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Literature : Interview

Amit Chaudhuri

by Kyle McAuley

“My interest in the English language is not just to do with a relationship with empire,” says novelist Amit Chaudhuri. At least, not the British Empire. For him, Indians have to contend with an empire of a different (although not unrelated) kind: their own. Set in the ’80s when India’s socialist government was liberalizing its economic policies and the West was eying this new free market power raising its head over the rest of Southeast Asia, Chaudhuri’s new novel The Immortals portrays the difficulties three middle-class Bengalis experience in situating their musical talents within this changed economic landscape. Nirmalya Sengupta plays the adolescent bohemian with barely a trace of irony, growing a beard and belittling the more commercial aspirations of his vocally-gifted mother Mallika and his music tutor Shyamji.

Thankfully, Chaudhuri is not there just to teach us a lesson about the hubris of adolescence. Committed as he is to the liberal, modern approach to culture he calls Bengali humanism, Chaudhuri mines the often un-self-aware pronouncements and plottings of his three main characters to comic effect. (A chapter begins: “Nirmalya, unobtrusively but firmly rejecting his father’s Mercedes, stood at a bus stop with The Story of Philosophy in his hand.”)

But encounters like Mallika’s losing a record contract because she sings with Bengali-accented Hindi feel tragic, not comic, because the people who populate his novel are getting crushed in the gears that provided the opportunity they’ve just worked up the courage to seize. (Also, music industry politics is a subject Chaudhuri, a successful musician himself, can speak on with authority.) The novel is remarkable in its attention to detail, its almost Woolf-ian interest in the quanta of domestic life. Chaudhuri’s been criticized for the glacial pace of his narratives, but that’s made up for by the balletic way he fills out his characters’ inner lives.

Kyle McAuley People who write about your work tend to marvel at how tranquil and composed your writing style is. Is that a kind of writing you intend to aim for?

Amit Chaudhuri I must aim for it on some subconscious level. It’s not something I’m thinking about when I’m writing. I am kind of composing from sentence to sentence so that each sentence takes its cue from the previous one. It’s not so much plot as the cues that each sentence and each paragraph is giving me.

Tranquility, as you put it, is something I maybe take from Indian aesthetics. I’m very hesitant to make a claim of that kind, to identify any kind of quality my writing might have as being Indian in some way because I’m Indian. But I’ve always been moved by the composure and calmness of Indian pictures, paintings, and music, and how it privileges peace. There is the word shanti, which you might have heard of, that “The Waste Land” ends with, which means peace. Shanti’s also one of the nine aesthetic emotions in Indian classicism. It’s a hugely desired aesthetic mode in music. I’ve also responded to it in western writers—people like Seamus Heaney, for instance, who I think has that tranquility, and in fact writes about it in one of his poem “The Harvest Bow.” He quotes the 19th century poet Coventry Patmore where he says, “The end of art is peace.” And I don’t think that’s the only end of art—that’s a pun there on the word “end”—but that’s certainly one of the intentions.

KM You’ve written about post-colonialism before, and I think a lot of western academics, and the general readership, tend to situate a lot of Indian writing that way. But you’re a full generation after the poster children for post-colonial Indian writing like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, and Bharati Mukherjee. How do you situate yourself in relation to writing like that?

AC I don’t fit in with that expectation or that way of positioning oneself as a writer-in relation to empire or whatever, in relationship to the English language. My interest in the English language is not just to do with a relationship with empire. And my relationship with British culture or western culture certainly doesn’t only have to do with colonialism. It has to do with other traditions as well—modernism, modernity, cosmopolitanism—and that’s also true of many Indian writers that have written in the Indian languages over the last hundred years or so. Some of the writers who are the poster boys, as you put it, like Rushdie, are also themselves misrepresented because there are qualities in their writing where you can see that they’re responding to film, to Buñuel, to Dalí, which are not picked up on as much as they should be.

KM Is that a part of your ideas about Bengali humanism?

AC Yeah. It’s an intellectual and cultural background for me—whether or not I would like to be one, it is there. It’s been insufficiently written about I think. It’s probably there in all of my books, and it’s probably there in The Immortals. In The Immortals, I’m also looking at a kind of ambivalent terrain where the regard for high culture that Bengali humanism had, like other forms of humanism elsewhere, is by the ’80s beginning to wane and give way to something else. That ambiguous terrain is what I’m exploring in the novel.

KM When I read The Immortals, I found that there was a keen sensitivity to being an outsider—the idea that a woman who sings with Bengali-accented Hindi can’t get a record contract, for instance.

AC That’s something that’s been with me for a very long time. To be an outsider provides a useful prism through which to see things, but the reason it interests me is that it’s a role that’s no longer talked about, especially in India, where everyone has to be in on the project of being Indian. It’s not acceptable for someone to walk out of that project. The economic boom in India that we’ve been witnessing in the last twenty-five years or so also interestingly positions the Indian as a postcolonial, as a non-western person, in a triumphal way. The rise of India becomes concurrent with the rise of “Other” (within quotes) cultures, but within, of course, the parameters of the free market. There’s a kind of free-market triumphalism about the rise of Indianness, but that also gets talked about as a kind of Otherness, a kind of non-westernness.

What this project to do with Indianness doesn’t understand is that there might be people who aren’t interested in the project at all. Those who are not interested in that project become the outsiders. They have other affiliations, other things that interest them, which would necessarily have to be of an exploratory nature, because those things are less written about, less advertised, less publicized. One would be groping one’s way through a different mapping of the present and one’s past from the one that’s given to you, ready-made, as it is very often when one is positioned as “postcolonial.”

KM The alternative that you seem to present in The Immortals is art, specifically music, but that creates a problem for the characters, where the free market intersects with artistic creation. There’s that encounter with the record executive, and there’s the son’s quasi-Bohemian ethos.

AC Exactly. And I’m trying to look at the comic aspects of that.

KM Yeah. (laughter)

AC The novel allows you to be ambiguous about these things. In an essay, you have to take a position, but in a novel, because these are characters, their positions are in quotation marks. You can draw out the comic aspects of their earnestness while at the same time tapping into the urgency of what they’re saying. The boy and the whole veil of adolescence with its utopian vision of the world allows me to do that—to both present the comedy of it, but also the urgency of it, which we lose as we grow up.

KM This concern of yours with the educated upper-middle class is also a form of outsiderness. It plays off the stereotype that in India there’s this vast divide between the business elite and the poor. When you’re presented with a family so up close that’s so stridently in the middle, it immediately destabilizes those kinds of stereotypes.

AC I think the problem with these stereotypes and preconceptions is that they put things in broad categories, and then you forget individual histories—histories of people, histories of classes, how people of different classes come together by chance or by predetermination. I think there’s a constant flux and movement going on. Writing, and noticing, and interpreting is all about being attentive to that constant movement, not only of people, but of meaning.

Shyamji comes from a less privileged class, but he has other privileges to do with his knowledge of music. The people who work in the house lead a very different kind of life in a different neighborhood. But they too have their place within the family. The boy represents some kind of odd rebellion. He actually wants to play at being poor, distancing himself from his father’s Mercedes Benz. These are various roles being played by various people. Some of them are actual vocations or professions that people are fixed to, like the boy’s father. Other vocations are changing with the time, because of the changing economic landscape of India. The free market, which has been shaping so much of what is India, had made its presence felt in a big way in the early ’80s, and that changes Shyamji’s sense of his own vocation because it gives him a new sense of opportunity.

And then there’s Nirmalya, the boy who’s playing at being something, who’s giving a performance, as it were, for himself. Looking at things as stereotypes risks ignoring the fact that living people are made up of these very particular histories. History is very particular.

KM You’re a musician yourself, and in The Immortals, music is a central concern. What made you decide to so comprehensively merge these two elements of your creative life?

AC In the novel, classical music is a thread which allows me to explore certain issues that I have been interested in in the last ten years or so, to do with the position of the artwork in the world today. It’s changed a lot since my first novel A Strange and Sublime Address was published in 1991. It seemed to have been smuggled into the world of published work because it appeared at a time that still believed in literary culture—not to do with commercial success, but literary culture for its own sake. That’s not the say that publishers were unmindful of returns, but there was a still an idea of a literary culture. By the mid-’90s, at least in England, Thatcher’s legacy began to belatedly affect the arts. Thatcher’s impatience, as it were, for public funding for the arts—

KM That’s a very nice way of putting it.

AC (laughter) Her dislike of any kind of public spending, really. So that began to dry up, and every book had to fend for itself in this new world of the market. It was at that point that things began to be represented differently. That changed the relationship the writer had to his material and to his reader and to his or her publisher. I kind of escaped that in 1999 by going back to India, but it was basically happening everywhere.

I had first seen this kind of marketing of the arts in India, ironically, with music. Popular Indian music was at a crossroads. There had been a decline in classical music; the great classical musicians were aging, and no new constellation of musicians had emerged. The great film directors and film singers—Hindi film was the main form of popular music—were also in decline. Films themselves were in decline in the ’80s. And then a new kind of music, which was the ghazal, the Urdu love song, began to be sung and marketed as a kind of substitute for film music. And many of these ghazals were actually terrible. At that time, marketing and packaging became very important. In a scenario like that, people like Shyamji would have suffered with their own kind of genuine commitment to the arts.

So I began to play around with some ideas that had preoccupied me: What happens to the musician or the artist or the writer in this changed world? What happens to these artifacts that possess a certain kind of beauty in that world? It becomes a kind of thread through which I am allowed to explore both the ambiguity of that world and also a certain kind of beauty, a certain valid yearning for beauty that seems to persist and nag at people.

KM Do you know what your next project is going to be? Is it going to be music or literature?

AC My next project is probably going to be a book on Calcutta as it is today. A non-fiction book.

KM Do you know what sort of tack you’re going to take with that?

AC I’ve written so much in my fiction about Calcutta, but that was a Calcutta that existed in the last heyday of its time, which was the time of modernity. But then—what has happened to Calcutta since, since its kind of falling off the map, as it were? It’s still an interesting city, but it’s lost its old definitions. So I’m interested in writing about where it is now.

The Immortals is out now from Knopf.

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