Amit Chaudhuri: The writer’s writer
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It’s not 1947 but 1981 that is celebrated, with the kind of official fanfare reserved for such celebrations, as a version of Independence Day by the body of Literature Formerly Known as Indo-Anglian literature. Midnight’s Children was born that year, and with it, seemingly, English India’s confidence in writing long fiction. As university students ritually fed Salman Rushdie’s novel know, my choice of 1947 as an analogy for 1981 isn’t facetious—the novel is integral to the post-colony’s nation-building apparatus.
Exactly a decade later, in 1991, A Strange And Sublime Address made a quiet entry. I use “quiet” consciously—it was perfectly in tune with the poetics of that novel that its entry and its celebration be quiet. I discovered the book six years after it was first published. It’s impossible for me to forget the winter afternoon in the provincial university library when I found it by chance: not just the feeling of being astonished by its beauty but the creases of laughter that every subsequent reading has continued to bring to me.
The novel is about Sandeep, as Colm Tóibín says in his new foreword to the 25th anniversary edition of the book, “a small boy, an only child who lives in a Bombay high-rise and who, with his parents, makes two long visits to his extended family in Calcutta. The book is the story of the atmosphere in the small house in Calcutta that they visit.” But this is not what the book is “about” at all. As readers over the last quarter of a century have variously exclaimed, it is a book about the interstitial spaces between memory and the present, about childhood, about the delight in the everyday, or perhaps the forgotten thrill of living through a power cut as if it was an anachronism come alive for a moment. But, of course, such is the enchantment of this novel that it’s impossible to say what it’s really “about”.
Where exactly is this “strange and sublime address”?
17 Vivekananda Road,
The Solar System,
It was a strange and sublime address.”
The “strange and sublime” might have been, as Tóibín reminds us in his affectionate and deeply admiring foreword, a homage to James Joyce, but it’s also a good description for the multiple registers in a Chaudhuri sentence, that thing of perpetual wonder for an apprentice like myself. Chaudhuri shows how these units are related, the sentence to the paragraph and that to the structure of the novel itself. But Chaudhuri wouldn’t be Chaudhuri if it was all so easy. So he introduces counterpoints, first inside the sentence, then in the paragraph, so that a tiny paragraph might begin with a woman sitting down on a floor to serve tea, but would end with the entirely unexpected: “Her legs, like two romantic, indefinite paths on a mountainside, were lost in her sari’s vast landscape.” It’s this that made Rushdie say that “Chaudhuri’s languorous, elliptical, beautiful prose is impressively impossible to put in any category at all.”
Chaudhuri is also “impossible to put in any category” because he has refused to be subsumed by the postcolonial machine or be an apologist for the state-of-the-nation novel. Midnight’s Children was a kind of ENT miracle drug, allowing a generation of writers to suddenly find their “voice”. Their loyalty seemed to be as much to Rushdie’s “chutnified” language as it was to the Indian nation: so borders, Partition, the health and diagnosis of the Indian nation’s problems produced narratives that drew their energy from an increasingly familiar set of themes.
Tóibín is prompt to point out how A Strange And Sublime Address marks a departure. “In Chaudhuri’s book, on the other hand, although politics and a sense of public affairs are allowed into the narrative, they are there glancingly, as part of the flavour of things, and are no more important than anything else. For a foreign reader, A Strange And Sublime Address is fascinating because it does not dramatize the legacy of Partition, or deal with the caste system in India, or use the novel to enrich our knowledge of large questions of identity and politics.” Chaudhuri’s unit is neither the nation nor the individual. It is, as Tóibín notes, the family, that “world within world”, to borrow from Stephen Spender, but it’s also the room and the window. The subject of his gaze is not the nation but unstructured life. He’s glancing back at the beginnings of modernism in 19th century Bengal (a sense of whose history comes to him, by his own confession in The Picador Book Of Modern Indian Literature, from his wife, Rosinka Chaudhuri).
Since this book, Chaudhuri has written five novels, a collection of poems and short stories each, a non-fiction book on Kolkata, and two books of outstanding literary criticism. Afternoon Raag, his second novel, about a student’s life in Oxford, is so achingly beautiful that I once told my mother that I wanted to eat it up just to be able to experience it more fully. His third novel was Freedom Song, where the tranquil beauty of the prose seemed to be set up in purposeful aesthetic opposition to its setting: the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The Immortals is a delicate exploration of the rich and contradictory world of music: Ali Akbar Khan’s face, while singing Lalit, “was calm like a Buddha’s, and stubborn as a child’s”. His most recent novel is the stunningly intelligent and playful Odysseus Abroad, about a day in the life of an Indian Ulysses in Margaret Thatcher’s England.
In the last 25 years I have watched Chaudhuri’s work turn colloquial so that its influence is to be seen not only in the way its aesthetic has affected a new generation of writers but also as something that is gradually solidifying into a generic category—there is indeed an Amit Chaudhuri way of looking at the world. I first noticed it in A Strange And Sublime Address, in what is one of my favourite sentences in English language fiction: “The grown-ups snapped the chillies (each made a sound terse as a satirical retort).”
It is obvious to anyone who has followed these two currents in Indian writing in English to see that Chaudhuri is a writer’s writer. Acknowledgements of his influence come from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nadeem Aslam, Pankaj Mishra, Kiran Desai, Anjali Joseph, Tabish Khair, among several others. I spot it in the devotion to the everyday in Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic In My Head and Saikat Majumdar’s The Firebird; it’s there as an epigraph and more in Amitava Kumar’s Bombay-London-New York; the rejection of grand narratives that marks writing about Indian small towns owes to Chaudhuri too; Clearing A Space: Reflections On India, Literature And Culture, arguably the best book of Indian literary criticism, has its devotees, and its influence is to be seen in the work of young scholars like Nakul Krishna. D.H. Lawrence And ‘Difference’, called a “truly groundbreaking” study of Lawrence’s poetry by Terry Eagleton, has given courage to many researchers to engineer unlikely juxtapositions between systems of thought and disciplines, like Chaudhuri had done by bringing the painter Jamini Roy and Lawrence in the same space, for instance.
What made me decide to work on a doctoral dissertation on Chaudhuri’s writing was my desire to investigate where this unique—often revolutionary—way of looking at the world came from. My focus was, therefore, on the optic. ‘The “I”, had also become the “eye”, open and looking at the world,’ letting light in. “My own name, Amit, which means “endless”, has appended to it ...a middle name I never use: “Prakash”—“light”. “Endless light.” ...The names of ordinary-looking middle-class men in Bengal were, for four or five generations, replete with illumination,” Chaudhuri writes in Calcutta: Two Years In The City . I do not know of any writer who has studied light with such—and we must borrow this metaphor from light itself—brilliance. Who else but he can see “the noon (as) a charged battery, and evening (as) a visionary gloom”? Or evening traffic as “dark honey out of a honeycomb towards traffic lights, wheeling intersections?” “Some light, inquisitive and worldly, always entered through the curtains.” It might have been these—and more, of course—that Hilary Mantel observed too, when she, writing in The New York Review Of Books, used the same metaphor of light for him: “Amit Chaudhuri has, like Proust, perfected the art of the moment ... (he) is a miniaturist, for whom tiny moments become radiant ...”
All of these have taken place without speed and without noise, but inevitably with humour—for just as there is a Chaudhuri way of looking, there is also an Amit Chaudhuri subgenre of humour, one that makes its way even into essays about Brexit. Mainstream literature today is a literature of crisis, about war, the environment and fetishized abnormality. To quote a Chaudhuri line out of context, “We need a crisis: here is a crisis” (Shards: A Narrative)—so much of the rhythm of the publishing industry seems to run to that market moral. His steadfast refusal to be appropriated by the market has given us a body of work that will, in a rich Shakespearean sense, stand the test of time, a claim that cannot be imagined for most of his contemporaries.
“Invisibility was one of Bengali modernity’s prerequisites and cardinal achievements,” writes Chaudhuri in Calcutta: Two Years In The City. It’s an aphorism (so many of his coinages and ideas have turned colloquial; “homelovingness” and “Wahhabi Hinduism” are two of my favourites) that I often think of as an appropriate, even if ironical, commentary on the response of our market-bar coded literary culture to an aesthetic such as his. “To write a poem today sometimes feels like rehearsing a bygone moment of history,” he writes in that book. Only a culture that is able to spot the acerbic critique of what passes for literature today in that statement deserves a writer and thinker like Amit Chaudhuri.
The music of Amit Chaudhuri
“Just as there is an “Amit Chaudhuri way of seeing”, there is also an “Amit Chaudhuri way of hearing” or what he might call, in his playful René Magritte-like subversive manner, an Amit Chaudhuri “moment of mishearing”.
Before he became a classical vocalist trained in the Kunwar Shyam ‘gharana’, he spent his late teens writing, composing and singing songs in what he then saw as the tradition of the “Canadian singer-songwriter” and performing them on All India Radio from 1978-81. One of them, My Baby’s So Cruel, is available on SoundCloud.com. A ‘bhajan’ from his ‘gharana’, recorded in 1988, Chandrasakhi ‘bhajan’, can be heard on SoundCloud.com too.
‘This Is Not Fusion’, 2005, is music that is “not part of two different worlds ... but a common inheritance ... inlaid into different parts of a single self, a single memory”.
u ‘Berlin’ (SoundCloud.com)
u ‘Summertime’ (YouTube.com)
u ‘The Layla Riff To Todi’ (SoundCloud.com)
u ‘All India Radio’ (YouTube.com)
u ‘Moral Education’ (YouTube.com)
‘Found Music’, 2011, is a conceptual album based on the “found” aesthetic; as Chaudhuri says, “Listening isn’t only about naming, but about accident.”
u ‘Saraswati’ (YouTube.com)
u ‘One Fine Day’ (live on the Review Show, BBC): available on YouTube.com
u ‘Country Hustle’ (YouTube.com)
u ‘Norwegian Wood’ (YouTube.com)
u ‘So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star’ (YouTube.com)
‘A Moment Of Mishearing’, 2015, which the IMDb lists as “a feature-length film that explores Amit Chaudhuri’s awakening to the similarities between classical Indian ‘ragas’ and Western pop, jazz and blues. The film fuses material shot in India, London, interviews and a performance” by Chaudhuri and his band.
Sumana Roy is a writer based in Siliguri.