circumstances summarily and claims he is innocent, but his employers and peers seem to differ in their opinions. AK insists that he does not feel the need to justify himself, that nothing could come of it anyway. He cites the fact of his brown skin, remembers that he was subjected to a random stop by a white policeman the day he received American citizenship. He explicitly acknowledges, for the first time, that his place in the US has always been tenuous, contested.

And yet, the entire story, which till now had seemed the result of a single-minded effort to establish intimacy, suddenly turns into testimony. We merge with the imaginary judge whose constant presence throughout the story takes on new meaning. Together, we preside over “a court for those accused of false pretenses and indecent acts”. What we took as sharing turned out to be a response to our surveilling.

Speaking of the slippery nature of memory, Kailash tells the judge, “I cannot claim any particular fidelity to facts. This arrangement of memories is my attempt to get at what is real.” What is real and what isn’t remains contested, leaving us on shaky ground, highlighting the limits of surveillance and intimacy, both.

Nehmat Kaur is a culture writer based in New Delhi. She writes a weekly column for The Wire called Name-Place-Animal-Thing and tweets @nehmatks.

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