Amit Chaudhuri. Photo: Devdan Chaudhuri
Amit Chaudhuri is one of the most eminent writers of our times whose most recent novel is Odysseus Abroad. Among the many prizes he has won are Commonwealth Literature Prize, the Betty Trask Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Infosys Prize and the Sahitya Akademi Award. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia (UEA), he is also an acclaimed musician and Hindustani classical singer.
Ever since my debut novel was published, I have been asked many times whether I am his relative. We both live in Calcutta, have the same surname and he has given a quote that is on the cover of my novel. But the answer is no. I first met him in person during a prize ceremony where my unpublished manuscript was nominated. He made me aware of the very first UEA Writers’ Workshop that was to happen in Calcutta and advised me to attend it. I took his advice, applied and attended the eight-day workshop where our tutors were Amit Chaudhuri and Romesh Gunesekera. This is how I got to know him.
Amit Chaudhuri lives in a South Calcutta neighbourhood with his wife Rosinka Chaudhuri — an academic and a scholar, their teenage daughter and his aged mother. His eighth floor apartment — decorated with art, artefacts, photographs and various curios — exudes a cultured and artistic milieu. A stone Ganesha statue sits within potted plants, paintings by Souza and Bikash Bhattacharjee hang on the walls, framed photographs line the side-cabinet and the furniture is all handmade in wood.
When I arrive at his apartment, we head outdoors to take his photographs. My idea was to click his photos with a couple of old buildings of South Calcutta's modernity. He has recently launched a well-publicised campaign to save the distinctive buildings of Calcutta's modernity, which are vanishing at an astonishing speed. However, during the time it took us to reach my car and return back to his apartment — it suddenly rained very heavily. But the moment we were back in his living room, the rain stopped and patches of blue appeared in the sky. He remarked that it happens to him a lot these days: whenever he goes out, it starts to rain. So we smile, leave the outdoor shoot to another day, settle in on the sofa and begin the interview.
DEVDAN CHAUDHURI: In the very first paragraph of your recent novel Odysseus Abroad, we find this sentence “he pounded the pillow and the sheet to ensure he’d dislodged strands of hair as well as the micro-organisms that subsisted on such surfaces but were invisible to the naked eye”.
Your oeuvre as a novelist is remarkably revealed in the sentence in a sense that you wish to lay the gaze of the readers to the aspects of the world around the characters of your novels which are seemingly invisible to the consciousness, but is ever subsisting within the fabric of reality within which the characters inhabit. Would you elaborate on this essential impulse that has led your writing to be compared with Proust, and more recently with Knausgaard, and has earned you a portrait of an artist as a memoirist?
AMIT CHAUDHURI: That’s a very well-formulated and insightful question. I have always been interested in things which may seem irrelevant. To give you an example of the irrelevant, I would like to point towards an essay by Partha Chatterjee, the political scientist, writing about, as he calls it, the “Sacred Circulation of National Images in India” — that is, I think, the title of the essay he once wrote. He talks there about the fact that if you look at the history textbooks of the first half of the 20th century, you see that the pictures of national monuments have certain details in them that one might call superfluous — like a person swimming in a tank, or a dog, or a man riding a bicycle; and these things are happening by the side of Taj Mahal or Qutub Minar or Red Fort. Then he notes that by the second half of the 20th century, the post-independence textbooks are gradually emptied of those details and all that you have are the images of the monuments. He speculates about why this happened — whether it was cheaper to produce such an image. No, he says, that’s not the reason. So he puts it down to certain national monuments acquiring a kind of religiosity, a kind of sacredness (I am now paraphrasing) which purifies the image and takes away the quotidian or random elements which don’t fit into the purity of that national image. And I have always been more interested in those quotidian elements, those accidental elements. So neither a picture of reality nor a picture of history to me is sufficient. It is always those random elements, those loose threads which are of greater consequence, for whatever reason. There is no clear reason to me why they are of greater concern. Therefore I am also drawn to those artists who deal with these loose ends. Like Arun Kolatkar, for instance, going to the pilgrimage town Jejuri, where he writes about the town precisely because it is defunct pilgrimage town, and more than its temples it comprises random details and activities and people that no longer fit with their original function. How does that randomness fit into an idea of sacredness? That is, the sort of “sacredness” that Partha Chatterjee is talking about, which reflects an ideal, or presents us with an iconic image. That is the question that Kolatkar’s book Jejuri poses.
So I have always been interested in the significance given to those random elements and things, which don’t fit into a history composed of significant moments. I would therefore say, as I have said in my essay about Arun Kolatkar, I am more interested in junk than I am interested in history. And like Kolatkar, for whom I believe history is junk (that is, unusable or useless), and junk (that is, derelict things) is history, I also often see history as junk, and junk as somehow being historical. This might be related even to my campaign to do with buildings in Calcutta, and which has less to do with landmarks, “heritage” and monuments. I have been trying to draw people away from the term “heritage” although it’s a default term and people will persist in using it. I have been trying to draw people to the streets, the neighbourhoods and the architectural multifariousness of middle-class houses that don’t qualify as landmarks or monuments. Because much of truest imprint of past cultural and historical efflorescences will lie in what we think of as everyday objects and spaces.
Interestingly, the essay I mentioned by Partha Chatterjee, on the role of the quotidian, is not the norm either in Indian academic writing or even in his own writing: it’s an aberration. What that fact tells us is that the Indians who have been theorising or thinking in the last fifty years haven’t thought too much about the role of the superfluous. Where I’m concerned, my relationship to the superfluous is, for me, life-giving and stimulating. So this is why, even in Odysseus Abroad, not only do you have a series of inconsequential events described during the day, you have those inconsequential events arranged in such a way that they have their counterparts in mythology, and also in the canonical texts such as Joyce’s Ulysses. You have those echoes occurring through the text, so that the irrelevant is also organised in a significant way on another level. And yet that other level is invisible, to use the word that you just did. So that other level is not easily accessible, but it’s always there. People need to be alert to that other level. However, I am not going to — I can't — give that other level on a platter to the reader. So the tension between what you see and what you don’t is always a powerful tension, as far as I am concerned.
DEVDAN CHAUDHURI: Finding associations or patterns between seemingly unrelated things is one of the prime aspects of creativity. How did Odysseus Abroad germinate within you? The novel is a new approach in comparison to your earlier novels, in regard to associations, and the way you have set off Ananda on a journey within a single day, where the past and the present are woven together, updating Ulysses with brevity in 239 pages, and also making a comment about a world bereft of any heroic adventures in Homeric sense.
And also, an insight about your process of writing, re-writing, till the moment you feel that a novel is done, from germination to the final draft.
AMIT CHAUDHURI: I have spoken earlier about what led to the germination of the idea that eventually led to Odysseus Abroad. I will describe it again. (He points to the painting on the wall). Here is the charcoal sketch done by F.N. Souza which I purchased I think in 2001 and hung it up over here. I bought it for fifty five thousand rupees — a dirt cheap sum for something like this by Souza, whom I greatly admire. I also think it’s the first artwork I’ve ever bought. Souza was alive then, but he would die the same year or the next year. My uncle on whom the uncle in Odysseus Abroad is based — though I would be wary of formulating it like that; anyway I have said it to simplify things — finally visited India and Calcutta after twenty five or even thirty years in 1991 to attend my wedding. When I got to know him better in London, as a student, he always said he felt no homesickness and had no intention of going back to India.
But when he came here after being persuaded by me to attend my wedding, he no longer wanted to go back to England. He actually loved being here; he loved the streets, the people and the relatives. He lived here with relatives, mainly with a younger brother. He owned no house here (or in London), yet he had a quite a bit of money; it’s just the sort of person he was. Ten years had passed since he’d arrived in Calcutta when I bought this drawing. He visited me and said, “Let’s take a look at the painting I hear that you bought for fifty five thousand rupees”: that to him was a large sum for a mere painting. He liked to show that he didn’t care about art, but he cared about it a bit too much, but sometimes cultivated the persona of a philistine. So he came here and stood before the painting and said you might as well have paid me fifty five thousand rupees just for farting! As is case with the book, the scatological references, the constant asides on digestion and bodily functions, were always there as part of his conversation, sitting oddly besides his references to Tagore. So it was a strange combination of things. I said to him, “This is a great painter, don‘t you see how wonderful this drawing is?” and he said, I grant you that sometimes what a genius produces and what an idiot produces looks exactly the same. I replied, “This figure does look a bit like you.” And the reason it looked like him was because Souza had done a self-portrait and Souza looked a bit like my uncle. Anyway, he went off, and I kept thinking about the fact that the portrait looks like him, and I also thought about the fact that Souza had named the picture “Ulysses”.
So I began to think — could my uncle be Ulysses, could my uncle be Odysseus? He in fact was a figure like Odysseus, a man who’d wandered far from home and taken decades to return, so I began to think of him as Odysseus, and, recalling my journeys to Belsize Park and ending up in that kitchenette, pouring a glass of water for myself, began to think myself as Telemachus, who set out to look for his father. That’s when I began to wonder if I could write a story in which I played Telemachus and he Odysseus. The art of Souza was the catalyst and then I toyed around with the idea for ten years. The conversation with my uncle would have happened in 2001/2002 and I started writing the book in 2012 and finished it in 2014, the year it was published in India. (It was published in the UK and US this year.) I thought for a decade about casting him as Odysseus and then I took the plunge. First I began to write it as a memoir, which didn’t quite work. Then I began to think of organising it as a story where the young man is playing Telemachus, the uncle playing Odysseus — a story set in London over a single day like Joyce had set his story in Dublin over a single day. So Joyce gave me the cue how to do that, and in that sense this novel would be an updating of both Homer’s protagonist and of Joyce’s Bloom, re-written in Bengali terms. As I was looking for correspondences, one of the first things that I thought of was the noisy neighbours I had at Warren Street when I was student in London in the early eighties, and who made my life so miserable. I thought these people could plausibly be the suitors in Ithaca who had made Penelope and Telemachus‘s life miserable. As the noisy Warren Street neighbours became the suitors, the other correspondences fell into place from my memory.
So remembering the myth of Odysseus, remembering Homer, also helped me to remember my past in London. The myth became a code for remembering my own past in London. It was as if it had all been there, waiting to be reclaimed — the correspondences with The Odyssey; already there without my realising it. And also the correspondences with Joyce — all the stuff to do with bodily functions, digestion, the insides of the body, shitting — all of that — eating, in Joyce’s case eating kidneys, and in my uncle’s case it was consuming liver. And then in Joyce’s case the preoccupation with another kind of journey — metempsychosis — the journey of the soul, transmigration of the soul, and similarly the uncle’s preoccupation with the afterlife, with ghosts. These were all there; all the coordinates were already present. I had to discover the coordinates to see how much of The Odyssey and of Ulysses were already there in my memory of that time.
Amit Chaudhuri at his Calcutta residence. Photo: Devdan Chaudhuri
DEVDAN CHAUDHURI: It is just like what Jan Skácel wrote, that “the poem is somewhere behind, it’s been there for a long time, the poet merely discovers it.”
AMIT CHAUDHURI: Yes, it was like that. I discovered it; I didn’t have to invent it. Thinking about the two books became a way of remembering that time. The first convergence was to do with the drawing, and then the other convergences fell into place. The whole business of convergence is a strange thing; for me convergences have happened before, it happens in all your books. Even to find two dissimilar things suddenly become similar through the simile or the metaphor is something that always preoccupied me from my first book, A Strange and Sublime Address, which is full of metaphor and simile. But they shape my music project too, finding commonalities between Raag Todi and the riff to Clapton’s Layla — one of those accidental moments when different things seem the same. Those convergences have happened a lot in my creative life, either through remembering or listening or doing two things at once, as with singing Raag Todi one day and hearing Clapton’s Layla in those notes: that is to listen and to remember simultaneously.
This whole business of noticing similarities which seem coincidental is something that creative people and mad people are susceptible to, I’ve been told. Let’s say you are thinking about something and then thinking hard about it. You might be in a state of distress, while you are thinking about it, and the next moment you see a sign in which you see that word. It has happened to me a lot of times. And somebody I know, who is an extremely creative writer, a Canadian woman, who has also suffered from psychotic episodes, told me that both people who are on this verge of madness — because of whatever condition they have — and creative people are vulnerable to noticing coincidences.
I remember coincidences in my life that don’t mean anything, don’t add up to anything, but have this ominous kind of import. I remember I had to have a major operation when I was in Cambridge — I was teaching there — and I had to have heart surgery. The surgery would happen in Papworth which is a nursing home totally devoted to heart surgery and cardiology. I was going to go there in a week to be operated upon. It was a horrible day. My parents were there; my wife and I were walking in the rain and both of us, I think, were thinking about Papworth. Suddenly a taxi was passing by and it stopped. And a person leaned out. By the way, people rarely ask you for directions in the UK — they use maps. But this person asked, “Can you tell us the way to Papworth?” That kind of thing happens now and again, seemingly adding up to nothing. On another level, one has creative convergences.
DEVDAN CHAUDHURI: And also, a bit about your process of writing and re-writing. Do you rewrite a lot? What is the process you follow?
AMIT CHAUDHURI: I mostly write in long hand. When I write a novel, I write in long hand. Let’s say I write a paragraph. I generally don’t write the next paragraph before I have thoroughly looked at the paragraph I’ve just written. I cannot proceed until it works for me as a piece of writing. It would rarely work for me as a piece of writing in the incarnation in which it has been put down. I will have to usually scratch out words, take out sentences etc. Maybe add things, but often take things out for it to begin to make sense.
Once I have written, let’s say, a series of paragraphs or a page and a half of a chapter, I will go back to the beginning and look at it once again to see what it seems like now, and then I will work on it again. There will always be two words or three words in each paragraph or maybe a word in each sentence that I don’t like anymore, which is not doing the work it was supposed to do. Then gradually I will put the book together. I am not talking about facing other kinds of structural problems for the moment. I’ll finally type it into a computer. As I type it out, I get a sense of it in print, and I will then have another view of it, about which words are working, which words aren’t, which sentences are working. Then I’ll perform another act of revision.
DEVDAN CHAUDHURI: Is it important for you to get the first line right? Often novelists say that the first line is of prime importance, because everything else follows from that.
AMIT CHAUDHURI: It’s true to a certain extent. But I think too much is made of first sentences nowadays. I think it’s because the first sentence has become part of creative writing teachers’ ten pointers towards writing a successful novel. People are heavily dependent upon formulae which can be taught in creative writing classes these days. Nobody ever wrote a great first sentence thinking, “I must write a great first sentence”. Besides, every sentence is a first sentence to me.
DEVDAN CHAUDHURI: Do you show your work-in-progress to anyone and take feedback? Do you respond to suggestions which others offer?
AMIT CHAUDHURI: I try not to show work-in-progress to anybody, unless there is some pressing reason to. Sometimes, if I am feeling low about a piece of work, and I am at a stage when I don’t know whether I am doing the right thing, I speak to my wife about it. I take her views seriously, but the final call about what I do is mine, it’s my decision. In the end I don’t care about what others have to say. This is what I say to my creative writing students, it doesn’t matter what others are saying; you will have to decide whether you are happy with the work or not. If you are not happy with it, no amount of praise will make you happy with it. But I will discuss what I am doing with my wife. That might clarify what I am doing — by simply talking about it. Because one would have several impulses when one embarks on a piece of writing. It’s not only one impulse; especially in my work, where it is working in my head in various ways. It is not about getting a plot onto a page. So in my head it is working on various levels; I am trying to do a juggling act. And I am concerned whether I am able to hold all the elements together.
Sometimes I lose sight of some of the elements, and the narrative threatens to become one kind of a story, rather than a story with various kinds of ramifications. So then just to talk about what I am doing is going to help in clarifying what I am doing. Switching off completely also helps. Take a gap, take some time off it. Every evening I do something — this advice is directed to my self — that has nothing to do with writing. Like watching HBO; nowadays there is much more than HBO: usually watching something that doesn’t require mental energy. Even then of course you are thinking about writing; there are no writers who are trying to make a certain path for themselves who are not also thinking, in some sense all the time, even when they’ve switched off, about writing in the way they are, and why they are on this particular path. Often, it would be nicer to be on a pre-made path, a pre-fabricated path — it would be easier to go down there. Just in case you are not, then you are always at some level thinking about what you are doing, whether you went down the right path or not. So on some level, you have to make a special effort to consciously switch off as well.
DEVDAN CHAUDHURI: Do such doubts come to you even after writing so many novels? Haven’t things become easier?
AMIT CHAUDHURI: It hasn’t been easier. But what’s become easier is to understand what one was up to. Why I do various things? Why I wrote novels in a particular way? Why I wrote the essay? What are the discrete or separate selves which engage in these activities? Why am I even the kind of person I am? What is it in me that suddenly draws me to do something about the Calcutta houses? What is the thread that runs through these things, without wishing to homogenise these various personalities? Now it becomes a little easier given the multiplicity and the amount of stuff I have done. To understand what I have been up to makes a little kind of more sense at least where I’m concerned. But you are always trying to create that space for yourself, create that audience for yourself.
DEVDAN CHAUDHURI: Kundera, in his coruscating The Art of the Novel, pointed out, “All novels, of every age, are concerned with the enigma of the self... How can the self be grasped? It is one of those fundamental questions on which the novel, as a novel, is based.”
All your novels, in my view — to go beyond the “memoirist” interpretation — are also an attempt to grasp the self. But a self that doesn’t need great conflicts — either external or internal — to grasp itself. Neither does it need special circumstances to reveal itself in what Sartre called the “theatre of situations” — exemplified by Kafka. In your novels, the self is grasped through family, through habits, through subtle reactions, through mundane rhythms of life, through objects. Does this unique method of grasping the self with the most ordinary —that I am hoping to be the first one to point out — an unconscious impulse or a deliberate novelistic innovation?
AMIT CHAUDHURI: I really don’t know. I also don’t know what grasping the self means.
Amit Chaudhuri at his Calcutta residence. Photo: Devdan Chaudhuri
DEVDAN CHAUDHURI: Grasping the self means understanding the self of a character; a sudden revelation, an insight of the self in certain situations of life and existence. What a character realises about himself or herself, or how the author deals with a character in a situation or a scene, that makes the readers understand the self of the character, its condition, its enigmas. Also the usage of different tools and methods to show or grasp the self.
AMIT CHAUDHURI: I haven’t thought much about this. But let me answer in two stages. There’s something that I have been more conscious about, been aware of, only in the last few years. One thing I am interested in is writing itself. And I am interested in exploring anything, however slight it might be, and see whether it can be written about, and made to, in some way, seem compelling. I am interested in the feeling that anything can be turned into a piece of writing, or a piece of cinema or a picture. I am interested that a director like Ozu often made films about nothing, about very little. And he managed to show us that such films could be made. I am interested that Kiarostami — the Iranian filmmaker — often began his best films on very flimsy premises. And seems to be aware that he is going to test the role of filmmaking and the capacities of the filmmaker to see whether the filmmaker can turn something that may seem to be insignificant and unpromising into a film. Similarly, readers or people who partake of culture, and who give value to things, also give value and significance to certain things which are, by themselves, boring. The boring might suddenly become engrossing. This might happen to you and me if we sit down and begin to look at CCTV camera footage. The footage as viewed by security personnel will have a particular kind of interest — either interesting or for the most part boring, because the things they are looking for are not happening there; boring, and therefore, not to be worried about. But, if you and I have an access to the same footage, we might find it increasingly fascinating, and continue looking at it for about twenty minutes, after which our attention might begin to wander.
It’s also to do with testing our attention — how can I continue to attend to something and transform it, and find hidden connections and meanings within what we see. That too is the question — how far can we test the attention? So you and I if we sit together, we might have different thresholds in terms of how long can we watch CCTV camera footage, and how long can we continue to find it interesting. Maybe during the first three minutes we may both find the footage completely boring and meaningless. After the third, fourth or fifth minute, suddenly convergences and patterns will begin to emerge.
Connections between the people we are seeing in the footage and connections with our own lives, which are not sort of obvious personal connections, as you might have, let’s say, upon watching a film about a young boy whose parents got separated — or whatever the context is. That’s a personal connection. But in the CCTV footage you are not looking for those personal connections, but other meanings will emerge which you will create, other patterns which connect your life to that life, and those lives to that space and to each other. And slowly that piece of footage is going to become fascinating and you are going to keep watching it, until, at a certain point, you will again reach a point you were in the first and second minutes, when it becomes boring and you cannot watch any more. That’s the kind of thing I am preoccupied with. What can we do with something like that? And how long can we test our attention? How long will the attention continue to give meaning of a certain kind to what is being presented to us? Those are the thresholds I am looking at. That’s one thing.
The other thing to do with the self is that I remember one of the things which I wanted to do is to escape the self. I will use the word “self” and the term “escaping the self” with wariness because I know that these are slippery terms. The “self” itself is a slippery term — different people might mean different things by it. Over here I mean it in the sense I used it as a teenager, and my teenager’s sense of what the self was especially in the way it emerged out of books and the intellectual ethos of the time (the late seventies). I was a precocious teenager, so by the age of sixteen I had become aware of Sartre, Beckett and Camus; in film, one was aware of Bergman. It was the late seventies; all the artistic, aesthetic and intellectual buzzwords had to do with a particular metaphysics of the self and giving centrality to the self and its journey. So the two terms which were in circulation then were “existentialist” and “absurd”. There was the drama of the absurd by Ionesco and Beckett was appropriated into this discourse. Existentialism was vulgarised and used in lay discourse in a lot of things; it became popular, and even Hindi film stars referred to “existentialism”. And both these words emphasised the protagonist and the self, and the self’s journey. And it made you read things and look at things in a way which filtered out everything that was not to do with the self.
So when you looked at Bergman, you saw cinema about the dark recesses of the self, and when you read Kafka it seems like an allegory for the journey of the self. This is my seventeen year old self I am talking about. When you read Sartre and Camus, it seemed they were talking about this solitary journey. It’s only later one discovered the Camus in the posthumously published The First Man, where he talks about always being homesick for Algeria and of loving sunlight. That’s a detail that takes us out of the self into the world, and why we are here in the world and what are we doing here in the world. As Jibanananda Das said: there was no point in coming back time and time again to this world except for the fact there are a few things that make the return worthwhile, such as the texture of dew in a Bengali dawn or the taste of tangerine. Otherwise, he said, there was no point coming back. Here you set aside the awfulness of the personal journey, and the reason is this: that you become the texture of dew; you become the tangerine. As Das becomes the tangerine; he said in a short poem that he’d like to be — in a future life — a tangerine by the side of the death bed of a loved one; something like that. The poem’s name is “Kamala Lebu” (Tangerine). And similarly the Camus who stops talking about the absurd and speaks about the fact that through all his years in Paris, he was homesick for Algiers and that he always loved the sun. I too always loved the sun, I love light and I love the sounds of the streets. That’s what I mean by the escape from this inner journey of the self. I always wanted to get out of that. To me there was no point itself in the inner journey and I had to search outside of it to find whatever it was that made life seem worthwhile. Those things outside of me only happened randomly and at certain moments. That was like Jibanananda understanding the importance of that tangerine and the texture of dew in the morning in a Bengal winter, or Camus’s love of sunlight in Algeria. Only that made it seem that the onerous journey had some point. But again, those moments were only random moments. And that again takes us back to the random, to the irrelevant, as something that opens things out for us beyond this personal journey.
DEVDAN CHAUDHURI: For authors, it is often the case that one particular novel or a short story had set off the author to dream of becoming one. Was there any one singular book in your case? Do elaborate on your literary influences? Whether Bengali literature or World Cinema also plays a subliminal role? And how have your novels, in your view, journeyed from A Strange and Sublime Address to Odysseus Abroad?
Keeping in mind the truism that most authors ultimately realise — one is always writing variations of one single novel with its array of archetypal elements — a distinct fingerprint.
AMIT CHAUDHURI: People — this is something Naipaul said — who become enamoured of being a writer go through an apprentice period long before they have anything to write about; they’re besotted with the idea of being a writer. Beginning with my childhood, I would be besotted with different writers and writing styles in different weeks of the month. And I would try to write like them. I wouldn’t think of becoming them as much as I would think I was them! Certain sonorous writers, like Kahlil Gibran, Walt Whitman and the Tagore of the English Gitanjali, especially led to exercises in mimicry. It all seemed the same to me. I couldn’t distinguish between Gibran and Walt Whitman and the Tagore of the English Gitanjali. I wanted to write long lines which necessarily didn’t mean very much, but sounded nice, and had a high-flown air about them. There is something very seductive about that kind of language as well. Then, later, by the time I was sixteen or seventeen, I wanted to be agonised. Those were the teenage angst years of sexual malaise and sexual guilt. I don’t know whether that sexual guilt is less for teenagers today. But the seventies for me were about sexual guilt and also unsureness about my sexuality at a certain point of time.
This explained, partly, my interest in Baudelaire and T. S. Eliot — who himself was unsure of his sexuality but was no longer a teenager when he wrote The Wasteland. I wasn’t aware that this was running through his work but must have picked it up on it. All of that fed into my own sense of agony, malaise and the uncertainty of being an adolescent. All the trappings of my life were wonderful yet I was completely out of sorts. The only place I was happy was in the home and in the family. But in school I was terribly unhappy. I hated school.
I went to Elphinstone College at the junior level, and then dropped in a year and did my A levels, which was very unusual in India those days; I stopped attending college and lost touch with friends; I grew quite solitary. At that time I was seventeen years old. I began to do a lot of riyaaz in Hindustani classical music. I grew more and more isolated. So the only place where I did have a stable life was within the family, at home. I had chosen to even give up my school friends.
From seventeen till I was twenty five, when I went to Oxford, I had very few friends. My parents became my friends; I grew close to my mother. I was always impatient with my mother when I was growing up. She had been impatient with me; she’s a very short-tempered woman. But suddenly when I was seventeen, I discovered we had things in common and we could talk to each other as friends. My music teachers became my close friends too; especially Hazarilalji, whom I portrayed in fiction (in both Afternoon Raag and The Immortals). So, my friends were far older than me and often had no connection with me in terms of background and class. I would say that was the phase between seventeen to twenty five years.
When I went to University College London to do my first degree, between the ages twenty one and twenty four, I didn’t have any friends either. I simply didn’t go to college. In my final year, I made friends with one person, an undergraduate in my year who was a short story writer of great talent. He had got cancer, so he was without one part of his leg — it had been amputated. We became friendly; we were both writers. He was more mature as a writer than I was that time. I was still in that apprentice period, besotted with other people’s writing, imitating them. One valuable relationship I had then, besides the weird kind of relationship that I had with my uncle — where we would come together every week but also disagree and quarrel all the time — was with my tutor in the final year of college, Dan Jacobson, the eminent South African novelist. I have portrayed him in Odysseus Abroad as Nestor Davidson. Otherwise I was never to be seen in college. Only when I went to Oxford did I began to make friends again and also get into these intense exploratory relationships with women. When I was at UCL, my relationship with literature was largely the relationship of an apprentice writer to literature. The book that opened my eyes was Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence. I was told by Dan Jacobson to read it in 1985. I had my finals in 1986. I was wondering what I would do later. My whole project was to make it as a writer, as a poet. That was the secret agenda behind my academic pursuit. I had to get a First in my BA in order to qualify for a scholarship that would fund graduate work, and getting a First was very hard to do. But without that I wouldn’t be able to do a PhD. My subterranean project was, of course, to become a well-known writer. I basically wanted to buy time with my PhD. I went and asked Dan Jacobson a straightforward question: “Do you think I can get a First?” He said, generously but astringently, “You’ve got a first-class sensibility but I don’t know whether you can get a First, because you haven’t read enough prose. You’ve read a huge amount of poetry. You should start reading some novels.”
One of the novels he recommended was Sons and Lovers. When I read the novel, I was astonished by the precision of the writing — a precision that Lawrence deliberately never desired to achieve again, except right towards the end when he wrote a short novel called St Mawr. Sons and Lovers was his most perfectly realised work. I was struck by its precision as well as its sensuousness. His contemporaries — especially Eliot — were busy speaking about, and bewailing, the loss of the European past. Lawrence doesn’t seem to care about this European past. He was writing about a set of people outside of London, in Nottingham, a mining town. Through his vision of an English mining town I could somehow see the outline of my uncle and his life in Calcutta. And I could see, almost for the first time, what I’d known all along but never acknowledged in my apprentice work — that the ordinary was important.
I began to question why I was pretending to be agonised in my writing. My true temperament doesn’t lie in being agonised. It lies in affirming the here and now. My tendencies are towards praise, towards joy and celebration; this is what drew me to Sons and Lovers and to Lawrence. That novel has none of the agony that animates Eliot in his relationship to the European past. Eliot is referring to Dante’s Divine Comedy all the time, using quotations from it as epigraphs, to remind us that, while we might be in London, London is also hell, and through him and Dante, located at once in England and in Western literary history and theology.
London after the First World War is, for Eliot, a translation of Dante’s hell. “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/ I had not thought death had undone so many,” he writes in The Wasteland, quoting and revising Dante so powerfully in that second line. Partly these lines imply that the places and experiences we must celebrate are over or elsewhere, and that where we are is a period of transition. Lawrence doesn’t tell us that. For him the world and the present moment are where everything that’s irreplaceable is happening. He inherits that from Nietzsche: the idea that you must love the world and your fate.
Through Nietzsche he rejects this western metaphysical consciousness, and I think that struck a chord because I’d have to reject it too: this is what I was saying to you earlier, about the rejection of the self and also the lay ideas which had to with existentialism being an important starting point for writing A Strange and Sublime Address. I think this rejection began to take place after reading Lawrence at the age of twenty three.
Lawrence says in Apocalypse — a book about a section of the Bible, called "Revelations” — which he wrote shortly before his death, that (I quote inaccurately from memory) — “Whatever the dead and the unborn might know, they cannot know the marvel of being alive in the flesh.” By saying this, Lawrence rejects what the unborn and the dead might know. He rejects metaphysics. He’s talking about the here and now. This belief even lights up Sons and Lovers — a very early book. It’s a novel that suddenly breaks out of that metaphysics. At least, that’s how I read Sons and Lovers, and not as an account of an oedipal struggle between the son and the mother. And that’s how Sons and Lovers opened my eyes to what I wanted to do; to write about the “here and now” in a very specific, maybe even polemical, way.
In Calcutta. Photo: Devdan Chaudhuri
DEVDAN CHAUDHURI: There was one more question along with the previous one, about whether Bengali literature or World Cinema also plays a subliminal role?
AMIT CHAUDHURI: Certainly; not only Bengali Literature or World Cinema, but all the modernists who were not the products of metropolitan centres, but actually came from slightly angular places, such as Joyce, who was from Dublin; Katherine Mansfield who was from New Zealand. This has a relationship to the way that Lawrence’s depiction of the Morels somehow reminded me of Calcutta. Katherine Mansfield’s New Zealand participates in the same convergence. Calcutta is the extraordinary city of modernity that I encountered while growing up and I would say that it’s thrown a light, for me, on those modernist figures who emerged from the peripheries.
Filmmakers who interested me include, of course, Satyajit Ray and his mentor Jean Renoir. But all kind of filmmakers, even people like Ritwik Ghatak, who represents a different sensibility, have been very important to me. I told you about that moment in 1985, when I was thinking, “What am I going to do if I don’t get a First, and have to go back to India?” One plan of action, if I got a 2.1 or upper second — and that would be it, as far my academic pursuits were concerned — was to join FTII and do a directors’ course. That was plan B. I was always drawn to the visual in cinema. But cinema’s other elements I have also been drawn to as well, like sound. I am deeply drawn to just background noise. These are elements I admire in the work of the directors I have just mentioned. If I tell you what means most to me in Ray and Renoir, I’d say the images, but equally the sounds which they capture; sounds which convey to us that something is always happening somewhere else; the constant impact of the invisible upon us. Again, to go back to the word you used, “invisible” — the impact of the invisible. Sounds involve the impact of what we cannot see, of something that’s happening elsewhere, which is audible but out of sight. I am very interested in that.
It was one of the first things I became aware of as a writer, after returning to India, going back to St. Cyril Road in Bandra, and suddenly — my parents having moved from the 25th storey to a 3rd storey flat — I could hear what was happening in the neighbourhood. I remember being woken up by birdcall at six o’ clock in the morning. I was jet lagged but was woken up by this almost terrifying sound: “What’s this?” I asked myself, and realised the din was birdcall. In England, this aspect of experience — of being impacted upon by the invisible — is limited. These experiences have shaped me as a writer. And it’s an aspect of cinema — the soundtrack — that’s important to me. Even Ritwik Ghatak, who didn’t necessarily attempt to directly evoke a milieu, but used unusual sounds.
As for Bengali writing, I would mention Jibanananda Das, of course, and the poetry and the songs of Tagore — what amazing poets they are. Buddhadev Bose, Utpal Basu, Joy Goswami — all extraordinary poets from different generations. Shakti Chattopadhyay and Sunil Ganguly were pretty amazing as poets, too; in fact, Sunil Ganguly the poet probably makes marginal Sunil Ganguly the novelist. I am not a fluent reader of Bengali, but I will have to mention Bibhutibhushan Banerjee. He is canonical, but not canonical enough. He is one of those people who tests what can be written about, in the sense of asking us repeatedly, “Is this really significant?” He does that very beautifully. There is a mixture of intricacy and seeming simplicity in the writing. Bengali literature has an embarrassment of riches which neither I nor the larger world knows enough about. What I have encountered there is, to paraphrase what Tagore said about life, astonishing.
DEVDAN CHAUDHURI: What are the reasons behind this neglect? Why they weren’t translated?
AMIT CHAUDHURI: Often, they haven’t found good translators. When they found good translators, the good work was mixed with translations which weren’t great. This means that not enough good editorial work has been done in selecting the best. The endeavour to select the best, to historicise it, to comment upon it, in a way that connects it to creative activity that is going on around the world, has been sacrificed to general statements paying homage to the sacred value of these writers. You see this lapse in the literary and historical imagination in the kind of curating that’s been done in Tagore’s house Jorasanko — an example of how poorly a great writer can be treated in the terms of the way we think about him and about the context he lived and worked in.
DEVDAN CHAUDHURI: You have spent most of your life in Calcutta, Bombay and England. How would you contrast your experiences of these places and how they have changed, or haven’t changed?
AMIT CHAUDHURI: Calcutta is a marginal city and has been a marginal city since the late seventies/early eighties. It is a city that has lost its connection with its history; it substitutes the connection by paying a generalised homage to iconic features in the city, while in many ways letting them run to seed. But there is no actual interest in the history at all. Calcutta wants to leave that history behind. That’s why the city has a kind of abandoned look. Because the people no longer engage with what it was. Talking in generalised terms about Tagore is one of the problems, rather than an indication of any actual engagement. What has happened due to the deification of Tagore in the last ten years is that people have forgotten about the contexts due to which his reputation grew. There are also other poets, writers and composers, who did very innovative things at the same time — even popular songwriters like Rajanikanta, Nazrul, Atul Prasad and D L Ray have almost been forgotten. And the writers who came in later are hardly discussed. I think a change in angle from which people look at the city is going to lead to many more discoveries, as well as give the imagination more to work with. The first renewing act has to do with looking around us and not denying where we’re situated. There is much in Calcutta which an intelligent and creative person can work with. Cities have to work with their own histories; find new ways of thinking of them. We have been lazy about forging a language with which to speak about where Calcutta is now; and how it might be even interesting as a marginal city — a city that has gone through many historical traumas; a city that has fallen from its place in history. If you consider Berlin, it’s fascinating on many levels. Berlin went through one of the most awful traumas that any city can go through. It banished its Jews, and was bombed, defeated and divided; a city that bears the history of disgrace. Berliners haven’t denied that history. But what is interesting about Berlin is how it’s worked with that history, and renewed itself. Young creative people from England and all parts of Germany have been flocking to Berlin for quite some time now.
Something similar should have happened with Calcutta in the Indian and even an international context, but it didn’t. However, there are many gifted people here in Calcutta, even today. I’ve become more aware of this. Occasionally, it strikes you that the erudition in some of the articles published in Bengali-language papers is not matched by any English-language papers in India, and very few in the world. And I am surprised by this discovery — my wife Rosinka helped me make it, by drawing my attention to these pieces. Some photographers are doing very sophisticated work in Calcutta too. Why there’s no forum for these people, through which they could contribute to the city — so that the city might assess itself once again — is a question.
Bombay is a great city; however, it didn’t quite pulsate in the way it does now when I was growing up there. Bombay now is a paradox. It is a booming city — more vibrant than it ever was in living memory. This is partly because you are now connected with areas in Bombay which you weren’t connected to earlier. Bombay has extended itself and even put itself on display with the new flyovers. New routes within the city have emerged. Offices moved, as we know, to far-flung areas because of property prices in South Bombay. So the journeys within Bombay are often exhausting but also revelatory. This is a mark of a great city — the need or compulsion to go to new or far-flung neighbourhoods all the time. Even economically depressed neighbourhoods have events taking place in them that make it necessary for to you visit them. It’s something that doesn’t happen in Calcutta — the one striking and astonishing exception is the Durga Pujas, which is a spectacular, annual example of urban mapping.
The paradox of Bombay is that the default dispensation over there today is right wing and very conservative. And you also have another kind of problem — the infantile faith in well-being and wealth. The privileged innocence which you see in Bollywood stars when they speak on Koffee with Karan — so intelligent and creative, some of them, but often concerned with proving the fact, through their well-modulated English, that they have been to good schools. And full of optimism and charm in a city where there are millions of destitute people. So Bombay always had that problem — this infantile joy. These problems have become exaggerated now because of how it benefited from the economic boom. But there are many interesting and considerable people in Bombay too, who seem far more energised than their counterparts in Calcutta. The main difference between Calcutta and Bombay or any other Indian city had to do with language, I suppose. Bengali language, for Bengalis, was not primarily a language of cultural identity — it was a language of modernity. It occupied an ambivalent space. That made Calcutta unusual. The Bengali language no longer has any patronage in the city — I mean from the government, from universities, from Bengalis themselves. It’s one of the many things that are unobtrusively being wiped out.
London today is very vibrant and a great city to visit. London wasn’t like this in the eighties when I was there as a student. Huge parts of it were depressing. Today, it’s wonderful to be able to escape from Norwich and go to London — it’s almost an addiction. But at the same time, London has packaged itself. It’s a city for the super rich that’s sucking resources from rest of England. When you now spend time in London, you realise much of it belongs to the super rich. And areas which were once inhabited by educated middle-class people are inhabited by millionaires. Many of them, of course, are not British.
DEVDAN CHAUDHURI: Is racism and class consciousness still an issue in England — even in enlightened environment of universities?
AMIT CHAUDHURI: You do have racism. There is institutional racism, or a racism that won’t fully admit that it’s racism — won’t speak overtly in terms such as "blacks are inferior" or "Muslims are a problem”, but is propelled by prejudice or ignorance. That’s there. There was a fight in the eighties and even nineties to chuck that kind of racism out and make it seem not only morally reprehensible but stupid. But that fight had a setback. One of the reasons of the setback is because, I think, of 9/11, which provided the more retrograde elements in British Society, and retrograde thoughts and impulses within people who might have been educated and were otherwise liberal, to find a voice; to come out of the woodwork. Post 9/11, this is a voice that speaks again of countries and cultures in terms of backwardness and in terms of being enlightened or civilised, of countries being developed and not so developed, generalising increasingly on behalf of Western civilisation, which is the new holy cow. Although, like Gandhi, we’re not sure what this Western civilisation is, it’s made a strong comeback. The whole category of the West, with all kinds of dubious people speaking in its terms and also apologising for Empire, and even speaking about some of the positive corollaries of Empire, is a phenomenon that’s increasingly “normal” in the liberal domain. Like Jeremy Paxman from British television — a well-known journalist known for his abrasiveness with politicians. There are many reasons for this, but I think 9/11 and the so-called war against terror has legitimised some of the more stupid and retrograde impulses in British society.
DEVDAN CHAUDHURI: What do you think about a novel, as a novel? What does the word “novel” mean to you?
AMIT CHAUDHURI: I am happy to use the word novel in a very loose sense. For me it has a very wide definition and it should have a wide definition. It should blur the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction; and encourage us not to think of the imaginative aspects of a novel as being equivalent to invented stories. Invented stories, fiction, “making things up” and the workings of the imagination — these categories are not equal to each other and one mustn’t think they are.
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