As Amit Chaudhuri’s debut novel celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, he speaks about his brand of writing on India, and the idea of the creative artist.
BY NANDINI KRISHNAN
AUTHOR PHOTO BY GEOFF PUGH
The first thing Amit Chaudhuri confessed to me when I arrived to interview him, almost before I was within earshot, was his low tolerance for the bucolic: “Can we go somewhere less bucolic for lunch?” As can be reasonably expected of someone who studied in Oxford and Cambridge, and teaches a few months a year at Norwich, Amit Chaudhuri is not fond of bucolic places; neither is he prone to romanticising cities that carry the reek of sewage and sweat, and sprout ugly buildings climbing over each other—irrespective of whether the cities in question are painted sky blue and spew Rabindra Sangeet from traffic islands or not.
As we walked through the red sands of the retreat in Auroville where he was guest tutoring a workshop, to the soundtrack of birdsong and rustling leaves, he sighed, “I don’t know why writing workshops are always held in bucolic places. But evidently the students are getting something valuable from the experience.”
That may be one of the reasons Amit Chaudhuri does not often lead workshops, though he usually likes the students. The one he does organise in Calcutta is in the middle of several traffic jams, mostly caused by cabs whose drivers wear incongruously serene expressions as they mechanically honk at their equally immobile counterparts.
In speech, as in his writing, the author is precise and has a propensity for throwing in hilarious observations while looking extremely serious. A quarter century after he first confused people into coming to terms with a book about what he calls “the non-event”, Chaudhuri talks about his career and his upcoming novel.
Full disclosure: I am a former student of Amit Chaudhuri’s.
You started writing at a time when there was a lot of interest in India and Indian voices. But most writing from India, before you and even after you, does have to do with Independence and issues that are considered specifically Indian, whether it’s religion or caste, and their stories were often a microcosm, where the journey of the characters somehow reflected the journey of the country. But your work was very different. Was that a conscious decision?
No. It wasn’t conscious at all, because I didn’t know the centrality that such writing would have—you know, to do with using Partition or Independence as a trope; or the whole idea of writing a historical novel about the nation. I didn’t know that those kinds of works would come to be identified with Indian writing in English, in a sense.
I was just trying to make my way in my own style to establish a kind of writing which had other preoccupations than not only nation-state and Independence and Partition and caste and all the other baggage which comes with nation state, but also preoccupations distinct from narrative in the conventional sense, character in a conventional sense, psychology and interiority in a conventional sense; to find ways to accommodate other impulses—the impulse to look at things from multiple perspectives, for instance; to redefine what an event is—in the sense that there might not actually be anything happening, but you find something is engrossing or exciting even if the conventional markers of the event aren’t there; to move beyond writing about a protagonist, or the self into writing about the world and living in the world; to look at the form itself, to look at the novel as a form rather than as a vehicle through which to document life or to chronicle life or to talk about life, to talk about the nation, to experience the formal shape of a story—you feel that more with short stories, but I turned to the short novel for this reason that I was interested in form.
And by form, I usually mean finiteness, something which is only there in that particular way, and is there only in a limited way. Whether it’s a piece of music or a piece of writing, it’s there in a limited incarnation, and that incarnation is form. So I was interested in the form and the beauty of form.
Those were the things I was looking at. They were there subconsciously, but they were there. I didn’t realise that all these things were going to take me in a direction very different from the direction the Indian novel in English would be taking, from the Eighties onwards.
That leads very nicely into my next question, which is about Salman Rushdie. I know you haven’t had fisticuffs with him, but you’ve been pitched not so much as Indian writers on two ends of a spectrum in terms of style and subject, as you have as writers who’ve had disagreements and some sort of battle on what writing is. Why has it happened?
Oh, has it happened? (Laughs)
In the media, yes.
Oh, well, I guess it has, to a certain extent. I don’t know. I have argued with the interpretation of what the Indian novel in English should be, an interpretation heavily dependent on a certain reading of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
But Rushdie himself has always been extraordinarily generous about the variety of Indian writing and what I represent in terms of that variety. He’s made this point again and again, and he’s continued to make it until quite recently, that Indian writing in English was not one thing and that there was him and there was me who wrote very differently.
On two occasions, he made—very interestingly—a comparison, with Chetan Bhagat being at one end of the spectrum of Indian writing in English and I being at the other. So, between “the very popular and the very artistic”, that’s what he said. In the early days, he used to draw a comparison to himself, of himself writing a particular kind of novel and I doing a completely different kind.
So he himself has been very inclusive in the way he has looked at things.
I have had to fight against the legacy of Rushdie’s writing and the legacy of a particular interpretation of the writing defining the whole existence of the Indian novel in English. But for his own writing, for Midnight’s Children, I feel a lot of admiration and affection, you know. There are wonderful things in it.
And so, though the styles are so different, I feel very close to some of what he is trying to bring into literature, like the banality of contemporary Bombay—that I feel very much in sympathy with, and I admire Midnight’s Children for that reason, for having achieved that.
I think the media exaggeration happened after you wrote a review of Shalimar the Clown—not a review as such, but an essay on Indian writing I think, in which you alluded to it and not very kindly.
It was a review-essay on Shalimar the Clown, but most of the essay was about the way Indian writing in English is positioned, the way it’s looked at, the way it’s thought of, and its constellation of figures and its mythology, its creation myth. And I disagreed with that creation myth. That was the main thrust of the essay. The review of Shalimar the Clown was a minor part of that review-essay. [The piece is titled Oh, For The Return Of The Clown Prince, published in Outlook magazine on September 12, 2005.]
But is it uncomfortable or awkward when you’re a writer who reviews books, because you obviously know some of these authors already or may run into them eventually?
I generally don’t write reviews where I’m dissing people. That’s because I’m a writer myself, and I know a writer is trying to do something and they might fail at it, but firstly, have you understood what they’re trying to do?
I review very little these days, and I’ve been reviewing very little for the last ten years or more. I only review if I want to review something. But if I do review, I’ve never gone to a book thinking “How would I have dealt with this subject?” or “How should the author have dealt with this subject?” I go to it to find out how this author dealt with it, and then whether on his own terms he failed or not. But the review is mainly an attempt to understand the author’s own terms.
If I feel the author has done something truly new, then that will come through in my review. But for me the review is not an occasion to either hold up somebody or trash somebody, and very often I elect to write reviews about writers who I think for one reason or the other should be read more or are being neglected.
Speaking of reviews, I often wonder why you’re so often compared to Proust. I don’t know if someone mentioned it in a review and then people just decided it had to be said every time. I personally find absolutely nothing in common between your writing and Proust’s.
Yeah. I don’t know…the word or name Proust came up very early on. I really haven’t read much Proust. I began to read him later. Huge books always intimidate me. Although I knew that I might like Proust, I feel I lose something by not reading French. But something to do with the way I was dealing with sensation and memory, and maybe the city, made people use that word, and I don’t know why.
The first person who said it was a Belgian woman married to my cousin and living in America. She was one of the earlier readers of my work. And then Khushwant Singh used it. “He writes like Proust, maybe even better,” he said, like only Khushwant Singh can. This was about Afternoon Raag, and I was impressed to see that Khushwant Singh had read Proust.
Then, the philosopher Charles Taylor came up to me in Berlin, before I was about to give a talk, and he said, “I like your work very much. It gives me the sort of pleasure that Proust does.” And I was very touched by that, because, in spite of the fact that these things may aggrandise you, the fact is that people like me have had to make our way and create a set of terms in a way that’s been quite solitary because we have not been writing about the things that we were supposed to have written about. We didn’t write the kind of novel we were supposed to have written in the way we were supposed to have written it. I say ‘we’, but I mean myself.
So when somebody would come and say something like this, it meant that to that person it didn’t matter whether I was Indian or not; he was trying to read me in a way that took into account literary antecedents, or literary affiliations and lineages, and that is what he saw when he saw the writing. And nationality didn’t matter. I’m not talking about transcending your own nationality. I’m talking about the way we look at writing, not only through nationality, but through certain kinds of temperament, certain kinds of projects. So, at a time when it seemed that what I was doing, as far as people who wanted certain kinds of markers from the Indian novel in English were concerned, wasn’t clear, for people to come and speak to me in terms of locating me in a particular way within the literary landscape and locating me with such generosity meant something because I felt very alone.
One doesn’t always notice these things or take them too seriously, but when you’re working alone, that kind of reaction where you’re being looked at for what you’re doing in terms of where your imagination is going in a way that’s not constricted by the terms of identity becomes important.
Comparisons can often create a false context. But there seems to be a need to put a writer, especially a new writer, in a certain context, a certain slot. Do you think your refusal to provide this context, or subscribe to the parameters within which young writers in the late Eighties and early Nineties were working, affected the way you were read, or affected the way your books were marketed at the time?
To go back briefly to this matter of comparison, it also depends a lot on who is making the comparison and why they are making it—whether they are doing it because they have spotted something new and unexpected in that writer, something that is in the writer but which they hadn’t expected to be there, and they’re also making a nuanced judgment about the fact that such a writer should have this kind of a quality; or whether it’s being done by a publisher to sell somebody.
Because, let’s say Salman Rushdie’s novel was a success and so the next person who is said to sound like Salman Rushdie should also be a success. So, [the publishers] say something like, “A cross between Midnight’s Children and Pulp Fiction”, and use this comparison to proven successes as the only way of drawing attention to and selling that new person.
But then there’s also a comparison where you’re trying to figure out what somebody is doing, and you do so in terms of somebody else’s writing. Whether or not that comparison is tenable or not is another question.
About this question of marketability and what I was providing the publisher: I wasn’t providing the publisher anything at all. I was making certain explorations and I continued to do them, and I wanted to be free to make those explorations, but it’s very, very difficult to fight for that freedom. The whole itinerary, the whole journey has been about fighting for the freedom to write in a particular way, to develop in a particular way, to address certain things, to not be afraid of being preoccupied by your own impulses and following them as to where they wanted you to go.
Has publishing changed since you started writing, shifted to a more corporatised industry, with all these lit fests and the marketing? I remember you once said it was more “genteel” in the Nineties.
No, publishing changed in the early Nineties. The Berlin Wall had come down, the free market took hold of the economy the world over. That affected publishing and affected all of us—the way we think of writers, the way we think of rewards purely in financial terms, the way we’ve come to accept that success is commercial success and that failure has no role to play in the world of writers…while failure is a very important—perhaps the most important—experience in the world of writing.
Failure is also an important part of how we conceive of writing itself because writing means not being able to completely replicate or capture what one is writing about, but only gesture towards it, only give it to you via the image, or via something that partially represents what you’re talking about—let’s say through the synecdoche, as in classical Indian dance, where you’re using a gesture to talk about something. If that something were to appear replicated in front of you, that would be done through technology and you would not need the synecdochal art through which you suggest to an audience what it is that you’re trying to show.
That suggestion has its own beauty and it is also connected with an acknowledgment that I cannot actually give you that; I can only gesture towards it, I can only try to conjure it up partially. And we cannot have it permanently—after that performance, after that moment when I’m trying to conjure it up, it goes, it doesn’t last. So all of it, all of it has to do with failure being a part of the aesthetic experience. We don’t want to have it forever because the aesthetic experience is connected to transience.
The dominance of the market made us forget about the role that failure plays, for instance, also in our lives and also in the way we conceive of art itself; it made us have a very clear and uncomplicated and market-governed way of the idea of success.
That genteel aspect of publishing—where you mean that we do certain things in publishing, despite its also being a business, as a labour of love; and you don’t constantly justify to yourself in terms of market whether it’s a success or not—that began to go in the early Nineties. That space couldn’t stay.
But I think the arrival of the internet has provided new spaces, where things can be put up for love rather than profit. And in fact that has become a problem to many industries—like music companies have gone bust because of the free availability of things. But the free availability of things, while having spelt bad news for the music companies, has also been a kind of Renaissance in terms of what we can listen to today. And the music companies, while they blame free availability of things on the net, for the fact that artists and their labels don’t earn money anymore, the fact is that the music companies themselves had become so conservative that what they would release into the market was only the most conventional, timid, timorous product which was designed not to fail and which was therefore entirely uninteresting.
What they began to produce in terms of music were a series of safe bets, which people didn’t find interesting. And that’s one of the reasons the music companies have failed—their inability to put their faith in the unpredictable, in where their heart may lie, to deny that again and again in favour of a safe bet. So it’s not the free availability of material that has killed the music companies. The music companies long before that killed themselves by narrowing down more and more and more what they would release into the world, by only taking a small and very conventional bit of what was being produced on the music scene and packaging that and releasing that and making artists also curtail themselves and their impulses to appease this impulse to always play it safe.
You wrote about the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus. And recently, when Perumal Murugan received a favourable verdict, I thought about how these small vernacular publishers, without a lot of money on hand, had backed their author right through; and then you have a multinational conglomerate refusing to fight. I wonder if that’s a symptom of the same thing—of playing it safe.
I don’t know the specificities of the Wendy Doniger case. But the way these things happen has been steadily eroding the cultural life of this country, the political life of this country. And these things keep happening because people back down. People in India always back down. They back down if they’re publishers. They apologise if they’re individuals. They feel they have to. Like, for instance, recently Karan Johar apologised and ended up retracting everything he’d said.
On the Pakistani actors.
Yeah. As long as that kind of thing happens—it might be easier said than done, the idea of not backing down and keeping the confrontation alive and seeing it through to its end, but as long as people do back down, this kind of thing will keep on happening. In the countries where this kind of thing has been contained and stopped, people who have faced it have seen it through, have not backed down. But in our country, people and institutions and countries do back down. They don’t want trouble after a certain point.
Now, you may be right about the fact that some smaller companies may be braver. They are braver in some instances, in terms of what they publish. Often, you’ll find that smaller publishers, who can’t afford to publish writers who are not commercially viable will sometimes do so out of admiration for the writer; while the bigger companies, which can afford to publish them but have a stricter kind of notion of the importance of market principles, will drop that writer these days, will make them redundant. The writer may be a very well known writer, may be a very respected writer, but they’ll drop them. This is happening in the UK and the US all the time.
So, there is—not only in connection to things like intimidation by right wing groups, but in connection to how publishers deal with the market on the one hand and the idea of genuine writing on the other—a prevalence of cowardice.
To me, there also seems to be, on the other hand, this grand posturing in terms of stances. You were involved, for instance, in a controversy at the Brooklyn Book Festival over a panel which was sponsored by the Israeli embassy. I know you were among writers who signed a letter of objection about Israeli sponsorship, but there were some who said you should have boycotted the panel. There seems to be a lot of hypocrisy in writers taking such stances, against governments or corporate sponsorship of events or boycotting lit fests, because I don’t think any writer would turn down a Booker nomination, which is also sponsored by a corporate entity, or turn down a large cash award from a government to whose principles they object.
(Laughs) I think there are moments when such stances may be important, but the main stance that a writer is involved in taking has to do with his writing, and how to sustain a career or whatever the right word is at a time when the freedom of the imagination is not a particularly sacred thing for publishers or audiences or even writers themselves. How to create your own set of terms in relation to what you’re doing…that is the main struggle. The rest is debatable and important and unimportant and, you know, there are moments when one might do this or that and it might be opportunistic or it might be necessary or it might be wrong not to have done something. But over and above that, I think you can do all of that, but if you haven’t been engaged in creating your own set of terms, according to which you work and by which want to be read, then you have not completely performed your task as a writer, as a creative artist, which is to argue for a set of terms and sustain that argument and develop on it through the years of your practice.
Now, I have to ask—as a musician and writer, what do you think about Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize for Literature?
Okay. My feeling was at least they gave it to an actual creative artist.
As opposed to Taylor Swift?
(Laughs) No, as opposed to some writer who has become well known for some reason and according to the orthodoxy today is supposed to be a serious literary writer; and he may not be a serious literary writer. At least Dylan, we have seen over many, many, many years, right from the Sixties onwards. We also know through those years that we have somebody who is a genuine creative artist, and we might have our problems with him—I certainly am not one of those Dylan fanatics; I used to have problems with Dylan earlier on—I used to think there’s a streak of chicanery or fake showmanship in him, and I used to feel slightly suspicious of him as I used to feel of Picasso, for instance. You know, these are people who are always putting their creativity on show in some kind of way. But having listened to him again in the last few years, I know that he has genuinely done some extraordinary work. My favourite songwriter from that whole era and ethos still remains Joni Mitchell. To me, she’s the greatest songwriter of that era.
But I’m happy that they gave it to Dylan rather than some person whom the literary orthodoxy for some reason thinks is an important writer today. And there are many of them who are not that important. Dylan is important. So if they’ve extended the idea of whom the Nobel Prize in Literature can be given to, that’s fine. I’m okay with it. I don’t like the kind of hero worshipping we have in India of Dylan. But in India, people always take recourse to hero worship. Hero worship is when somebody believes something is great as an article of faith and then keeps proclaiming their sense of reverence and wonder for how great something is without ever explaining to you why they think is great.
This is what was happening after Dylan won the Nobel Prize, in India—endless expressions of hero worship. As with Dylan and as with any other artist whom people from time to time in India worship in that way, if you ask them what is so great about this artist, they will not be able to tell you, so this was also something I was reminded of—how in India, we are unaware why the creative artists we revere are important.
Sorry, I’m laughing because I was suddenly reminded of this incident you recount in Calcutta, of the assistant at the Melody store refusing to play an LP of Bade Ghulam Ali’s concert for you.
Yeah, yeah. Like, “What’s there to listen as far as Bade Ghulam Ali is concerned? There’s nothing to judge over there. It’s Bade Ghulam Ali!”
Sort of tangentially—do you think awards make a difference to how an artist is perceived? Take A New World—it got some unfavourable reviews here, and after it won the Sahitya Akademi award, a lot of those reviewers changed their minds.
Awards don’t really make a difference. What makes a difference is arguing for a set of terms over the years and being able to sustain that argument both through your creative and your critical writing.
In the end, nobody remembers what awards you’ve won. What they will remember is the set of terms you created. We don’t remember what awards D. H. Lawrence or Henry James won. But that was not their sole intention either—with both Lawrence and James, that’s very apparent. And I’m not even talking about the poets who radically tried to create a set of terms.
The fact that Eliot won the Nobel Prize and Lawrence or Proust didn’t does not matter. What matters is the creation of those terms. Otherwise, the prize doesn’t matter and you don’t matter. That’s something that I feel we’re not as aware of as we should be, that it is beholden upon the writer to over the years create a set of terms by which they are read and to a certain extent the way others are read too.
Has the twenty-fifth anniversary of A Strange and Sublime Address made you reflect on your career, or does it affect you in any other way?
It does affect me. Maybe it shouldn’t affect me, but it does. It affects me in the sense of, firstly, being astonished at somebody who didn’t adhere to rules of what the novel should have been, let alone the Indian novel, still being around. (Laughs) That itself is a cause for surprise.
And then, to look back 25 years—A Strange and Sublime Address was written, of course, more than 25 years ago—and to realise that that project began then, self-consciously. You can see in that novel the fact of a person who knows they’re going down a particular route. And it took me also back to the time when I finished writing that novel and it became less than half the size of what I’d originally written. I’d jettisoned so much.
And then it arrived at its final shape, and then all the publishers who had been so interested in the book, because they had read an extract in the London Review of Books, got nervous when they saw this very slim book without any of the conventional crutches to do with plot or theme or whatever, and how all those publishers immediately backed away from the book and it waited for two years to find a publisher. And I remember being quite patient during those two years and not thinking about it, and knowing that the book had arrived at a shape I was happy with and I was not going to interfere with it.
And I think that book at that time gave me a lesson in terms of knowing when you have done something with a book that you wanted to and then having faith in that and not wanting to change things to please somebody else. That thing which I had in me at that time was something I became conscious of and I’m almost surprised at my own calmness. I don’t think I would be as calm today. But the calmness I had at the time is a lesson—you take a call, rightly or wrongly, but you take that call.
I’m a bit surprised to hear you cut out half the novel, though.
Well, it was my first novel and I began as a writer who had an idea, and as a first-time writer. And when I was midway through writing what would become Chapter 7—it begins with a lunch, I think; and the next day is a Sunday, Chhotomama shaves in the balcony, and he goes to the toilet with a newspaper and an ashtray and a cigarette, and sits there; then he comes out and he has a bath under this kind of shower, sings a Tagore song and a song that Sachin Dev Burman used to sing, and then in the evening, there’s a power cut and they go out for a walk, and the lights come back.
As I was writing that chapter, I suddenly realised that I had found a language talking about the uncle having his bath, going to the toilet, adequate to what it was that I was trying to do. I had found the language. I remember thinking that, because I went back to it and read it. Everything I wrote after that had that language. When I went back earlier, it didn’t have that language. So I had to salvage. I had to rewrite. I had to think: what am I going to do? There was a point of time when I couldn’t make out anymore whether anything I had written had any value, and it seemed only Chapter 7 could be kept and published as a standalone story and nothing else would work.
But then I got over that feverishness. And I had to still continue with that nightmare process, of taking out, scratching out, deleting, rewriting, and then putting into a sense of illusory sequentiality paragraphs which in the original actually did not follow one another but had been juxtaposed with each other, like a work of montage, like a cinema editor creates an illusion of narrative or sequence but is actually working with individual images and juxtaposing them. And that’s what I was doing—salvaging the individual images in individual paragraphs that remained, that could still be used—and then coming up with the narrative.
It’s been years since I last read the book, but I particularly remember this one image of Sandeep holding a watch against the light, and the baby being fascinated by its reflection. And that was something that fascinated all of us as children. For most of your books, I remember images vividly. But A New World alone is different, not just in terms of the story and character, but in that I remember the language more than the imagery.
It is different. It was a different kind of experiment where I was going against my own grain.
A conscious experiment?
Conscious in the way these things are conscious. (Laughs) So, not conscious in the sense that “I have a plan.” But it was an experiment, a risk of a different kind. The risk earlier was to turn the non-event into something that was exciting. How to convey that, that the non-event is somehow more interesting than the monument or the landmark? To do that, one had to show that there was something about the non-event or the commonplace thing that was exciting to a certain kind of mind, and this kind of mind rejected the great historical moments, the great landmarks in favour of the excitingness of the non-things, the non-events.
With Jayojit in A New World, I wanted to show a person who doesn’t understand this aesthetic at all. For him, the major events of history in India are the major events. However, he’s at a moment in his life when he’s being cut loose from all that formed him, those ambitions, those ideas to do with power, to do with what it meant to be an Indian of a particular generation—the Doon School generation—for whom the nation-state loomed large, growing up, pursuing economics—economics being a way of understanding and ordering and controlling that world. It’s getting divorced that has suddenly cut him loose from a generation which was engaged in ruling the new India, the India which we see even now but especially in the Eighties and Nineties, in Delhi—making a place for themselves as the new ruling dispensation; I’m not talking about the politicians, but I’m talking about academia, media etc., the new secular elite with its understanding of the new nation-state, its closeness to power, and its indifference to the ordinary, to the commonplace, to the non-event.
That kind of mind which is close to these large frameworks does not understand the significance of the non-event or the sensory or the sensuous. It doesn’t have space for the sensuous. So Jayojit is one of these people, who likes to talk about the nation and changes and economic reform. Now suddenly he’s in this space created by his unexpected divorce, where he’s with his son, at home, doing nothing; or visiting his parents, doing nothing. But he doesn’t know what to do with nothing, with the ordinary. So he’s a man who is not moved by the ordinary, but he’s confronted with it, every day. That’s what I wanted to show in this book. I wanted to study a mind that has been shaped in India by some idea of power, of the nation, and is suddenly confronted with something which is neither and doesn’t know what to do with it, and see how it would work in a novel.
With Jayojit’s world, too, I’m looking at a different set of people—I’m looking at people that I’ve begun to discover as I visit Calcutta more and more after my father moved there in 1989. And I began to write it towards the end of the Nineties and completed it as I myself moved to Calcutta in 1999; and also I have now got married, and having got married, I’m looking at a different kind of family from mine. My mother’s side of the family was completely idiosyncratic and very creative. I’m looking at other kinds of families that exist, who seem normal, but are caught up in their own unfulfilments, and A New World comes out of this space.
In all your books, the mother character seems both consistent—in the sense I could believe she was the same person in different forms—and somehow flawless. I wonder whether that’s because all of us tend to see our mothers as flawless or because she’s illustrative of a particular kind of woman to whom sacrifices for the family come naturally—not necessarily consciously.
I don’t know. For instance, the mother in The Immortals is not quite sure where she is, you know. And this is not my mother. It’s based on some dimensions of my mother. But this woman never cut a single record. She waits her entire life to cut that record. My mother, of course, had several records. [Amit Chaudhuri is the son of the renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent Bijoya Chaudhuri]. And my mother was idiosyncratic in a way that I don’t make the character in The Immortals. But she—just to talk about one mother—finds herself in this place where she thinks she’s extremely talented, and yet she doesn’t want to make those kind of sacrifices, to use your word, that will take her out of her family and into the world of the performing arts. She doesn’t want to be Asha Bhonsle.
No, I didn’t mean “sacrifice” in the sense of “compromise”. To choose not to be that professional singer is a sacrifice made for her family, no?
No, there’s a kind of uncertainty about it. While she thinks she’s as talented as them and she would have wanted some of that recognition, she also doesn’t want to end up where that woman has ended up and feels safer in what she has got, in terms of family and the privileges she has being this man’s wife…not only as crass as that, but whatever it is that that life has given her, she justifies to herself that this is somehow more worth it than getting what Asha Bhonsle did, but being that solitary person that Asha Bhonsle is—that thought actually comes up in the book. I’m looking at it from the outside, and I’m not saying this is right or wrong, or a true picture or a false one that she has of herself. With this character, it’s an exploration of a woman who has made a compromise. Nirmalya (her son) is the only one who doesn’t, as it were, want to live in the world of the novel, which is one of relative values and compromise—he is on his own kind of mission and thinks he’s going to make no compromises and doesn’t like compromises being made.
In Afternoon Raag, the mother only appears now and again, and as an image that is both comic and deeply placatory to whoever it is who is looking at the image.
I’ve never been able to write about my mother as she really was, or report on her life as it was. But because she was so important to me—at a certain point of time, the most important person in my life—because of the kind of person she was, intellectually and artistically, she will come up in my writings, in some incarnation or the other. Her art also gave me a lot, in terms of thinking about how to conceive of art.
Your Odysseus Abroad got a lot of attention for how much sex there was, because it was seen as this major departure from your other work.
People were not having sex at all. They were only fantasising about the sex!
I know, and that happens in The Immortals and Afternoon Raag as well. But people singled this out as a novel with all this sex and all this humour.
Yeah, I don’t know why, because I think the humour has been there right from the beginning. One of the things Margaret Drabble said on reading A Strange and Sublime Address was that it made her laugh out loud. And Jonathan Coe said the same thing about Afternoon Raag. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny like A Strange and Sublime Address, but it is very funny, that’s what he said. On The Immortals, Richard Ford said, “This very exquisite, often very funny novel”. So the humour has been noticed by a lot of people.
In India it took more time, because Anglophone Indians—unlike Indians, let us say, who have been exposed to the rich fund of humour in South Indian Culture or Bengali culture; because North Indian culture doesn’t come across as very humorous, it seems brutal and the humour very crass—have a very broad sense of humour, which makes very clear distinctions between what’s humorous and what’s serious. While for me, and for many people from other kinds of cultural backgrounds—whether it’s South Indian or American or Bengali—we will not make these clear distinctions, that he’s now being serious and now being humorous. These things are always flowing into each other. For me, the comic aspects of life make them kind of eccentric and individual; and that eccentricity—I use “eccentric” in a very special sense, in the sense that Amartya Sen called South Calcutta’s buildings “eccentric”, unusual—that eccentricity and idiosyncrasy in that sense, waywardness in that sense are very, very important to me and they are a key feature of humour. Humour is not just about people speaking funnily or cracking jokes. It’s about timing, and through timing also slipping in something which is slightly wayward.
The Immortals is your only novel set entirely in Bombay, but even that doesn’t quite qualify as a Bombay novel; your stories set in Calcutta have the city almost as a character in itself. Is that because when you’re a visitor to a city, rather than living in it, you’re able to see it in a larger sense, as a whole, since you’re not part of it?
I don’t know. Because in The Immortals, I’m looking at Bombay as a kind of anonymous city, where the city is not so much a character as the drawing rooms are—the lives lived in drawing rooms, inside cars, in clubs, the view of the sea, the nexus of power, wealth, and patronage of the arts within this nexus. The sense of place is not something that I’m trying to convey there. I’m trying to look at this network, this nexus, which even if you try to leave, is becoming increasingly difficult—because they go to Bandra after the man’s retirement, but even there, Bandra’s changing; there are new shops selling croissants. You know?
I mean, the predominant emotion the novel left me with was one of material versus art; you have a record producer being courted, being wined and dined by someone who can afford it. You have this immensely talented music teacher who never makes it because he refuses to make the compromises other classical musicians are making. So Bombay in the novel is a very ugly world, where everything is for sale.
It was a very ambivalent place—it was a place of great ambivalence.
In The Immortals, I don’t feel love for Bombay; I only look at it as a place of ambivalence, a place of compromise. I was looking back at it at a time, the Eighties, when Bombay was in a sense at its worst—as many places were, for different reasons—and going through this transformation which was a transformation leading up to economic de-regularisation, liberalised India, the economy which would change Bombay into one of the great cities of the world.
During the Eighties, this kind of background work was taking place and it was a decade of compromise and of undistinguished ambitions—a refusal to value the truly valuable, and to pursue undistinguished ambitions.
Most Bombay people have a sort of love and nostalgia for the place. In your case, even when you’re being critical of Calcutta, that love comes through. I don’t see that love and nostalgia for Bombay in your writing.
For Calcutta, it’s to do with confronting an astonishing city, and confronting an astonishing incarnation of modernity where the monuments are people’s houses; where the great sights of nature are the streets; where the great fragrances and perfumes are gasoline and urine. It’s being moved by that and having a temperament that is moved by that, by such an organism, and not finding that in Bombay.
But now, when I think about Bombay and when I go to Bombay these days, I’m incredibly moved by it—by everything it has been through, and everything that it’s lost without being completely aware of it, everything I have lost in connection to that city.
I cannot see the city without thinking of my parents, neither of whom is alive anymore. So I feel very moved by everything that the city was in a way that I wouldn’t have 10-15 years ago. And I think the new book—it’s called Friend of my Youth (and will be out in mid-2017)—comes out of this sense of love for Bombay.
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