Material Witness The novelist and the liar

Amitava Kumar in The Baffler:

THIS WAS A FEW YEARS AGO. A publisher called from Delhi to ask if I would write a short book about my hometown, Patna, in eastern India. I thought of the rats that had carried away my mother’s dentures and said yes.

My model for the book about Patna, a book about a city, was E.B. White’s classic essay Here is New York. “This piece about New York was written in the summer of 1948 during a hot spell.” The first sentence of White’s foreword: a promise that my book, too, could be done quickly. When summer came, I went to Patna. Each day I would step out of my parents’ home, a little Moleskine notebook in my pocket, and return at night with stories.

When my book was about to be published, a newspaper editor asked me to write a piece about the process of putting the book together. Using my notebook number eighteen as an example, I simply described a day, starting with a 9:00 a.m. visit to the railway station and ending with me coming home at 10:00 p.m. after watching a rehearsal for a play about caste. I’m telling you all this because this is what my newspaper piece had gleaned from my notebook about what happened at 10:00 p.m.:

My sisters are talking in the room that is at the far end of the house. This used to be my room when I was a boy. I’m downloading photographs on my computer, but I eavesdrop on their conversation. My elder sister is a doctor, married to a doctor. He has a sister, who is a doctor—and her husband, also a doctor, is having an affair. The woman with whom he is having the affair is not a doctor. She is the receptionist at his hospital. They meet for sex at a gym that is across the street from the hospital.

The newspaper in which this essay appeared is a national daily; on the morning of its publication, my elder sister called me. She was upset. I was in Delhi on my book tour and she was in Patna. She said that her brother-in-law would be furious. I laughed. I said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry, he’s not a reader. I doubt he reads an English newspaper anyway.” I was laughing, but I was also nervous.

More here.