27 April, 2009Issue 9.1FictionInterviewsLiterature

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The Quiet Rebel

Lakshmi Krishnan


Amit Chaudhuri was born in Calcutta in 1962 and grew up in Bombay. He read English at University College, London, before completing a doctorate on the verse of D.H. Lawrence at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1993. His dissertation was published belatedly as D.H. Lawrence and ‘Difference’: Postcoloniality and the Poetry of the Present (2003), with a preface by poet and critic Tom Paulin.

Chaudhuri has written five novels, among them A Strange and Sublime Address (1991), which won the Betty Trask Award and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, A New World (2000), which received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and, most recently, The Immortals (March 2009), his first novel in nine years. He has also authored several collections of essays, poetry and short stories, and edited The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature (2001). His criticism and fiction have appeared in Granta, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the New Republic and the New Yorker. He is the first Indian on the judging panel for the Man Booker International Prize. Chaudhuri is currently Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia, and divides his time between England and Calcutta. He is also an acclaimed Indian classical musician.

The Immortals tells the story of three Indian musicians: a mother, her son and their guru, who is a classical music teacher. Set in Bombay during the 1970s and 1980s, it traces two families separated by status and circumstance, yet inextricably connected through the bond of music. Chaudhuri interweaves art and relationships, meditating on the conflict between aesthetic and commercial values in an India transformed by globalisation.

Chaudhuri’s writing is suffused with the sounds and textures of everyday life: the rituals of a neighbourhood, of a family preparing dinner, of a music lesson. His minutely observed novels are quiet, almost uneventful, but far from complacent. Like those of his revered predecessor, D.H. Lawrence, Chaudhuri’s polemics embrace the ordinary with courage, allowing moments of life—sometimes comical, but often tragically commonplace—to blossom.

The Immortals is so much about music. Music has been a theme in your writing before, but this is the first time you’ve explored it in such depth.

I’ve written about music, as you pointed out, in Afternoon Raag, but in The Immortals, what I’m looking at for the first time is the relationship between music and its contexts: human lives, the necessity of compromise, relationships defined by power, helplessness and dependence. The novel genre, with its web of interrelationships, provides a particularly apposite way of doing that.

Did it come out of working on your own music?

It came out of becoming increasingly aware, through the 1990s, of the way the world had changed. The world became unipolar. India liberalised and became part of that world. A different web of relationships—to do with human beings but also with the market—had come into existence. And in the midst of all this were the old notions—now suddenly a bit anomalous or obsolete—of the artist and the artwork.

Although all this seemed to have happened overnight, with epiphanic moments like the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the change had been happening subtly. In Bombay—which would become the major city of post-liberalisation India—the groundwork of change was being laid from the very early 1980s. This is why the novel is about Bombay at that time, a time when the city found itself on the cusp of something, at a crossroads.

The protagonist, Nirmalya, has a very tense relationship with his guru and practically chastises him for “selling out”. Is this a time when Indian bourgeois values come into seeming conflict with artistic values?

By the end of the seventies, India gradually saw the decline of the bourgeoisie in the old sense—that is, of the Nehruvian legacy and the older legacies of liberalism via, say, the Bengal Renaissance. A world emerged in India—as in other places—where it was okay to be rich, which it hadn’t been under the Nehruvian dispensation. It became okay to have desires and to be up-front about them.

In The Immortals, the traditional guru, oddly enough, seems to be able to cope with these facts better, and to take to the situation much more naturally, than the more romantic, educated, bourgeois boy. The so-called “traditional” in India has embraced capitalism, wonderfully, in a way in which bhadralok [middle-class] India has not. But with the music teacher it has tragic resonances as well, because he can’t quite go that far—and he fails. It has ironical, comic resonances for the boy because in the end he doesn’t lose anything. He does survive, even though he’s physically flawed. But he’s fine: in spite of all his affectations of poverty, he’s not poor. So the book is about the survival of the rich, which is an unsurprising story. The rich do survive.

Nirmalya classifies Hindu devotional songs like ragas and bhajans above Bollywood music or ghazals. Would you say that his judgments of Indian music are personally reflective?

Not of me now, but certainly I’m drawing upon what I was like, and reshaping that character. I’m interested in certain forms of exaggerated agony, things that make Nirmalya both comic and real, for me. And there’s enough distance between myself and the character for me to find it inherently fascinating that this incarnation should have been wandering about the world, looking at it in such ways. The early eighties was a time in which I was personally very unhappy, for a variety of reasons. I was always alienated from Bombay, but particularly so at that time. Just like Nirmalya, we had moved to an even bigger apartment in Cuffe Parade, and I hated that apartment. Retrospectively, that kind of unhappiness seems comic, but it also seems to offer a real key to that period: the [boy] with his exaggerated affectations and this whole phase he’s going through of rejecting the world.

Such as wearing the kurta… [traditional tunic]?

(Laughs). The torn kurta and the long hair, all of that, which he finally gets rid of in England. In Charlotte Street.

You write about the deep, abiding loneliness that Nirmalya experiences when he moves to London. Where does this suffering come from?

In a memoir in verse called E Minor, I talk about wanting to suffer yet having nothing to suffer for. It looks at the triviality, in retrospect, of this notion of suffering: the timelessness, the reasonlessness of suffering. Suffering should have a reason—given that, in the novel, Pyarelal is ill, Shyamji has died, Nirmalya’s in exile—but it seems to be there in and of itself, like a note in music seems to be there, like a resonance.

How does Bombay, a city in which one never really feels alone, compare with the sacrosanct privacy of Oxford or London?

It’s a strong contrast. If I were to speak for myself, I would say that I experienced a new kind of stillness, a new kind of silence and aloneness when I first moved to London in 1983. It was unnerving and educational. It taught me about who I am, about my need for noise and sound. That those were things of predominant value to me—the life of human beings, the life of the street, the life of objects—became clear. And these would shape the kind of novel I would write.

Human beings in themselves were not enough. If I’d been the type who could have been happy reading a novel in a room with the windows closed, in perfect communion with a world of characters, I would have written a novel about characters. I realized that it was a different kind of novel, one without the usual unfolding that we associate with psychological realism, that I wanted to write.

What kind of novel is it that you write? I wouldn’t call you a noisy novelist.

I’m not a noisy novelist, no. I’d say I write novels involving random digressions and distractions. I cannot dwell on one thing for too long. So I am not the right candidate to write a novel of deep psychological realism and inwardness, or a heavily researched historical novel with a kind of social-science sensibility—a type of writing I abhor, actually, but which is endemic to a lot of Indian writing. My novels deal with inwardness but also with outwardness, with allowing oneself to be seduced by distractions and interruptions, to let oneself go there.

You once wrote that Salman Rushdie is a “kind of hallucinatory cliff behind which we cannot see”, and you said that Midnight’s Children, especially, has defined reader expectations regarding Indian novels written in English. Pickle factories, explosions and magical realism, all of that. Do you see yourself writing in a particular tradition—that of the Indian novel or of the novel in general?

I do not see myself as writing in any kind of tradition, except perhaps one involving a kind of eclectic, homeless cosmopolitanism, which is paradoxically nostalgic about “neighbourhood” whilst also being attracted to the notion of “elsewhere”. This strand of eclectic cosmopolitanism thinks about neighbourhoods as recognizable but also as slightly foreign. If you’ve wandered about Europe or even outside the Anglophone world, you discover gradually a different story of globalisation from the one you’re aware of in the Anglophone world.

After quite a few years living abroad you moved back to Calcutta. Why?

Well, there are many reasons. One had been of course the abiding feeling of homesickness that I’d always had in this country. I had always thought I’d move back. There are many things I dislike about India, the worst being the hierarchical nature of the enlightened, liberal middle class. Despite that, the physicality of being there speaks to me in a way that completely disarms me: the moment I get off the airplane, clear customs and stand outside the airport waiting for the car. Even when I’m noticing things which dismay me slightly, there’s this contradictory feeling of rightness, of my self coming back to me. This is nothing to do with Indian identity or Indian nationalism. It’s something else.

The other reason was that I was a bit disappointed by post-Thatcherite England and by what had happened to England in the nineties. Not only did no high culture exist anymore, but as Ian Sinclair very insightfully points out, popular culture became crap too. So there was a closing-down of possibilities, it seemed, a narrowing of heterogeneity. I just got fed up. In Calcutta, although the city was also stagnating in many ways, I thought: “I still have things to discover because it’s not been all taken over in that way.”

In your essay “Thoughts in a Temple” (2004), you say, “the idea of the peace-loving Hindu has been turned inside out” and “the most innocent-seeming of activities appear to be charged with unarticulated violence”. This was written in response to the 2002 Gujarat Hindu-Muslim riots, to a restrained violence that you see developing in Hinduism—or, rather, Hindutva [movement advocating Hindu nationalism]—in the 21st century. What did you see in the temple?

I’m struck by visibility: what is visible and what lies beneath the visible, so I went to the Birla temple [in Calcutta] and I found these people, at peace. Ordinarily it would be fine, but because something had happened, like the carnage in Gujarat, the peacefulness seemed like a form of violence. What were they contented about? They were contented about beginning to do well: the economy was beginning to boom.

Were you angry when you wrote it, when you visited the temple?

I was. I was angry and mystified and baffled and also felt that something had been destroyed. Besides the lives of the Muslims being destroyed, the tone and texture of a certain dimension of modernity that had to do with the spiritual, and that came in a special way through Hinduism, had been destroyed.

You refer to the Hindi film industry in The Immortals, and you’ve mentioned Satyajit Ray in an essay on Rituparno Ghosh’s Chokher Bali. Are you a Bollywood-watcher, or do you tend toward arthouse films?

I have no clear loyalties. I grew up mainly watching Western cinema. When I was a teenager, I began to watch arthouse films. By no means was I an unequivocal admirer. That’s because I reacted, without quite understanding, against what I saw to be the existentialism or the absurdism of people like Bergman.

Later on I discovered that Bergman was full of life. But at that time, I was trying to get away from that. And later on, in A Strange and Sublime Address, one of the things I was trying to get away from was the existentialism of the seventies. Into the street, into random sounds, all of that. So I didn’t like anything that was in a kind of penumbra of interiority. I liked Satyajit Ray, with his wonderful humanism but his Renoir-like eye. Then when I came to England, I began to discover the Hindi film cinema of the 1950s and 1960s

Like Guru Dutt?

Guru Dutt. And Raj Kapoor. Then in the nineties, I began to discover the new Bollywood cinema. That began to interest me, because often it was very cinematic. There was a kind of fluidity to the camera angles that Hollywood didn’t have. Hollywood seemed static and prefabricated. Bollywood films also imported certain things from the changing life of globalised India. So you would suddenly have characters talking on their cell-phones or watching one-day cricket matches in a way that found no space in “serious” genres. In the early 2000s it became a kind of multimillion global industry. But interesting things do keep happening. Vishaal Bharadwaj reworked Macbeth into Maqbool and Othello into Omkara, and those are amazing films by any standards. And you can’t just call them arthouse cinema either.

And then something like Slumdog Millionaire comes along. Have you seen it?


What did you think?

My wife and I went to see it prepared to vomit all over the floor. We didn’t. I wasn’t repelled by it. It was slickly made; it was completely unmemorable. It’s just that I wasn’t as offended as other people were. I didn’t think it was poverty porn. I thought Danny Boyle was too preoccupied with his own Anglo-Saxon repressions to do with the body and shitting and things like that. But no frame contained within it any image or information that was special. It could have. As, for instance, when those two boys go into the abandoned hotel room. An abandoned hotel room contains all kinds of interesting items, but Danny Boyle didn’t seem to have noticed any of them.

It was episodic.

It was episodic too. I’m not against the episodic. But I felt that he might have smuggled in some interesting details that were true to that world. I think some Bollywood directors have done more of that.

You’ve been called a kind of observer of everyday life, or modern Indian manners. Is this accurate?

No, not really. I think I’m an experimenter in form. The everyday interests me as an intensely vivid, energetic, vibrant entity against the abstract and the epic. It’s always implicitly against something, and that’s why it possesses for me such energy and possibility. To say “yes” to the here and now is to reject so much.

How do you view this epidemic of novels, films, even non-fiction—The White Tiger, Slumdog Millionaire—dealing with the underbelly of Indian life? Where do you see your writing in such a matrix?

I don’t mind the underbelly: anything involving a lot of smell and sound. I hate, of course, the genre (and the phrase), “sights and smells and sounds of India”. But I like anything that has physicality and presence. It’s more difficult to get physicality and presence into a description of, let’s say, Balliol’s common room in Holywell Manor [where the interview took place], but it doesn’t matter to me what it is.

I was wondering if you had read Imagining India?

Who’s the writer?

Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys.

The CEO and the “seer”. What is it, a self-help manual?

I think it’s supposed to be a kind of vision.

Of India…

A vision of globalised India.

I’m completely anti “Indian” in that sense. Anything with India in the title puts me off.

Lakshmi Krishnan is reading for a DPhil in English at New College, Oxford.