An elderly lady, who used to be a doctor in the villages of Jharkhand, tells Jugnu that her husband once said to her there was no point in being “fanatical” about the truth. Memories become distorted and disappear with time, people come into our lives and vanish mysteriously, leaders who once appeared capable become hateful monsters. There’s little surety in life besides its transient nature and facts morphing into fiction.

Amitava Kumar’s new novel My Beloved Life is like looking at a family – and nation’s – photo album. It makes the phrase “larger than life” seem redundant, for our life, even in its limitations and sorrows is stranger and grander than any we could’ve imagined. Each photo in this album may appear unidimensional at first, but once we’re made aware of the backstory, we realise how infinite the experiences of each individual can be.

Time’s endless loop

Jadunath Kunwar’s (Jadu) first memory is from a time before he was born. His mother was bitten by a snake and the valiant efforts of his father and neighbours not only ensured she lived but also that he was born healthy and happy. The incident, now a part of his personal history, becomes a source of Jadu’s strength. If he could survive a snake bite as a foetus, then his time in jail during the Emergency and having his life’s savings stolen from him on the bus ride home cannot keep him from living reasonably happily and long till his death in his mid-80s.

Born in 1935, Jadu is an older sibling of the newly independent India. He remembers the final years of the freedom movement, the pride of having a homegrown government, the awe of meeting Tenzing Norgay. Back then, the meritorious students made their way to the city closest to their villages to get an education and become able citizens of the new country. In Patna, Jadu sits among women and hears his well-off, convent-educated classmates prattle away in English. Soon enough he marries a beautiful, demure Maya and when his daughter is still young, goes to America for a few months as a Fulbright scholar. Born to illiterate parents, this is no ordinary achievement and yet Jadu is “utterly defined” by his childhood poverty. The diaries he keeps barely register his most private thoughts, instead it is there that he logs in the family’s daily expenses and keeps a tab of their financial well-being.

The first section of the novel, titled “Jadu”, is a third-person narrative of a man from his birth to old age. When one lives through so many defining moments of history, it's easy to become detached from their self and personal history. The same happens with Jadu – instead of delving into his difficult feelings about his mother’s accidental death or affection for Ananya, his former classmate, as a historian, it is that nation that he prefers to put under a microscope. He is especially empathetic towards the student uprising in Bihar and JP Narayan’s contribution to the movement. He starts to write about his mother but cannot see the essay to its end. A memoir he writes later in life is confined to his eyes only. As one reads about Jadu’s brush with activism or being imprisoned during the Emergency, one is forced to wonder whether relishing the past can only be afforded by those who have had relatively easy lives.

A historian by profession, Jadu also takes a special interest in literature. In fact, one could even say it brings him joy. He attempts to translate Agyeya, meets icons like Mahadevi Verma and Firaq Gorakhpuri, and discusses a Maugham novel with the woman he’s meeting behind his wife’s back. At one point, he suspects his life is becoming “novelistic”. And who can deny that? Perhaps, from a vantage point, each of our lives is.

Time and again, it is stressed that Jadunath Kunwar is a man of principle. His steadfast belief in academic practice and living an honest life is challenged when he agrees to pay the dowry for his daughter Jugnu’s wedding. His professional and personal integrity are also compromised when he falls prey to dubious online and TV news and appears uncharacteristically “victorious” when Modi comes to power again in 2019.

Time after time

Jugnu tells her story in the first-person voice. Her father’s restrained ways and methodical approach to life do not ward off her anxieties about how he’d react if he were to find out about her Black boyfriend. It was Jadu who supported her decision to leave her husband but her father’s smug happiness at the retainment of the right-wing government makes her anxious. The chasm between them – admittedly not a very wide one – is created by political differences.

Jugnu remembers her parents’s fights about Ananya, the time when she mistook her grandmother for her mother, or when her father spoke about the evils of caste when he was invited to talk about his time in America. Though not very different from how Jadu remembers his own life, Jugnu’s memories prove that we often exist in an altered state in someone else’s reality. It is futile, therefore, to be “fanatical” about the truth – one might get the absolute details about someone (or something) right but who documents the feelings, perceptions, and memories about them?

Jadu’s only child, Jugnu bears witness to his life even when he’s no longer around. A father is resurrected in his daughter’s memories as she remembers him as a young man and later as an old man at the mercy of the COVID-19 pandemic that had upended every sense of normalcy.

At every turn, Kumar makes us conscious of our precarious relationship with the truth – our own as well as those whose lives are entwined with ours. With time, fact becomes fiction and fiction becomes an exaggeration of fact – one has to make peace with their contradictory natures. Jadu and Jugnu’s stories snake their way through India’s political history from the 1930s to the present and I believe Kumar must be happy about the novel having a mind of its own. It wanders, takes detours, loses itself in thought till the author’s gentle hands nudge it back on track. My Beloved Life is a wholly sincere offering of a novelist at the peak of his craft and a person who has unearthed beauty in the ordinary.

The takeaways are life-affirming: no life, however seemingly unexceptional, is in vain; every life, however seemingly unexceptional, is worthy of an artist’s loving gaze.

My Beloved Life, Amitava Kumar, Aleph Book Company.

Also read:

‘Without death, there is no art’: How Amitava Kumar’s new novel came to be