The Deeply Unserious, Important Work of Amit Chaudhuri
By Sumana RoyFebruary 16, 2017
“You’ll spoil your eyes,” said one of the library assistants. I smiled but continued reading. Soon, though I didn’t realize it then, of course, I was laughing. There was no other student in the library — my laughter must have amplified into an echo. How else do I explain the librarian standing next to me a little later?
“Is this a book on your syllabus?” he asked.
“I wish it was,” I replied.
“Is it Literature?” he asked, the “L” in uppercase in his voice.
“Yes,” I said. “Exactly why I chose to study it at university.”
“Take it home then,” he said, smiling.
I told him that I’d exhausted my quota for the day.
He got A Strange and Sublime Address issued in his account for me to read.
I read it on the bus, then through the night, laughing, alarming my mother, who woke up to check what I was up to:
17 Vivekananda Road, Calcutta (South),
The Solar System,
It was a strange and sublime address.
My friends and I had often written out similar addresses in our notebooks, but that it could be found inside a novel, or even a book, seemed unimaginable to us, surrounded — perhaps even terrorized — as we were by regimes of seriousness. I’d encountered a similar construction in James Joyce, of course, but this was different — there was its geographical familiarity, the incandescence of self-recognition and the immediate realization that this was possibly a code for an aesthetic, the physical to the metaphysical journey that one line, one sentence, one paragraph could traverse in a breath. And with that was the sudden rush of freedom in the lines — after the exhaustion with the center-margin binaries that had governed the reading of so many novels in the Commonwealth Literature paper, the half-nonsensical and half-miniaturizing impulse of that address.
That book, of course, was only the beginning — in a sense I couldn’t have possibly gauged then — of a project by Amit Chaudhuri that has taken a complex and uncompromising shape in the last 25 years and subtly, incontrovertibly opened up a space in writing and in thinking about writing that didn’t exist before. Chaudhuri, an Indian poet, novelist, essayist, critic, musician, and professor, was born in Calcutta, India, in 1962. A Strange and Sublime Address, his first novel, was published when he was only 29 — he had already finished writing it three years before. He has since then written six novels (the latest, Friend of My Youth, is to be published this year in the United Kingdom and India) and a book of stories, reconsidering in an unprecedented way the form of the novel and of fictional narrative and how they relate to autobiography, locale, sensory experience, and, indeed, to what we deem as “not fiction” or “not novelistic”; it involves essays and criticism that have not only reconfigured the literary landscape but which also remind us, as Chaudhuri did at a talk at Kolkata’s Presidency University in January 2017, that the essayist and prose writer can do what T. S. Eliot, in his riposte to Philip Sidney, said the poet must: that is, speak not only with “the heart” (or mind), but also with the entire body and bodily organs. It involves interventions through anthologies that have made us think of how the business of anthologizing traditions might be approached radically, without subscribing to futile arguments to do with breaking and making canons. It involves a musical career that invites us to look again at how a performing, compositional, and improvisatory art might relate to the life of the mind, and vice versa. For many of the readers who came to the novel late, weary, as I was with the morality of the English literature syllabi and the academic market, the world of Chaudhuri’s first book was magical particularly because it was both so familiar and yet unrecognizable at the same time. As Colm Tóibín points out in the foreword to the 25th anniversary edition, nothing that one expects in a novel happens here:
Sandeep watches his relatives, his parents, the servants and the neighbours, alert to everything — sounds, smells, domestic habits, moods, weather, plants. He is vastly amused by tiny details such as his uncle’s car which breaks down, his bustling morning rituals. He spends most of the time, however, with his two cousins and with the women in the family. He notices the women’s clothes and perfumes with relish; he listens to their voices in a way that suggests both a curious child and a budding novelist. He registers what happens precisely and carefully; the rhythms of the book follow the faded happiness of things, the strange remembered moments, but render them as urgent, present, almost pure.
A Strange and Sublime Address was published in 1991, exactly a decade after Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, a novel credited for having given confidence, voice, and linguistic daring to a generation of Indians writing in English. Rushdie’s magic realist novel was meant to be read as an allegory about the creation of the Indian State and its consequent problems. It was quickly adopted and appropriated by both the market and the academy, and by writers who, apart from feeling at home in the “chutnified” language that Rushdie both mocked and energized, also began writing like bureaucrats, allowing their concerns to be primarily informed by the citizen’s relationship to the state.
At university, Indian English literature could be divided into subgroups: first, books about the Indian State — Midnight’s Children and The Shadow Lines. There was a representative Partition novel — Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan for example. The Indian Abroad had also solidified into a category, even a genre. This was the “literature of the Indian diaspora” that, because of economic power and an English-language readership, mostly comprised novels about first- and second-generation Indians in the United States or England. And yet, all of these subgenres invariably pivoted around the idea of the Indian nation, whether it was a spoof of the nationalist history-writing project (the impulse that seemed to drive Rushdie’s first published novel) or mainstreaming a certain version of the historical novel, supplying readers with a handbook of origin and apocalypse. These were novels that, in spite of their difference in tone and register, also invested in seriousness — the kind of seriousness that we come to inherit naturally through newspapers and the event-centered ethic of bureaucracy that classifies happenings as “important” or “unimportant.”
It was amid this atmosphere of bureaucratic seriousness in both the literary studies enterprise and the mainstream market for the literary novel that I landed upon A Strange and Sublime Address. As Tóibín writes in his foreword:
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.
What we have instead is a remarkable literature of and for the senses. Sandeep, the main character in the book, provides a good analogy for the kind of value system that Chaudhuri’s book both enacts and endorses. While staying at his uncle’s house in Calcutta, Sandeep rejects the “study-table” for the life he sees outside the window:
But no one who studied at this table would ever read more than a page because, just by the open window, almost at arm’s length, was a palm tree wearing its rings of coconuts like jewellery, balancing a crow on its broad, fan-tail leaf, and behind the palm tree was the professor’s house, with two daughters always getting in each other’s way, a rooster, an educated-looking dog and a cat without a conscience, and the professor’s son, who performed such enviably intricate exercises in the morning. You just had to watch that window.
A Strange and Sublime Address, and indeed all of Chaudhuri’s fiction, is a literature of the “window.”
In the mid-1990s, literature departments all around the world, including India, had suddenly grown nervous about literature, or certainly about the “literary” — a nervousness that would soon affect jobs in the institutionalized humanities and in publishing. Postcolonial studies, with its investment in the sociological and its relative lack of interest in the aesthetic, could not quite place Chaudhuri’s first novel. His other novels, short stories, poems, and essays also remain anomalies in the canon. Eng-Lit pedagogy, historically grounded in seriousness, beginning as it did in England by borrowing professors from departments of divinity and law, continues to be in the service of the nation, the race, the marginalized. Chaudhuri’s writing, on the other hand, is grounded in explorations of the sensuous, the emotional, the affective — it refuses to give any of the old professorial subjects center stage or speak about them in a stentorian voice. (I laughed to myself wondering what examination questions could be set from a novel like A Strange and Sublime Address, which just doesn’t fit into the plot–character–critical theory subsets. I realized then that it was this inability to domesticate Chaudhuri’s novels with the standard tools of literary studies that had prevented the writers of syllabi, with their paper-setting agendas and anxieties, from including this book in the university canon.) And yet, Chaudhuri’s aesthetic is actually a redistribution of seriousness; his books are more egalitarian in that sense — everything in the frame is worthy of attention and engagement. Will Self lauded this characteristic in particular when introducing Chaudhuri at a literary festival in October 2016: “What his work exemplifies is somebody who views the canon as everything, that there isn’t a form of canonical literature that makes him cleave to one culture or the other.”
Perhaps that is also why praise for Chaudhuri, in spite of the many awards and prizes that have marked his writing career, is more often heard in India in private conversations rather than institutionalized spaces, in corridors rather than conference halls. Praise has come from some of our best writers and philosophers: from Charles Taylor and Wendy Doniger and Ranajit Guha, just to name three people from non-literature disciplines; from the philosopher Frank B. Farrell, who in his 2004 book, Why Does Literature Matter?, devoted a section to a study of Chaudhuri’s work alongside chapters on Samuel Beckett, Cormac McCarthy, Marcel Proust, Thomas Pynchon, W. G. Sebald, and others; from Saikat Majumdar, who did the same in Prose of the World, his study of classic and contemporary modernist fiction; from James Wood, who has championed Chaudhuri’s fiction and essays for the entirety of his career as a published writer; and from Eileen Battersby, Simon During, Salman Rushdie, Anne Enright, and Richard Ford, among others. And yet, we still haven’t seen the institutional championing that marks the careers of some of his contemporaries. Part of the reason for that lack might be the difficulty in praising him with the readymade vocabulary that comes from the institutionalized humanities. I say this not only as indictment but also as self-criticism — when I began working on my doctoral dissertation on Chaudhuri, I realized that I had no terms in my critical lexicon to communicate the delight and the pleasure that his writing had given me. I haven’t encountered such joyous and playful writing about walking or eating — “The grown-ups snapped the chillies (each made a sound terse as a satirical retort)” — as I have in Chaudhuri’s books, for instance. But that pleasure is not easy to discuss with the help of critical theory–inflected categories, which can fetishize and politicize pleasure but cannot accommodate it. Another such pleasure-giving subject is music, which Chaudhuri also explores at length in Afternoon Raag and The Immortals, his second and fifth novels, which are also about the nature of listening. What anthropological discourse can explain the pleasure of these lines in Afternoon Raag, for instance:
The straight, angular notes of Western music, composed and then rendered, are like print upon a page; in contrast, the curving meends of the raag are like longhand writing drawn upon the air. Each singer has his own impermanent longhand with its own arching, idiosyncratic beauties, its own repetitive, serpentine letters. With the end of the recital, this longhand, which, in its unravelling, is a matter of constant erasures and rewritings, is erased completely, unlike the notes of Western music, which remain printed upon the page.
Or this on listening, from The Immortals: “[T]he microphone was the main deity; without anyone becoming conscious of it, it took on preternatural properties.”
“A number was once actually a row of pebbles. There was no seven, only seven pebbles or counters,” wrote D. H. Lawrence (whose poems were the subject of Chaudhuri’s 1993 doctoral dissertation, published as D. H. Lawrence and ‘Difference’ in 2003). When Chaudhuri first began writing a column for the Calcutta Telegraph called “Telling Tales,” he replaced the abstract and symbolic “number” that occupied the op-ed page of the English-language newspapers with precisely this concrete and disparate “row of pebbles.” Until his arrival there, the page in Indian newspapers might be said to have resembled a government brochure on national policy: defense, the environment, caste, gender, transport, politics, and occasionally literature and cinema. Here, able and qualified experts in their respective fields were expected to keep the nation’s spine straight, always on alert. Chaudhuri’s first column, written at the turn of the millennium, was about watching TV, an abrupt change from the taut and erect spinal posture of his predecessors. The subject of that first column is a good metaphor for Chaudhuri’s own manifesto: the hijacking of an Indian airplane in the Afghanistan city of Kandahar and the doom-and-disaster saga, Titanic, the film, which were playing simultaneously on neighboring channels on cable TV in Calcutta at the turn of the last millennium. The aesthetic I refer to is expressed in a sentence by F. Scott Fitzgerald that Chaudhuri is fond of quoting: “[T]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” From this kind of intelligence emanated a way of seeing, a tone, that marked the change in the Indian, English-language op-ed pages post-2000.
The other category that Chaudhuri’s writing has ignored is information evangelism, or what is called “research” in another world. “General Knowledge,” which manifests itself as the Indian middle class’s obsession with quizzing, often determines the “merit” of candidates for jobs in India. Pleasure was — and continues to be — viewed with suspicion and seen as a trait of adolescence, rather than maturity. Chaudhuri’s writing, whose gift to Indian literature in English is only one half of Sidney’s dictum — delight — leaves the “instruct” part to other schools of writing. As Deborah Levy, writing in the New Statesman, said of Telling Tales, a collection of Chaudhuri’s short essays, “Like Barthes (and Lacan), he sees merit in concentrating less on the meaningful and more on the apparently meaningless.”
Chaudhuri’s writing also refuses to be boxed into the two primary concerns that drive the writing, reading, and dissemination of literature today. The first of these is the discourse of crisis — violence, human cruelty, the environment, the end of love or of human relationships as we know them. The world in Chaudhuri’s fiction doesn’t make crisis its primary business, nor does the aesthetic serve the industry that “crisis” has become in contemporary publishing. Instead, it introduces an aesthetic of restraint — a counterpoint to what James Wood categorized as “hysterical realism,” a term to explain the nervous busyness in much of contemporary fiction. Chaudhuri’s 1998 novel Freedom Song, for instance, is set in the immediate aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, one of the worst acts of communal violence in India. But instead of the chatter and noise of violence, Chaudhuri takes us through the day-to-day lives of two families in Calcutta, opening his novel with the Muslim call for prayer:
It was a solitary voice, saying Allah-hu-akbar and other familiar but incomprehensible syllables. […] The city was still […] Soon that machinery would start working again, not out of any sense of purpose, but like a watch that is wound daily by someone’s hand. Almost without any choice in the matter, people would embark upon the minute frustrations and satisfactions of their lives. It was in this moment of postponement that the azaan was heard, neither announcing the day nor keeping it a secret.
This novel is one of the closest and most luminous illustrations of “still life” I have seen in contemporary fiction. Here is a world so “still” that the reader expects it to collapse at any moment from the explosion or from some internal combustion of violence. And it is this gap between the reader’s expectation and the novelist’s refusal to fulfill it that gives Chaudhuri’s narrative both energy and a rare kind of tranquillity.
Freedom Song also, like his other novels, is illustrative of his refusal to put anyone or anything in the spotlight, so that all his characters and the settings in which they interact are evenly lit, like the natural light of day or night, hiding or revealing, depending on posture. Not one thing or person is less important than another, not one thing is highlighted more than the other, not in the seesaw distribution of weight in a sentence, not in a paragraph or stanza: “[G]ive nothing centrality, because writing is about continually shifting weight from one thing and moment to the other” is Chaudhuri’s advice in the Guardian to young writers.
The same refusal to make readymade distinctions marks his essay-writing career. Chaudhuri insists on blurring the lines between the personal and the political, the creative and the critical. Clearing a Space: Reflections on India, Literature and Culture is a collection of Chaudhuri’s essays that are, as the title indicates, about a solitary writer’s efforts to clear a space, to create one for himself in an intellectual climate that is resistant to literary history, to an understanding of the writer’s relationship to tradition and of the refusal to see literatures and cultures as perennially engaged in a duel. Anjum Hasan, a writer and the books editor of The Caravan, who hosted a discussion around the book in that journal, writes:
But perhaps the most consistently probing of Indian critics is Amit Chaudhuri. Into our noisy but shadowy literary realm, his book of essays Clearing a Space: Reflections on India, Literature and Culture (2008) has shone a powerful blaze of light. The book’s two sections — ‘Towards a Poetics of the Indian Modern’ and ‘Alternative Traditions, Alternative Readings’ — epitomise the nature of Chaudhuri’s project. Its vital significance lies in going beyond the established ways of looking at Indian literature — as colonial versus postcolonial, or written in English versus produced in other Indian languages. Instead, its author presents to us a newer, more complex and more engaging idea of Indian modernity. This modernity is an ongoing, dynamic negotiation between the writer and the world. […] The most distinctive aspect of his space-clearing and illumination-seeking project is his personal method. His singular experience of the world is the axis on which the book turns. Accounts of a visit to a temple in Calcutta, classroom discussions at Columbia University, or a conversation from his student days in London are all the result of deliberate, I would even say political, choices made to highlight personal experience and the autobiographical as sources of meaning. Such an attitude leads not to a closing-in — the personal does not become an absolute measure of things — but to an opening out: Chaudhuri is seeking his place in the world rather than assuming that, as an Indian writer, this place has already been defined for him.
Clearing a Space is Chaudhuri’s The Sacred Wood, and, in a way, it opens up that earlier work to its now forgotten avant-garde impulses. Eliot writes that the poet must have a “historical sense” — the “feeling that the whole of the literature from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” This is exactly what Chaudhuri is doing for himself and other Indian writers after him — providing a way of seeing and thinking without which even an essay like this one would not be possible.
A doctoral dissertation on Amit Chaudhuri’s influence on writing from and about nonmetropolitan India is waiting to be written. There is something about the vernacular energy of A Strange and Sublime Address in particular that gave impetus and confidence to nonmetropolitan writers. Until its arrival, the Indian novel in English was, by its tone and location (in spite of it often being set in the unknown and the far away, in the United States or in Egypt or in the past, that other foreign country), a national and global enterprise. It is easy to spot his influence on writers who’ve published their novels about small towns in Bihar and India’s northeast and south. Chaudhuri’s work also insists on the modernist belief that the ordinary, the commonplace, the impermanent are worth our interest, our curiosity, and our storytelling — this is his true gift to writers in India, provincial and otherwise. That space might have existed in the country’s English-language poetry once, but it was quickly swallowed by the corporate energy of utilitarianism — the knowledge-building factory and a subservience to otherness.
I’ve recognized Chaudhuri’s influence in the work of many contemporary writers: in Kaushik Barua’s fiction and its evocation of the foreignness of a familiar place; in the minutiae of the everyday in Anjum Hasan’s poems and novels; in the portrayal of the peculiar provincial character of childhood that Saikat Majumdar seems to have inherited from him; the structure of Tabish Khair’s The Bus Stopped, which clearly owes a debt to Afternoon Raag. Then there is what Rushdie called Chaudhuri’s “languorous, elliptical, beautiful prose.” His sentences blur the difference between prose and poetry, the paragraph and the stanza. Acknowledgments of the influence of his style come from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Pankaj Mishra, Nadeem Aslam, Amitava Kumar, Anjali Joseph, and Kiran Desai, among others.
In Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, one of the earliest studies of small-town life in India, one woman tells Mishra: “Nothing happens here.” The phrase is often used to define Chaudhuri’s work. Indeed, when I encountered that phrase in Mishra’s book, it struck me immediately that Chaudhuri had supplied an aesthetic to write about provincial India. While Chaudhuri’s obsessive fascination with the interstitial and with the local opens up a space for the provincial, he also shows us, unprecedentedly, that a portrayal of the local is not incompatible with a Proustian investigation of memory. Small-town Indian life is perfectly accommodated in Chaudhuri’s essentially modernist aesthetic of “nothing happens” and that has created a unique space in Indian English fiction. It is this gaze that has given young writers like Tanuj Solanki the confidence to write about small-town life in Muzaffarnagar and enabled Abdullah Khan to invest energy in writing about George Orwell’s birthplace in a small town in Bihar. This should not come as a surprise. Chaudhuri has long been a champion of writers who not only came from nonmetropolitan places, but whose work also relies on their ability to invoke a cosmopolitan provincialism.
The character of this cosmopolitanism has a good analogy in the first poem in his only collection of poems, St. Cyril Road and Other Poems. The poem is titled “The Village” and is about a painting of a “Heath” in London that the poet’s parents were gifted by a “Swiss lady” in the 1950s. Chaudhuri writes:
[…] As a boy, that scene, enframed,
was, for me, England. In a way, it still is.
London as village, a village as London. That is the kind of cosmopolitanism, deriving its energy from the opposite of textbook urbanity, that also marks Chaudhuri’s writing about Calcutta, Oxford, and even Bombay (where his interest seems to be more in the marginal life on St. Cyril Road rather than the city’s commercial and hormonal busyness). This, too, is Chaudhuri’s unique gift: writing about places and communities in a culture that had so long been devoted either to the abstractions of history and the nation or to the pursuit of individualism. In “St. Cyril Road Sequence,” Chaudhuri writes:
In the oldest, bunched houses with tottering stairs,
the Christians live, like prophets dedicated
to the cause of being obscure.
The intimacy and texture of locality, of being washed by a neighborhood, evident in these lines is one that writers today take as a given in contemporary Indian English prose. But the tone and the gaze, the deliberate cultivation of digression and distraction, is only about a quarter of a century old, largely inaugurated by A Strange and Sublime Address, which also gave us his manifesto as a writer, a theory of the novel:
And yet the story would never be a satisfying one, because the writer, like Sandeep, would be too caught up in jotting down the irrelevances and digressions that make up lives, and the life of a city, rather than a good story — till the reader would shout ‘Come to the point!’ — and there would be no point, except the girl memorizing the rules of grammar, the old man in the easy-chair fanning himself, and the house with the small, empty porch that was crowded, paradoxically, with many memories and possibilities. The ‘real’ story, with its beginning, middle and conclusion, would never be told, because it did not exist.
I should also mention that Chaudhuri’s deeply intelligent and quietly rebellious literary criticism was being formulated by him at around the same time that he was writing A Strange and Sublime Address. Imagine this — a young man, writing a dissertation on D. H. Lawrence at conservative Oxford. Chaudhuri didn’t read Lawrence using postcolonial theory but as a postcolonial. Terry Eagleton called it a “truly groundbreaking” study of Lawrence, inventing a new manner and methodology of reading, allowing Lawrence to be in conversation with artists from other cultures. I sometimes wonder why “hybridity” (Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture was published in 1994, only a year after Chaudhuri was awarded his DPhil) became an easy catchword while Chaudhuri’s use of Gérard Genette’s “bricolage model,” a model of juxtaposition, did not. In his criticism on Lawrence, Chaudhuri praised art that maintains the visibility of its own creation:
[E]ven in the ‘finished’ product, the materials of creation, the process of construction and making, the peculiar pathos and joy of gradual creation, are left open to view. The illusion that the final product came into being in a perfect form by means of an automatic authorial magic — inspiration or genius — is not allowed to exist, and neither is the production of such an illusion of paramount importance in this kind of art.
If Chaudhuri’s thinking on these matters has not been more central — though it has been of undoubted importance to a new generation of writers — it is because of the insecurity of young nations and their universities; they’re troubled by being in process, or unfinished, or cobbled together. It’s self-flattering and safer, after all, to think of oneself as a finished product, being more than becoming.
When I think back to Amit Chaudhuri’s contribution to the Indian literary and cultural sphere in the last 25 years, lines from one of his poems come to me. In “To the Poem,” he writes:
May you be a place of rest,
a guest-house on a road between two cities,
a tumbler of water to a traveller.
May your meaning and cause, like that of decaying wood, be not wholly known. […]
May you be the dawn moon […] a weak, private illumination […]
The things he asks of the poem are exactly the things his writing — his aesthetic — has brought into the literary sphere. Readers and writers have taken various things from it — rest and restraint, to “be not wholly known,” tranquillity and the rejection of busyness. Contemporary Indian writing tells me that I’m not the only one who’s found in his work a “private illumination.”
Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal, India. Her first book, How I Became a Tree, will be published by Aleph in February 2017.
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