Shiv K Kumar’s room at New Delhi’s India International Centre resembles that of a travelling salesman. A briefcase on the bed contains his recent books, an open travel bag on the floor, his clothes. As we walk in, he waves away my mumbled apologies about Delhi’s Diwali traffic, sits me down next to him, grabs my arm and begins talking. “I’m sure you have questions, but let me first tell you my bio-data. There is nothing much, but very briefly in two minutes… I have received several honours, both Indian and international. I was given the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1987, and then the Padma Bhushan in 2001. But above all this, something people don’t understand in India, I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1978. This society was established in 1820 and the first two Fellows were Coleridge and Wordsworth. So, you are in good company. Vikram Seth is a Fellow, so is Anita Desai, but you know that they have run away from India, and I am the third one.”
Like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, he goes on. “I have written about 38 books. If you like, I will send you an email containing a list of publications. I have done six novels, 14 collections of poems, two collections of short stories, and I have translated Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I have held academic positions, which I hated and considered a waste of my time. I was head of the Department of English at Osmania University. Then I joined the University of Hyderabad as its first head, then its first dean, then as vice-chancellor. That demolished me. I am allergic to administration. I was lucky to get an offer from the USA, a country I’ve visited about 14 times as Visiting Professor. They invited me as Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of Oklahoma. I packed up and ran away. The Ministry of Education was after my blood. They said, ‘You are to give us six months’ notice.’ I said, ‘You withhold my salary, take any action you like, but I’m leaving.’” It’s some 20 minutes before I get in my first question. But something about his manner has me listening like a three-year-old child. Prof Kumar hath his will.
At 92, Kumar’s longwindedness cannot be attributed to mere pomposity. He resembles, more than anything, a man coming to terms with his own mortality. When he stops working, he firmly believes, he will simply fade away. It was when his eyesight dimmed two years ago, he says in the course of his monologue, that he was first faced with the horror of never writing another word. His solution was to hire two “computer operators” he could dictate to, with whom he works six hours a day as he embarks on a mission to write as much as he can, while he can. Random House has signed him, he says, to a deal that gives them right to first refusal on anything he writes until he dies. Such as Conversations with Celebrities, the working title of his next project about the various literary giants he interacted with, a list that includes Bertrand Russell, TS Eliot, Thomas Mann, EM Forster, Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges and Faiz. Already, the partnership has meant four books: reprints of two novels, Train to Delhi and Nude Before God, his Faiz translation, and his latest, a bildungsroman about the Buddha called Rough Passage to the Bodhi Tree.
Buddha’s extraordinary story of renunciation fascinated him. “I said, ‘Shiv Kumar, here is a character ready for you. Take him, thou shalt never see the likes of him again!’ And so, I began to read biographies, but I was not interested in a chronicle. I have recreated him.” ‘Recreate’ is perhaps a strong word; yes, Kumar humanises the Buddha (somewhat) in this telling of an oft-repeated tale, but in talking about what the Buddha believed in, about his doubts, he re-treads old ground. While the Dalai Lama might find it a “source of peace and inspiration”, lay readers might find themselves put off by the constant philosophising.
“When I’m gone, let my teaching alone be my successor,” said the Buddha. Shiv Kumar’s true legacy, perhaps, is still waiting to be dictated.