The Man Without a Nation

Immigrant, Montana: A novel BY Amitava Kumar. Knopf. Hardcover, 320 pages. $25.
The cover of Immigrant, Montana: A novel

The one activity that was perhaps the most stable part of my identity that first semester was the seminar I was taking with Ehsaan Ali. His class Colonial Encounters was held on Friday afternoons. The seminar participants required his special permission to join. I had heard that he brought red wine each week to his classes and you sat around discussing the day’s readings while sipping wine from small plastic cups. When the semester began, I went to Ehsaan’s office in Philosophy Hall to get his signature. Third floor, after the set of dual radiators, next to the notice board covered with announcements. The door was open and I saw that he was on the phone. With his right hand, he pointed to a chair. The tenor of the exchange suggested that he was being interviewed. Then it became clear that the interview was about the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

—Well, Bush has said that a line has been drawn in the sand. He claims that he has no dispute with the Iraqi people. His war is going to be against Saddam. Do you believe the ordinary Iraqi, suffering in her home or in a hospital, is going to think our president is being honest? No, let me explain . . .

While he was speaking on the phone, he was looking directly at me, and I found myself nodding. The window was open behind him and on the wall to his right was a framed poster for The Battle of Algiers. I had watched the film, when I was in my teens, in Pragati Maidan in Delhi. The poster’s background showed grainy black-and-white warren-like homes in the qasba, and leaning into the frame from the sides were the Algerian Ali La Pointe on the left, and on the right, the French military colonel Mathieu.

The film’s director, Gillo Pontecorvo, had sought out Ehsaan when making the film. Pontecorvo had arrived in Algeria with his screenplay but accidentally left it on the top of a car.

Parts of the screenplay soon appeared in a right-wing paper. So Pontecorvo recast the story, basing it on interviews with revolutionaries: a fiction written under the dictatorship of facts. Ehsaan was in Algeria then and became one of his advisers. Except that the student who told me all this, a thin, saturnine man from Gujarat, was not a credible source. He would even have put Ehsaan in the film as the main actor, a man from a scrappy background emerging, not without charisma but mainly due to the pressure of history, into the forefront of a glorious struggle. Truth be told, I wasn’t too far from holding the same view myself.

Ehsaan was a man born in a village not too far from mine. He migrated to Pakistan during the bloody Partition, and later came to America on a scholarship. Awarded a doctorate at Princeton, he toured the globe and made friends with Third World leaders, especially in Africa. He had been tried for having conspired in a plot to kidnap Kissinger! How could I not look up to him? He was our hero—and thus, all heroic. He had crossed boundaries. He was a man who was without a nation, and a friend to the oppressed peoples of the world.(1) When Ehsaan died, in 1999, after a battle with cancer, Kofi Annan would pay tribute at his funeral. But all this was still in the future. Even the immediate deaths in Iraq were far away. Two days after the cease-fire went into effect, planes from the USS Ranger bombed and strafed thousands of Iraqi fighters fleeing in their vehicles. That road came to be called the Highway of Death. How did the men die? I would know the answer when a photograph was published many months later, showing an Iraqi soldier burned alive while reaching out of his truck. But on the day that I met Ehsaan for the first time, this massacre had not yet taken place. The Iraqi soldier was still sitting on a chair outside the barracks listening to music or to the excited report of horses galloping around the old racetrack in Baghdad.

—You can do the math, yes? Clearly, some kids can die to make us feel safer. And the tragedy is doubled because we are not going to be safe . . . Listen, I have a student waiting to see me. I have to go. But if you have any questions about what I have said, call me back. I’ll be here till four.

Without saying anything, Ehsaan reached out and took the yellow form that I was holding in my hand. He quickly signed it and then leaned back in his chair.

—Where were you born?


—That is obvious. Where in India? My guess is Uttar Pradesh.

—Next door, sir, in Bihar.

—A fellow Bihari. I was born near Bodh Gaya.

He was grinning when he said this. I smiled too but I didn’t want to tell Ehsaan that I already knew a lot about him. There was a reason for my silence. I had read in an interview that as a boy Ehsaan had witnessed his father’s murder. This was several years before Ehsaan left for Pakistan, traveling alone in a column of refugees. He was only five and lying in bed next to his father when his father’s cousin and his sons came in with knives. Ehsaan’s father knew they were going to kill him, but he covered the child’s body with his own. I didn’t want to acknowledge my awareness of the sadness in Ehsaan’s past. I didn’t know then that, as the weeks turned into months, and then into years, the details of Ehsaan’s life would become a part of my life and the life of a woman I loved.

(1)I wanted to title this book The Man Without a Nation. I applied for a grant but failed: that made me regard the title with suspicion. But the title was inappropriate for a novel. It seemed more suited to a nonfiction study about a kind of discrepant consmopolitanism that develops as an antidote to sectarian conflicts and murderous nationalism. For a brief while I thought the book would be called The History of Pleasure. I had picked up the phrase in a Philip Roth novel where the narrator had this to say about himself: But I was a fearless sort of boy back in my early twenties. More daring than most, especially for that woebegone era in the history of pleasure. I actually did what the jerk-off artists dreamed about. Back when I started out on my own in the world, I was, if I may say so, something of a sexual prodigy. Sexual prodigy? Your Honor, a hunger artist, more likely. The proposed title overwhelmed me with its ironies, and so it too was abandoned.

Excerpted from Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar. Copyright 2018 by Amitava Kumar. Published in July by Knopf. All rights reserved.