The persistence of humans: A talk with author Amit Majmudar
Speaking with author Amit Majmudar, I realize how new the world has become. The writer/radiologist from Columbus, Ohio, sounds as young as the guys in the bars in the East Village where I live. (He is 33.) But I emphasize new, not young. The world becomes new when defined in new ways instead of by old interpretations.
Our long phone conversation was to talk about his new novel, The Abundance, about an Indian-American mother of two grown children in Cleveland dying of cancer. A novel in the American tradition of second-generation reinvention played off against first-generation ties to country and culture of origin.
I asked Majmudar — New York-born like myself (his parents are from Gujarat) — about the hyphenated ledge he is made to occupy as a writer. “I feel more Hindu than Indian. But I don’t limit my pantheon solely to the Hindu pantheon. I actually seek out the Gods of other religious traditions, and I think within those other religious traditions, and create my art within those traditions as well.
“The first section of my book of poetry, Zero Degrees, Zero Degrees, consists of Biblically-based poems. I have written an extended prose poem/novella, Azazil, for The Kenyon Review based on a Sufi-Islamic retelling of the Fall. I have also written a lot of Hindu mythological work. Among them, the retelling of the Ramayana in poetry and prose.”
Talking to Majmudar, I feel the ground of my mind moving with his. In my life, I have moved from Judaism to Hinduism non-dualism to Buddhist non-dualism, but without first being able to touch Judaism as a living spiritual organism. Not having it as a point of transition is a little like planting a new garden without seeds. A problem, I think, common to many of us on the spiritual path.
I was struck by the author’s strange relationship to place. “My nationality is American,” he said. “My passport has always been blue.” But despite The Abundance being set in Cleveland, there is little of topographical Cleveland in his book. The topography is that of a family juggling cultures — an uneasy mixture of Indian and American — in the face of death.
There is a certain placelessness in the place Majmudar describes. I like that. His topography is inner rather than outer. Will this be true of many of us in the future, arriving in greater and greater numbers in new places, or watching nature change our old ones? As a New Yorker, after Sandy, the place I call home is a different place. We just try to pretend it’s the same.
What about Hinduism, his spiritual home? I asked. Will it survive the global pressures on traditional cultures: the internet, the drift from country to city, from country to country? Majmudar just laughed. I could see his face crinkle, as if we were sitting across from each other at a table. “True, the internet brings everyone into a common sort of mix, but most people go to places that speak to what they already are. Muslims go to Muslim websites, Hindus go to Hindu websites. The internet winds up mirroring the world.”
“But it winds up changing the world at the same time.”
“One of the names for Hinduism itself is Sanatana Dharma [the “eternal dharma”]. It changes form, it changes appearance, it changes how it speaks about itself, but it persists.”
Human persistence, I thought. In all that gets written about contemporary life, so little attention is paid to how we, as humans, persist.