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  Books   09 Mar 2024  Book review | A writer’s diary is a repository of ideas

Book review | A writer’s diary is a repository of ideas

Published : Mar 9, 2024, 8:49 pm IST
Updated : Mar 9, 2024, 8:49 pm IST

One thread that runs through Kumar’s Yellow Book is the pandemic

Cover image of The Yellow Book: A Traveller’s Diary
 Cover image of The Yellow Book: A Traveller’s Diary

A diary is perhaps the most self-indulgent literary device. It is a way for a creative person to express those thoughts and ideas which are not yet fully matured. They maybe kernels or wild whimsies. They may be philosophical gems and yet marvels in mediocrity. They allow the creative mind licence before the tedium of the craft reins you to the process.

I make a distinction here between the diary as a record of daily events by the rest of us. Or at least the diary as it used to be before it was replaced by blogs and reels on social media platforms.

Or is there a distinction at all? The Diary of Anne Frank is a journal by an extraordinary young girl living in terrible times. It provides an invaluable record of life under fascist tyranny. Whether the writer meant for it to become a literary and historical sensation we will never know.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys is often held up as the template of the perfect diary. It provides insight into his times — he wrote for 10 years from 1660 to 1667. The Diary is not just important for historical reasons — local and international politics, the great plague, the great fire of London, upper middle class British society — but also for the intimate personal details he provided. Pepys died in 1703. The Diary was published in 1825. Did Pepys want it published? He wrote part in his own shorthand, so maybe no. But his library contained a key to the shorthand, so maybe yes.

Amitava Kumar’s Yellow Book takes a far more whimsical approach. We set out on a meander. We meet thoughts, ideas, drawings, poems — all snippets stored; perhaps for future use, perhaps just for the thrill of the moment. You wander around, but you also do some serious travelling. You could be in Poughkeepsie or London’s Hampstead Heath. You could be within yourself or meeting important people.

One thread that runs through Kumar’s Yellow Book is the pandemic. This is especially significant because just over two years after the worst of it, we sometimes pretend like the worst of it did not happen. His concerns about his parents, his immediate family, about the situation in India all stand out.

You learn that the writer learnt how to draw and paint. The diary is awash with watercolours, changing in texture and tone as he progresses. Nature is the main subject and later, scenes from a street if you will.

There are other threads — the conversations with his publisher, the anxiety of being a creator who has to face rejection, the joy when you are accepted, his classes and his students, family matters, the politics that so divides India, childhood memories and change.

You could very easily read The Yellow Book my preferred way — which is cover to cover. Or you could dip into it as you wish. It works both ways. You may not want a story, or a journey really, but you may want to be enriched by pieces of writing, of insights into art or poetry, anecdotes, meetings with famous writers, of paintings and word pictures. They exist in themselves, and do not always need context.

For that, Kumar returns again and again to the writer’s eye, mind and constant search. It is context enough.


The Yellow Book: A Traveller’s Diary

By Amitava Kumar


pp. 183, Rs 699


Tags: book review 2024