On Gravity and Play: In Conversation with Amit Chaudhuri




In the harmony shielded by the glass
is an unnoticed balance of gravity and play.”

— Amit Chaudhuri, Sweet Shop (2019)

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THREE BOOKS BY Amit Chaudhuri have been published in the last six months: Friend of My Youth (released by NYRB in February, following 2017 publication in the UK and India), Sweet Shop (which came out in January from Penguin India and Salt, UK), and The Origins of Dislike (published last October by Oxford University Press). Chaudhuri’s obvious range — a novel, a book of poems, a collection of essays — proves his unique position as a prominent intellectual, one who has used a variety of modes and genres to pose his questions. (These modes even include other media, such as music — he has released two CDs, This is Not Fusion and Found Music — and art: his debut exhibition, The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta and Other Ideas, was held in Kolkata in August 2018.) The near-simultaneous publication of these three books shows Chaudhuri’s ambition as an artist — his refusal to be contained within the limits of a single form, his affinity for interstitial spaces, his aversion to majoritarian forms and the power they’ve come to occupy.

Chaudhuri’s work for the last quarter century has involved a quiet rebellion against the hardening of disciplinary positions and formations, creating new ways of looking at categories such as East, West, the nation, literature, and culture. In an age when the gulf between scholars and laypeople continues to grow, so that there is almost no dialogue between the two camps, Chaudhuri’s distinctive studies of contemporary life are accessible to readers across classes and cultures. Part of this has to do with his deep investment in a concept largely considered archaic today: the beautiful. The beauty of his prose, as indeed of his poetry, is not mere adornment but is central to his thinking, just as ideas are to the philosopher.

A characteristic Chaudhuri sentence is a confluence of unexpected, often contrary and seemingly unrelated, thoughts that align, just as differences coexist — or should — in the world. His writing, music, and art challenge existing models of multiculturalism, using juxtaposition in ways that allow cultures to retain their unique shapes while also interpenetrating and exchanging qualities. As Will Self has said, Chaudhuri “is somebody who views the canon as everything,” a writer “who emerges with such force and power in his thought about ‘here’ and ‘there,’ about the ‘other’ and what ‘identity’ is, that he creates an affinity between other writers that you weren’t aware of having existed before. So he’s a kind of primus inter pares.

The following are excerpts from a telephonic conversation with Amit Chaudhuri.

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SUMANA ROY: Friend of My Youth is a novel, as is Afternoon Raag (1993). But I’m perhaps not alone in thinking that both these novels or novellas are also essays. Or poems. James Wood, I’ve learned recently, called Afternoon Raag “essay-like.” Similarly, an essay like “I am Ramu” is also a kind of story, and a short story like “The Old Masters” is also a kind of essay. Much of your work, both fiction and criticism, seems to come from a refusal to accept the limits of genre. Can you say something about the malleability of your work, its trans-genre nature?

AMIT CHAUDHURI: I suppose that, when you refer to the “essay,” you are talking about a form of imaginative practice — which I associate with artists like Abbas Kiarostami — where there is a particular kind of self-reflexivity, a particular kind of reflection on the act of creation that is not incompatible with bringing a world into existence. Ordinarily you’d think that the artist’s job is to produce a story or world, whichever term you prefer — some people think in terms of linearity, so they prefer “story”; others think in terms of the spatial, as I do, so we think in terms of a world — but then we think that this job is somehow separate from the person who is dwelling on or reflecting on the process of writing or the world that it creates, and that is the job of the essayist or the critic. But I think, in the kind of form that Kiarostami practiced, you have a reflection on the process of creation even as creation is happening, by which I mean the creation of that particular world that is being shown with great artistic instinct and, at the same time, great intelligence, which is not a controlling intelligence but an intelligence that participates in, and reflects on, at all times, the creation of this world, this world-making.

And thereby we have in Kiarostami a kind of practice, in films like Taste of Cherry (1997) or his Koker trilogy (1987–1994), a kind of practice that is capable of being both creative and critical, for the want of better terms. And I think there is a great sense of liberation in being able to evoke life, to “bring to life,” and at the same time to be able to talk about the process by which we both live and “bring something to life.” This is what the filmmaking style of Taste of Cherry is doing, as when the old taxidermist in the film tries to dissuade the central character Badii from committing suicide by reminding him of the pleasure of living. To write about life and to talk about writing about life simultaneously, in a way where one doesn’t reduce the other, is a great source of liberation from what otherwise becomes a duty — let us say, the novelist’s duty to reproduce life or to write about it.

Deborah Levy has argued that Friend of My Youth is linked to the epic. She writes: “I would not describe Amit as a miniaturist — although his books are short — no, he is an epic writer — his protagonists have made long journeys.” What would you say to that?

My novels probably have some epic qualities, but I also don’t think of them as epic in the sense that I understand the term. (Having said that, I find Deborah Levy’s observation — she probably has her own understanding of what “epic” means — very moving.)

There was a time when I’d been thinking not so much about the epic as about the changeling, a term I remember especially from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A changeling is somebody — a child; in Shakespeare’s comedy, interestingly, an Indian child — who is transported from one situation into a set of strange and unfamiliar circumstances, and my interest in this comes from the fact that each one of my books deals with a journey, not an epic journey but a journey that has no ostensible mission, either epic or touristic, but involves a change of location. This change of location involves no epic event, involves no epic responsibility on anyone’s part, but does estrange the person who is going through the transformation in the way it does the changeling. It estranges and then remakes that person completely, as if the molecules that composed the person had been slightly rearranged, so that you’re the same person and in ordinary surroundings, but a radical transformation has taken place. That is the kind of change that I’ve looked at in my novels.

I don’t know whether the idea of transformation might be connected to the idea of the epic. The idea of the changeling was with me early, right from A Strange and Sublime Address (1991), and one of the titles I’d thought for the novel was The Dream Without a Bottom — a quote, as you know, from Bottom’s speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after he returns to being human from having been the ass that Titania had fallen in love with. I also considered using the quotation as an epigraph but then decided not to help or guide the reader in any way. I also think, as you can tell, that estrangement is connected to comedy, and that is why comedy has always been of great interest to me as part of this process of estrangement.

The only feature of the epic that I’d resist — I don’t know enough about the form — is its association with a protagonist. Some epics are named after protagonists, like the Aeneid or the Ramayana. I don’t have a central character in my novels. So even if somebody says that Sandeep or Chhotomama or Ramu or Amit Chaudhuri is the central character, I don’t think of them as central characters as such. I’m not primarily interested in showing their journey. In that sense, I am uninterested in what I understand to be the epic, the journey of the central character. But in other senses, I can see that there are overlaps.

Speaking of brevity, in Friend of My Youth, you write: “Some books I buy for their title, others for brevity. I love short books — the way you know from the first page that it’s going to end.” Why do you think there isn’t more appreciation today for the shorter forms: poetry, short stories, the novella?

I’ve written about this in the title essay of my book The Origins of Dislike, and I’ve identified it with the domination of a form of historicism in people’s minds that won’t go away, where they give a particular kind of value to completeness and development, where to be developed is to be complete. The ideas that economists had about development and developed societies are fairly recent — they began to dominate in the second half of the 20th century. And then these ideas that economists had became the very world that we inhabited, this vocabulary is what we inhabit. Now we cannot think of a way of living outside this vocabulary of development, developed, developing, et cetera, and it completely overturns the earlier vocabulary to do with the magic and value of the incomplete and the unfinished. That earlier value has an imaginative and spiritual meaning that completeness doesn’t really have. Completeness is more of an institutional demand, whether we speak about how we are taught in school to write exam papers, and what education means in terms of getting more and more information, or becoming more competent. Incompleteness is an imaginative and spiritual counter-thought. Within today’s ethos, we don’t know what to do with these incomplete forms. We have forgotten, we rehearse certain kinds of pieties about incompleteness, but we have no idea why they are important, because then we’d have to imagine the ethos that learned from incompleteness, we’d have to imagine what it was capable of giving us.

What does that say about us?

I think firstly we have to check whether this account is true or not — that there is no place in our lives or our thinking or our culture any more for the semi-finished or partially apprehended. We have to see whether actually in our lives we are confronting the different and the incomplete. I think we are, both in terms of the way we live, and the way we respond to this in our imagination, but it may not be the picture that is coming to us, in a slightly caricatured form, through the newspapers. Or the kind of review pages or literary pages of newspapers, which themselves are indistinguishable from the news pages in their basic presumptions about what’s important. They are not a counter to the news pages, they are a kind of literary confirmation of what the news pages tell us.

To get a sense of what’s happening today, in the life of the imagination and in our everyday lives, maybe one has to look away from the news pages and literary supplements. Today I think there continues to be a possibility of being enraptured by the spasmodic, and I say this because I’m looking out of my sister-in-law’s flat in northeast London, and I can see bare trees, and a train just went past and I can see other houses beyond that. And I know that in me and in various others there is a capacity to discover — to rediscover — what is very close at hand and to be struck by it. It hasn’t gone, but it’s not the account we are getting of ourselves. I think there are multiple accounts, but we are only given one, largely speaking, but that is not anybody’s fault except ours. I mean, we subscribe to it, and not only subscribe — we’re not even aware that we subscribe to it — we participate in it. We do not look for other accounts, and this whole question of looking for other accounts is very important because this is the way we shape our lives as well, as readers. We do not shape our lives as readers because somebody’s told us to read something because it’s well known. All of us, if we have made anything of our lives, as readers, and a life in reading, it is because we were open to the discovery of the unexpected. So what is true of life is also very true of reading — we are directed to the unexpected by chance.

Now what I am saying about reading, what I am saying about life, applies also to our satisfaction with, or conviction that, the way we understand the world today or the world that is given to us now — through institutional proprieties; the networks of capital, among which are bookshops; media and social media — is the only way of understanding it, that there are no other viewpoints for understanding the world. We begin looking out for other histories, experiences, and forms when there’s an unconscious alertness in us to discovering, say, a piece of writing or a part of our neighborhood that we knew but didn’t really know. There’s a kind of alertness that is caused by your interest in going outside the fixed thing that you already know. So you are alert, without even knowing it, to the possibility of discovering something else. In the same way we need to be alert to the possibility of discovering other accounts of the world we live in and the literature we write and the films we make. It’ll all be useless if we came upon these other accounts but did not see them or recognize them, and if they bypassed us.

Could you tell us a bit about your “literary activism” project? You’ve organized symposia on the topic, written about it, edited an anthology. But I am more interested in how you engage as a literary activist from within art itself. In Friend of My Youth, for instance, the protagonist, Amit Chaudhuri, is critiquing the novel from within the space of the novel even while promoting his last novel on a book tour. You’ve been doing this sort of thing — arguing for an expansion and greater open-mindedness in our expectations about the novel — from your very first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address (1991), when you said that “the story would never be a satisfying one, because the writer […] would be too caught up in jotting down 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.”

I never thought of that as literary activism because that’s a phrase I kind of created — although it might have existed in a more conventional sense — for the purposes of a mission statement I wrote in 2014. But I had begun to think quite early on about the word “argument” and then “polemic” — I described Tagore’s writing as polemical, said that he was a polemical poet.

I thought of the place of argument quite early on, because of my love for Lawrence and the way he opened up certain things. Before Lawrence, I misunderstood modernism — and it’s still often misunderstood in this way — as being a narrative of European trauma and the trauma of the breakdown of civilization, and I was in thrall to this narrative but completely bored by it as well, because it did not speak to me on the level of who I really was as a creative artist. And reading Sons and Lovers, I encountered an aesthetic and a way of imagining the world that seemed untouched by this trauma — that seemed to reject the tragic, that seemed to be animated by joy (and I use the word animated deliberately because anything polemical or argumentative has to be animated, has to have its own lack of stillness, has to have its own agitation, such as Lawrence had). The case Lawrence is making is for the here and now, for life, just as the taxidermist did in Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. And then, later, I discovered the lines in Apocalypse, which he wrote before he died and which I keep going back to: “Whatever the dead or the unborn might know, they cannot know the marvel of being alive in the flesh” — and I thought this was Lawrence’s argument, his polemical position, his rejection of metaphysics, his rejection of the hereafter, his rejection of value coming in from elsewhere, his affirmation of the here and now, this existence, and I thought this was a great position for the imaginative writer, to be arguing for the fact of existence. And I thought everything that he was doing as a writer is so radiant because it holds this position, that it is arguing for life.

And I knew, too, that I was arguing for something similar when I began writing A Strange and Sublime Address. Lawrence’s use of the word “life” is strategic. He uses it to mean something that is in flow, that is animated, that is moving, as against the static, which he calls “crystalline,” frozen, referring to artifacts of “the storehouse of eternity,” which is how he looks at past art. He says he wants to be part of a flux, and it is important for him to be part of a flux against the static — that is part of his activism. Even in the word “activism” there is a basic advocacy of movement against the static — which we forget, because activism can vocalize very static and pious positions. But activism should be about what the word means — an inability to be fixed — and this is what Lawrence means by life. He uses the word “life” in an activist way, in the original sense of the meaning of activism, that life is a form of activism, of non-fixity.

When I wrote A Strange and Sublime Address, I thought, I’m not going to write a story of my childhood. It wasn’t a conscious thought, but I knew this wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to write about a holiday. Because I wanted to write about a holiday, it meant plunging into the unknown, the unknown being the present. This is where I am. I don’t know where I am exactly, and where I’m going to be in the next moment. But I am open to whatever it is. There is none of the predetermined value that comes from the past. The past is a static entity — I thought, I won’t recount the past. I’m going to go on a holiday. To go on a holiday means to already set aside those existing parameters. So, in that sense, my writing too is an argument. It positions itself on behalf of something that is animated, that cannot be just narrated or recounted. That is why Roland Barthes’s argument against a particular kind of novel — one that serves as the repository of what he calls an “unreal time” created by the simple past tense, and opening sentences such as “The Marchioness went out at five o’clock” — has a lot of resonance for me.

Much of your fiction has been about friendship — between the cousins in A Strange and Sublime Address, between the narrator and his roommate Sharma in Afternoon Raag, between the aged women Khuku and Mini in Freedom Song (1998), between Nirmalya and the music accompanists in The Immortals (2009), between Ananda and his maternal uncle in Odysseus Abroad (2015), among others. Have you been conscious of this theme as a writer, and what is it precisely about friendship that you wanted to explore in Friend of My Youth?

I suppose one can also redefine friendship as any kind of relationship of mutual dependency and a mutual sense of excitement despite temporary disagreements, temporary frictions, a mutual sense of having embarked on something together, though that something may not be anything concrete. I’m not interested in conventional friendships — the moment you begin to think of friendship, you begin to think of sacrifices made on behalf of each other, loyalties. I’m not interested in this as much as I am in embarking on something together, maybe repeatedly, and out of a sense of shared excitement that is not completely explained, gravitating toward each other in order to do this, disagreeing with each other in almost a comic manner because the tone of friendship is not fundamentally serious but open-ended and comic. This is how I understand friendship — not comical in the sense of making jokes with each other, but of an idiosyncrasy and unexpectedness related also to the question of whether these friends are compatible with each other. Often they are not. What is it that could possibly draw this person to that person? They don’t read the same books, they don’t have the same tastes in music, they are not replicas of each other. What is it that is bringing them — say, Ramu and Amit Chaudhuri— together? This is again part of the mystery that one is dealing with, which is also, in its own way, irreducibly comic and remote.

All the friendships that I mentioned are unlikely friendships.

Exactly. I think all true friendships are unlikely friendships. Because there cannot be any sort of preexisting recognizable reasons to do with mutual interest or class or education that create friendships. All of those friendships are friendships of another order — you see them in the acknowledgments pages of books. This is not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is that friendships are unlikely in nature.

So there is obviously some sort of homelike quality in the friend that makes that person return to the other person again and again. For me, this is especially true. The friend has to, in spite of their possibly idiosyncratic and prickly character, have some of the qualities of home — one feels at home in that person or with that person. This is why one goes repeatedly to that person and embarks on the journey with them: because the world is fundamentally unfamiliar, and commonalities of background and class and taste and temperament do not guarantee the creation of a reliable fellow-traveler in whose company the world becomes temporarily more tolerable. You must occupy a vantage point from which you observe the world. It’s something else that you recognize in this person, of having that quality of home that creates that vantage point.

The other kind of figure that I’ve also been interested in is the figure of the aberrant or substitute father. The father not as the patriarch, as in Thomas Mann, against whom you rebel, but the father in Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) — that is, Mr. Biswas himself, who is such a father; the substitute father in Huckleberry Finn, Jim; Walter Morel, who sings and whistles in Sons and Lovers, whistles as he mends things — the aberrant father who creates a kind of space outside of the law, which is appealing to the child’s disruptive need for make-believe fantasy and freedom. The real father or the powerful patriarch cannot do this because that person represents what is solid and what the offspring must aspire to. But this substitute or aberrant father does create a space where the son can be a companion, and this space is of play and exploration, just as was the case with Jim and Huck.

That has always been of great interest to me, and the reason that I’ve often been drawn toward these uncles has been because they came across to me as substitute father figures, who were irresponsible in a way father figures were not supposed to be. And, of course, there’s that sense of irresponsibility evoked in the Bengali phrase “mamarbari” — the maternal uncle’s house is supposed to be a place where you have free play, the play of the imagination, in a way that is not reined in as it is at home. So we’re talking about homelike qualities, but we’re also talking about unhomelike qualities, too, if you understand the transition I’m making between one and the other. These transitions and the ability to accommodate these transitions are what interest me about friendship. The basic interest is in being able to find a secure location for playfulness and the imagination in an inhospitable world.

Would it be wrong to say that, even while ananda — joy — is the most important life force in your work, it coexists with a sense of absence? In all your writing, I felt this most strongly in Friend of My Youth — the absence of the parents, the friend, the old Taj, the older Bombay, an older world.

The impact of absence on me led to me thinking about writing Friend of My Youth. And in this case, it was three things mainly: first, the friend in question, who had gone into rehab, which didn’t allow him access to the outside world, a rehab that was outside Bombay. It meant that I was unable to access this friend for a year — his absence had a curious impact on me because I’d never given thought to the possibility of his absence before; I’d taken his presence very much for granted in that I hadn’t had to give his presence any extra thought. So I was both stirred and puzzled by this impact, and I thought that I’d let the effect of that absence lead me to an imaginary space where I could write about Bombay.

And Bombay also was an absence in the sense that I’d grown up there but didn’t have a home there anymore. And you know that homes are completely unaffordable in Bombay — you cannot go back because you choose to go back. The choice was precluded for me. That was the second realization.

The third had to do with things changing overnight, as the Taj had, although it had been restored to look as if nothing had changed when you knew everything had changed. There was a dealing with these absences and lacunae at various levels that I wanted to dwell on in this book on Bombay. Yesterday my friend Aamer Hussein, the writer, asked me: Is it all true? I said: Yes. But, of course, I never went on any book tour. I never went to give a reading from The Immortals in March 2011. So all that is invented, but it’s also not invented because I have gone on book tours and I have stayed in that club and I have looked out on to that house where I grew up. Even when you are speaking about what is completely true, you are narrating it in a particular way that is invented. And one is not incompatible with the other — as you begin to narrate this invented story, you begin to live it.

Joy is a primary reason for me to be in this world and write about the world, and new meaning or transformation is a source of both unsettlement and joy, and that is there in this book. No transformation is, in its impact, exempt from the quality that transformation has of being associated with the joy you feel upon being liberated from the way you ordinarily understand things. So whether it’s Ramu or the way I expected Ramu to be present, and his transformation or the transformation of Bombay — they are sad, but these transformations also liberate me from the way I understood things, and so they also have this quality of joy — ananda — about them that comes from liberation.

Toward the end of the book, you write: “It’s not a happy ending; it’s a convention created for the purposes of an impossible sense of uplift at the end of death and tragedy: the happy beginning.” Placing these words at the end of your novel is, of course, meant to be ironic, as many of the narrator’s remarks about the novel are. What exactly is a happy ending, and why do you think it became so central to a certain kind of storytelling?

You know, happy endings became sort of prescriptive in popular writing and popular cinema. Tragic endings became the norm in other kinds of art, more serious kinds of art.

Why?

I’m not sure. That’s because I’m not really interested in endings, I’m interested only in beginnings. Here, in this quote, I’m talking about a different kind of beginning, where in the movie Titanic, for instance, everything is put back together by some kind of heavenly redemption. I’m not interested in this heavenly redemption where, as at the end of Gladiator, Maximus is reunited with his family in his family home after his death. Or Kate Winslet becomes an old woman and then becomes young again at the end of Titanic. I’m not interested in that kind of Christian redemption or reunion with one’s loved ones after death. If that happens, that too is part of an ongoing process, it wouldn’t be an ending that has the sense of finality such as these happy beginnings at the end of Titanic and Gladiator do. For me, every moment of time is a beginning and therefore has the possibility of these reunions.

Is this also why you say that you think every paragraph is a first paragraph?

I suppose so, because that is what I’ve said, that every paragraph is a first paragraph, every paragraph must have that sense of not only rejuvenation, of not recounting but opening up, of not saying what has already been said but of beginning to say, to embark on, to open out on something. The endings that I’m talking about in these two films — and there are other movies also that have these happy beginnings — have an air of recounting: either they’ve lived happily ever after or they became young again or they were reunited. There is an air of recounting there that polishes or perfects that moment, and then it’s over. We’re supposed to be satisfied with that act of completion, as it were. It’s an act of completion — what had been torn asunder has been joined again. I’m not interested in that act of completion, I’m interested in the opposite. In that sense, every moment in the novel interests me, because every moment suggests the possibility of a beginning. 

Every point in the novel is a beginning, I’d say, or at least, that’s what I’d want it to be. I suppose the way I’d look at that is — choose a paragraph or even a sentence and read it to yourself. The sentence has a place in the narrative and the sentence has a place outside the narrative. It did lead to something within the novel — that is, to the next sentence, to the rest of the novel. But when you pick it out of the novel, if it still alive and has potential, then it is active in the way I’ve been describing. But if it no longer makes any sense at any level as a unit full of potential, that means that it belongs only inside the novel, and to a story that has a more recognizable sense of its own beginning, middle, and end.

If the paragraphs and sentences have an unfettered quality, however, then they have a quality that makes them generate other possibilities. And this is true of the way the title of Alice Munro’s story “Friend of My Youth” (1990) worked for me — I didn’t read the story: the title itself generated possibility. This is also true of the way the paragraphs from Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street (1928) worked for me, as something that generate their own story, and lent themselves, as I read and reread them, to mine.

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Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree (2017), Missing: A Novel (2018), and Out of Syllabus: Poems (2019).


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