The Blue Book — A Writer’s Journal review: Portrait of a writer as an artist

It is said that writers reveal themselves in their works. No doubt they reveal themselves much more deeply in their diaries and diaries. The Blue Book: A Writer’s Diary by Amitava Kumar does not disappoint in this regard. It offers gleanings from his life as a writer, giving us a glimpse into Kumar’s mind, his thoughts, his quiet introspections. However, what is most striking about this slim volume is Kumar’s bliss with art.

Interspersed with the text, his drawings and paintings point to another facet of the portrait of the artist as a writer. Although their inclusion is somewhat self-indulgent, The blue book is richer.

The diary was written during the pandemic, although Kumar, who has written several fiction and non-fiction books, avoids any form of chronology here. The text, which has a ruminative and nonchalant character, is an agglomerate of his meditations on disparate subjects, of his memories and his encounters, literary or not. He talks about his conversations with writers like Michael Ondaatje, Amit Chaudhuri, poet Mary Ruefle and many more. And he dwells on writers he’s never met, but admires and anoints as his mentors – John Cheever, Joan Didion and, above all, John Berger.

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It wasn’t just his writing that influenced Kumar – Bento Sketchbooka work where Berger’s handwriting is interspersed with his drawings, gave Kumar the inspiration for the format of The blue book.

Nostalgia and loss

Much of this book is, of course, about writing and writers, but it is also about Kumar’s umbilical ties to India. Although he has been based in the United States for many years, his thoughts are never far from his native land. He evokes memories of his native Patna and his days as a student in Delhi – his burning desire to be a writer, long walks in the gardens of Lodi, catching a bus from the ISBT and heading for the hills . It is the nostalgia of the immigrant and it is tinged with a palpable feeling of loss. Elsewhere, Kumar quietly mourns the loss of contact with his mother tongue: “Loss of mother tongue is one of the consequences of this loss of home. My Hindi is now like an old Ambassador car. He can still cover distances, but the speed is not there.

The blue book offers specific advice on writing, or rather, the discipline of writing. “A modest goal of 150 words a day and mindful walking for 10 minutes” is Kumar’s mantra for becoming a productive writer. He also stresses the importance of keeping a diary. “This book you hold in your hands,” he tells the reader, “is both a diary and a work of diary entries.”

But more than the details of Kumar’s own rigorous writing, the real pleasure of The blue book is found in the author’s reflections on the things that have affected him – the people, the places, the events, the birds, the trees, the pandemic… There is beauty in his spare sentences. And there is enlightenment in the words of the masters he invokes: “All you have to do is write a true sentence,” Hemingway said in A moving party. “Write the truest sentence you know.”

Perhaps keeping a journal can bring you closer to that goal.

The Blue Book: A Writer’s Diary; Amitava Kumar, HarperCollins, ₹699.

The critic is a journalist and author.