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Interview with Amit Chaudhuri

Think of the long trip home. 

Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? 

Where should we be today? 

‘Questions of Travel’ by Elizabeth Bishop.

 

The paradoxical pull between home and elsewhere forms the poignant tension at the heart of Amit Chaudhuri’s new book Calcutta: Two Years in the City. Indeed, it is a conflict with which Chaudhuri has grappled throughout all of his work. The writer sheds great insight by collapsing the dichotomy between the local and the far-off, instead seeing the two as ‘enmeshed intimately’.

 

Calcutta, Chaudhuri’s place of birth, has haunted his work in a multiplicity of forms. He is the author of five acclaimed novels, from his debut A Strange and Sublime Address (1991) to The Immortals (2009). The city is also a palpable presence in his collection of critical essays, Clearing a Space: Essays on India, Literature, and Culture (2008), and pulses through his music videos. Indeed, Chaudhuri is also an academic, currently Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia, and a trained, critically-acclaimed singer in the North Indian classical tradition, whose projects and albums include This is Not Fusion and Found Music.

 

Our interview takes place almost 5,000 miles away from Calcutta: we meet in central London one freezing cold day in February. Nevertheless, through Chaudhuri’s conversation we are imaginatively transported into the heat of Calcutta, the central character of the new book, which the author explores in all its complexities and contradictions. One can almost see, smell, taste and touch the life of the city’s streets and its inhabitants.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your work explores the meaning of the word ‘modernity’ – could you define this?

A

Amit Chaudhuri

— One of the new book’s concerns is the nature of modernity. Although I was growing up in Bombay, Calcutta is the first place I encountered modernity and became addicted to it. What do I mean by that? As I tried to say in the book, I felt I encountered the thrill of the modern. There are many ways of defining the modern but one is to say that an urban space, a man-made space, has some of the energy, wildness, unpredictability and randomness that we usually associate with nature. In another age, somebody might speak with the same kind of excitement about nature as the modernist does about the city.

 

That’s why when the modernist speaks about the city as Walter Benjamin does about Paris, he will speak about man-made things with the excitement of one who is confronting surprising, organic, almost natural things. He will speak about them with the sort of excitement that Wordsworth speaks about daffodils or nature. When Philip Larkin, a connoisseur of the suburban life in Hull, who talks about the ‘cut-price crowd’, says deprivation is to me what daffodils are to Wordsworth, he’s making that strange inversion in which the urban, the man-made, the industrial, becomes organic. That is what I encountered as a category of experience as a child in Calcutta; it made me excited in that particular way.

 

Even today in England as I go down the motorway and look at the countryside, it bores me and depresses me. In his essay on John Clare, Tom Paulin points out that enclosure laws have tamed and enclosed nature and turned it into private property. Something in you intuitively senses that – there’s something imperfect which has to do with control. To discover the natural you have to go to the city in certain areas, the inner city in certain neighbourhoods, and that inversion is definitive of modernity and the response to modernity. And this is the experience I’m talking about in regards to Calcutta.

Q

The White Review

— You write: By “modern” I also mean whatever alchemy it is that changes urban dereliction into something compelling, perhaps even beautiful. It was that arguable beauty that I first came across in Calcutta, and may have, without being aware of it, become addicted to.’  The new book offers a fascinating exploration of beauty in urban space.

A

Amit Chaudhuri

— It’s very much an aspect of this modernist excitement and inversion. There is beauty for modernists in the dereliction of the industrial city but it’s important to record this history of response to Calcutta; because Calcutta is this so-called ‘third-world’ city it will not be thought of by outsiders in this way. So when you look at ugliness in a third-world city it becomes a third-world ugliness, an Indian chaos that you don’t connect with the chaos of post-impressionism, which is a European aesthetic.

 

I was just saying to someone: you look at Vittorio De Sica’s film Bicycle Thieves and you’re looking at a Rome that is in a state of post-war trauma, with lots of poverty. Yet you also see how the city is alive and beautiful in the midst of that. He changes those ruined and deprived areas into a bricolage.

 

But when outsiders look at Calcutta they don’t see that contradiction of modernity, that it’s both derelict and alive and has made both those things energise each other. This is not to take away from the difficulties of the trauma that the city might have come through. This is true of Berlin too. You have a church that was bombed in the war and right next to it is a new church which is almost postmodern, built of glass. Each energises the other and defines what modernity is. People refuse to see that modernity and its contradictions. That’s what Calcutta is, a modern city.

Q

The White Review

— Does having left the city and then returned to it, thus gaining the viewpoint of both an outsider and insider, enable you to get beneath its skin?

A

Amit Chaudhuri

— I grew up in Bombay in a small nuclear family which was nevertheless very aware of its Bengali cultural heritage – that it was alive and engaged rather than reverent was important. My mother was a great singer of Tagore songs but her interpretation of Tagore songs was completely unique. That made me aware of inheritance as a living thing and not as a dead thing to be revered. That’s one side of it. Then there was the physical way of being on the outside of it as I grew up in Bombay – and Bombay shaped me as a person and allowed me to look at Calcutta and my own Bengaliness from the outside, in all its complexity.

Q

The White Review

— How has your relationship with Calcutta changed over time?

A

Amit Chaudhuri

— The period which began in the middle of the nineteenth century, in which the city seemed to come out of nowhere, the period which made it a central location in terms of ideas and cultures – that phase had come to an end by the late ’70s. Having visited the city in the ’60s and ’70s impacted me in a big way. It made me seek out the city in the other places I encountered. It made me understand what it was that most excited me about cities, which wasn’t to do with big buildings and shopping malls; it was a completely different things that was exciting about cities – the ability to move from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and feel as if one were travelling from country to country. That sense of foreignness in unexpected places within the city itself. I think all of that was coming to an end by the late ’70s.

 

After 1989 I began to spend more time in Calcutta when I would go back there from England. I noticed the city was at a low ebb culturally and morally, and I’m still making sense of that. By the time I moved there in 1999 I knew enough about the city to know I was an outsider there and would always be. The middle class that still lived there had remained. They were a closed circle. They spoke to each other in a code language comprising anecdotes to do with memories and if you didn’t know that code you remained on the outside. I could see I would remain on the outside. I was kind of disengaged with it for that reason and also because it had ceased to be the city that excited me in the ’60s and ’70s. Then I began to see that these people might be worth looking at in terms of them being the milieu where I lived for most of the year. I began to see that my being there might also be a story worth exploring.

Q

The White Review

— You write in a multiplicity of forms, from fiction to non-fiction and critical essays. Could you describe the appeal of these differing genres?

A

Amit Chaudhuri

— I did a DPhil in English. I abandoned scholarly writing and went in for the critical essay because it allowed me to bring myself in to the writing in a way that the scholarly essay doesn’t allow you to do. In the scholarly essay you have to pretend that you as the self that requires caffeine at a certain moment cannot speak about need when you’re talking about, let’s say, W. B. Yeats. But in the kind of essay I like doing, I can speak about my need for caffeine and lead from that to W. B. Yeats and this is the kind of mode I explored in this book.

 

I was not going to write a kind of conventional non-fictional book; the word ‘non-fiction’ has all kinds of conventional resonances. I was not going to write a chapter on the health service in Calcutta, a chapter on the history, a chapter on the politics; I was instead going to allow one thing to unexpectedly lead to the other. And I would be there in it. And me being there in it would allow me to map these kinds of thoughts, leading from one thing to another. Even if that led me from Norwich, where I live in the UK, and then back to Calcutta again. So that was the mode of non-fiction I chose and for me, it’s a great pleasure to write in that way. Anyway, in my fiction I’ve always explored the edges of what is conventionally called fiction, because I don’t believe in the nineteenth-century novel. It’s a wonderful thing but it’s not for me.

Q

The White Review

— Could you explain more about your exploration of boundaries and the boundaries between genres?

A

Amit Chaudhuri

— I am uneasy with accepting certain stable categories which form the basis of the way we think about genre. With the word fusion we think of the stable categories of East or West; but these break apart for me in a lived way. They break apart for me in the way that the presence of French windows in the Kalighat painting depicting Shiva make that painting break apart, and they also break apart in the way that a devotional painting makes the idea of Calcutta as a simple colonial offspring of Britain fall apart when you look at the mix of things it incorporates – red stone floors, balconies, slatted windows – none of which you encounter in England. To live in this world and to travel from place to place is to see that what I thought forms the origins of something is actually to see that things do move – but I’m not sure in what way. Mapping that uncertainty is what forces me to explore the boundaries between genres.

Q

The White Review

— How did the book come to be non-fiction rather than fiction?

A

Amit Chaudhuri

— I initially resisted my agent’s suggestion to write a non-fiction book about Calcutta because the Calcutta that I’ve known had ceased to exist. Then the poet Utpal Kumar Basu made observations to me about stories around here. Me being here and resistant to the city is another one of those stories. That began to interest me as a project. I think Calcutta is part of the new India but in a resistant kind of way.

Q

The White Review

— ‘Sublime’ is a word in a title in your first novel. In Calcutta you draw on this idea that one can have a sense of the sublime in the city and not only in nature.

A

Amit Chaudhuri

— It’s a periodic use of the word. The inversion is parody. When you’re saying that a broken door excites me as nature does, you’re parodying but also saying something that’s true, and that captures some of the excitement that was tapped into in a more straight-faced lyrical way by the Romantics, and you’re also venturing and inverting that because you’re a modern in the city. You can’t be Wordsworth in the city but you are excited in the same way. You’re parodying and reliving that experience of the sublime again.

 

From my very first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, I was becoming very aware of the fact that it was reality rather than fantasy that interested me. By reality I didn’t mean naturalism, nineteenth-century realism, information, fact. I meant the strange. The Calcutta I loved had that foreignness and strangeness for me. My uncle’s house was located in south Calcutta with its low houses, red stone floors, each house being different but having these resemblances. It was that intrinsic foreignness of where I was that excited me. Reality for me is something foreign, strange and sublime.

Q

The White Review

— There is a lovely phrase in the book; ‘home and elsewhere were enmeshed intimately’. What did you mean by that?

A

Amit Chaudhuri

— I remember Pico Iyer saying to me, ‘Aren’t you one of the most rooted people; you write so intimately about home.’ Now I see that I write intimately about foreign places and foreignness, because home is enmeshed with the elsewhere. It’s that enmeshing with the intimate that really interests me. I began to write A Strange and Sublime Address while taking a year out between UCL and Oxford. My parents had moved to a Christian area in Bombay; it’s like an elsewhere within the city, with architectural influences from the Goan to the Portugese and so on. I would come and visit from London and I would think where am I? This is Bombay? It attracted me and made me think of Calcutta and my uncle’s house and what it’s possible to do when you’re living in a second storey apartment. It’s these foreign places within these cities you think you know that attract me. Over time I’ve realised that this is what I’ve written about; a kind of break in the norm; a visit in the midst of the city itself. I mention in the last chapter that all the books seem to be structured around the visits.

Q

The White Review

— Those ‘visits’, as you describe them, have the power to change characters in your work. Did those two years in the city change you at all?

A

Amit Chaudhuri

— In those two years I was witness to political change – which actually changed nothing. It was also a coming to terms with what the city is now and its ‘citizens’ (in the words of the poet Utpal Kumar Basu) – the people who live here now. I would go out into a street I knew well to talk to people I didn’t know well – they had settled there organically and were selling food there. I was almost willing myself to do it. Maybe those people sensed that I was willing myself to do it – in spite of that I felt that I was now able to map the city and be part of it in terms of the people who lived there now in a way that I hadn’t before. It was almost an inadvertent outcome of my conscious decision to find out more about these people. There were these shared journeys; for example the woman who wanted medicine. Being there and talking in these shared spaces connected me to the city in a reluctant way.

Q

The White Review

— It’s interesting that we talked about the theme of home, as the book starts off with a homeless woman.

A

Amit Chaudhuri

— Even the formally privileged Mukherjees become homeless in a way and then they move to this other flat. That in a way captures the paralysis of the city and yet the fact that so many currents move through a small space.

Q

The White Review

— You have that ability to linger on the tiny, quotidian details.
A

Amit Chaudhuri

— When I was 24 the discovery I made was that I didn’t want to be a writer who was going to be a kind of quasi-existentialist or quasi-T. S. Eliot or quasi-nineteenth-century novelist. It was the pull of the elsewhere and the random ways in which they arrived towards me that interested me. I realised that the invisible and the quotidian gave me great joy and allowed me to escape from the oppressiveness of the hero and the heroine and their consciousness through the rules of how time passes; what Virginia Woolf described as the awful business of what happens between breakfast and dinner. I had to reject all of that to find out what it was that excited me and what I wanted to do and consider whether the novel could accommodate that impulse. Then I started to write this peculiar novel. Side by side with the novel I started writing critical essays to clear a space as it were. I’ve used that phrase ‘clear a space’ before as a title of my book of critical essays – to clear a space for the kind of work I was doing. Then I began to explore this form of moving from one kind of experience to another; the self being in the world. I developed a style that would allow the thought processes to make these journeys of self-discovery in a term that we loosely and misleadingly called non-fiction when actually there’s an imaginative element.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Anita Sethi is a journalist, writer and broadcaster. Her website is anitasethi.co.uk and you can follow her on Twitter at @anitasethi.