There is no better way to start a new year than to read Amitava Kumar’s writing. I started 2023 reading The Blue Books, and I waited for 2024 to read his latest offering, The Yellow Book: A Traveller’s Diary. Much like The Blue Book, The Yellow Book was delightful and life-affirming. Reading it was akin to having an intimate conversation with the author. In the highs and lows of life, lows being more frequent for me this new year, I found Kumar’s book like self-help for readers who have no particular fondness for the genre. Without being preachy and all-commanding, the narrator is compassionate towards his readers and generous in sharing his wisdom.

The Yellow Book is a collection of daily journal entries and paintings. Through these, Amitava Kumar takes us on a journey to different landscapes Poughkeepsie, New York where he paints a beautiful cherry tree in blossom, a view of Spring outside Keats House in London, and more. He also takes us back to his roots in Jadopur, Bihar, with beautiful illustrations of mustard fields.

Stopping time

How to stop time? Amitava Kumar says to keep a journal. I try and I fail. But it is through the attempts that I learn to wait and be patient. This brings me to one of my favourite quotes from The Yellow Book, “ involves waiting. It requires a practice that cultivates an openness to possibility. Or, if you want to make it sound rigorous, a discipline of receptiveness. And then, what is wished for makes its magical advent.”

In order to stop time, the author urges people to return to what they once enjoyed. The low periods of my life are usually accompanied by a reading slump. But Kumar’s book takes me back to reading. As I return to Kumar’s writing, I re-learn how to get the most out of living. This is an immersive experience. It makes the reader in me want to mine my own life in search of great writings and conversations.

The Yellow Book is also Kumar’s creative response to all kinds of crises Trump’s presidency, India’s second COVID wave of 2021, and Kumar’s personal losses.

He paints with sorrow and rage a picture of hurried goodbyes, of crematoriums overflowing with corpses, the casualties of the COVID second wave choking the Ganga River, and the poor burying the dead on riverbanks. In doing so, he once again stops time. By dedicating a few pages to the thousands of untimely deaths in India, he remembers and pays respect to people who were gone too soon, failed by the systems that govern them. The deaths of the countless nameless are enshrined in Kumar’s writings and it reminded me of the terrifying time when I could hear the siren of ambulances all through day and night.

Seasons turn

But then Spring also comes, and you must believe in it, writes Kumar. There is such comfort in his writing, it reminds me of the colour yellow of the sun and the mellow weather, the amalta flowers of Delhi.

There are lessons for readers and writers. The Yellow Book is also filled with wonderful book recommendations David Hockney’s book, Spring Cannot Be Cancelled; two novels by William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow and They Came Like Swallows. Kumar also offers lessons in writing. A quote from the book that especially resonated with me was, “...because I feel, though I hope I am wrong, that our students expect literature to deliver the correct view of the world rather than something corrupted by real life.”

The Yellow Book is also a memoir of loss. “The thought came to me again. When my father was gone, a large part of my past would disappear, like one of those videos you see of landslides, an entire cliff with a winding road and cars disappearing into the swirling river. It wasn’t land or property that I was thinking about; I was thinking about my parents, my mother who had come to this village as a young bride, and my father, who had brought me today to the place where he had been born. It was the people who had made my past who would soon be gone”, Kumar writes regarding the deteriorating health of his father who passed away later.

This echoed my own sentiments about my rural roots. After experiencing the loss of my grandparents, I feared that a large part of my past had disappeared forever. My father is the last link to my ancestral home in Bihar, to the place that holds childhood memories of summers spent among mangoes, lychees, loving grandparents and aunts, and their several pet cats and dogs. A good memoir reflects your own life to you, and Kumar’s writing does that and more. It creates a sense of collective belonging and togetherness.

Comforting and illuminating, The Yellow Book is a reader’s guide to meaningful living.

The Yellow Book: A Traveller’s Diary, Amitava Kumar, HarperCollins India.