Amit Chaudhuri: ties that bind

Feature Amit Chaudhuri has earned acclaim for his novels about family and belonging. M visits him in his home base of Kolkata, the focus of his next work.

Chaudhuri at his home in Kolkata.
Powered by automated translation

Amit Chaudhuri has earned acclaim for his novels about family and belonging. Helena Frith Powell visits him in his home base of Kolkata, the focus of his next work. Amit Chaudhuri does not much like travelling. He finds the day before he is set to leave particularly difficult. "I feel I am neither here nor there," he says in an interview at the Kolkata home he shares with his wife, 11-year-old daughter and his octogenarian parents. "I am a soul in transit. You would think after 20 or 30 years of travelling it would get better, but it doesn't."

Chaudhuri, a youthful-looking 47-year-old with a charming, boyish smile, is the author of five novels, all of which have won literary prizes, a musician in the Indian classical tradition and an academic. He has been based in Kolkata since 1999 after a childhood spent in Bombay (he refuses to call Indian cities by their new names, "Why should I call it Mumbai just because someone says it is called Mumbai? They might change it again next year") and student years in London.

Chaudhuri will have to overcome his pre-travel melancholy when he travels to the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair next week, where he will be among the most eagerly awaited speakers. The only son of a middle-class Bengali family, he attributes this depression to "an early sense of displacement and hatred of going to school". Chaudhuri was sent to an elite English-speaking school, aged just four, when he did not speak any English. "My parents, having nationalistic pride in their language only spoke to me in Bengali," he explains. "I knew some Hindi as I would speak it to the servants. But I knew hardly any English at all."

The school's headmistress suggested to Chaudhuri's mother that she give him Ladybird books to read. With the help of these pocket-sized mini-hardbacks with their old-fashioned tales told in simple, clear English, Chaudhuri mastered the language quickly, and says he began to want to write as soon as he started to read. "I began to want to write little things like rhymes and stories. It might have been in part showing off that I had got the hang of this new language and having them applaud me." From childhood on, he had "fantasies about making it as a writer" which led to him leaving India for London "because it seemed like the place to do it" aged 21 to study at University College, London. "The studying was an alibi or passport which got you in. It was then up to you to promote yourself as a writer."

But early 1980s London was not much fun for the young Chaudhuri, whose sense of displacement grew more acute. "I was extremely homesick. I couldn't deal with the weather and the silence. Sundays especially used to be like death. Just waking up on Sundays was a dreadful experience and then the weather-" he groans and laughs. "I became acutely aware of words in different ways. The word 'cold', for example, and the fact that its equivalent in an Indian language would not have those negative connotations. The line 'shall I compare thee to a summer's day' never made any sense to me before I went to England."

At this stage Chaudhuri was keen on becoming a poet and was writing mainly poetry, an apprenticeship that consisted of "inhabiting and imitating the voices of the writers I admired", such as Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, TS Eliot and Baudelaire. He would not, he says, have benefited from a course like the one he now teaches every year on creative writing at the University of East Anglia. "I would have failed miserably. I wouldn't be able to write to order."

Ironically it was a poem that eventually led to his switch from poetry to prose. "When I was 23 I wrote a poem about a street my parents had moved to in Calcutta. It was the first time I had actually written about a real locality, a real street, a real neighbourhood. Before that, I thought writing and poetry was about grand themes and I felt that surely nothing I had experienced first-hand was important enough to put in a poem. The discovery that I could put a street in a poem led gradually to wanting to put another neighbourhood I had known in Calcutta in a novel. I realised I was a person who actually wanted to write about everyday things and I thought a novel had the architecture, the space for me to write about them in a certain way. So I saw the novel as a space rather than a plot, a space which I could inhabit in a larger way than I could in a poem."

He started working on an idea for a novel about an Indian Bombay boy holidaying in Kolkata. The result was a novella and a collection of short stories called A Strange And Sublime Address, published in 1991. It won the Betty Trask Award and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Chaudhuri doubts it would even be published in today's climate. "It came out just before the free market and a certain kind of publishing changed the way we think about book publishing which began in the mid-1990s. By the late Nineties the Thatcherite legacy had permeated culture, and England was becoming completely homogenised. I decided to come back to Calcutta, which was and still is in some ways in decline, but where I felt I had discoveries to make."

By 1999 Chaudhuri had written another two critically acclaimed novels, Afternoon Raag (1993) and Freedom Song (1998). He was also married, with a five-month old daughter, another contributing factor to his return to India, because he wanted her to be brought up there. He also wanted to go back to his ageing parents. "I knew I wouldn't be completely cut off in India because of the internet. But it also meant I wouldn't have to be in touch with the world all the time and I was not going to become a churner-out of novels."

He was also keen to focus on his music. Chaudhuri is a critically acclaimed singer in the North Indian classical tradition. In 2007 he released a CD, This Is Not Fusion, a meeting of western and Indian music. "I played the guitar, I started when I was 16. I wanted to be a Joni Mitchell-style star. Then I got into Indian classical music and immediately rejected my guitar-playing self as being inauthentic.

"But that inauthentic guitar-playing self and the Indian classical self came together in the early 2000s in the project This is Not Fusion." He trains daily, singing once or twice a day. He fits in his writing in the late morning and early afternoon. His daughter has inherited his love of music; she sings regularly, although she says she wants to be an actress. "But she used to want to be Miss Universe," laughs Chaudhuri, "so it is getting better."

Chaudhuri's fourth novel, A New World, was published in 2000 but there was a nine-year gap until his fifth and most recent one, The Immortals, was published last year. He has in the past described himself as a "publisher's nightmare" because of the long break between novels. He laughs when I quote him on this. "I have been a bit of a publisher's nightmare," he concedes. "Well, maybe nightmare is a bit strong, but it would have been easier for them if I wrote a certain kind of book and wrote one every two to three years. But one of the things I have grown to realise over the past 10 years is to what extent the market has taken over culture, in spite of the crash two years ago. It just remains to be seen whether forms of writing and publishing emerge which are different and not driven by the same bankrupt ideas that the mainstream publishers have. I realise I have to make a certain degree of peace with the mainstream not only to make a living but to exist. But also that I can do it on my own terms because there are enough people who will value you for what you do and therefore to give you some visibility, and in the free market world visibility is all."

In a sense his own predicament mirrors that of the central character in The Immortals, a music teacher who teaches music to the Bombay middle classes. "The story began with an image, a music teacher who comes from a family of musicians but makes his living teaching rich families in Bombay, mainly housewives. Also a young man who belongs to the same upper middle class, but pretends to be poor. The teacher comes to the house to teach his mother. The young man cannot understand how this artist can be so comfortable and benefit from this world he has nothing but contempt for, and the teacher cannot understand the boy who belongs to this world but doesn't seem to fit in with it."

Chaudhuri is currently working on a non-fiction book about Kolkata. "I am trying to work out why I didn't engage with this city during the past 20 years. It meant a great deal to me when I was growing up in Bombay. It is a city that is no longer marked by the extraordinary. Its inner life has gone." Throughout the interview members of Chaudhuri's family come and go into the vast dimly-lit drawing room where we are sitting. All around are beautiful objects: statues of Buddha and the gods Ganesh and Kali, along with paintings, antiques and deep-red rugs. A large window looks out over Kolkata and the elaborate Birla Temple below. His experience of family and place has figured hugely in his writing, which has been described by the historian Ranajit Guha as "full of stillness, but a stillness full of vibrancy".

Chaudhuri makes no apology for focusing on the minutiae of everyday life. "I remember Salman Rushdie complaining to me about VS Naipaul's Enigma Of Arrival: '16 pages looking at a hedge,' he said," Chaudhuri laughs. "Writers who are of real importance to me are those who have written with real conviction and looked with new eyes on the everyday. Those who are willing to dwell on that with humour and attention and are not necessarily bothered with a plot from A to B to C, which I find a big bore."

Critics have said that Chaudhuri's novels lack plot, a criticism he dismisses by saying that the joy one gets from reading has to be down to more than "whodunit". "What commands the attention is something else. Like the quality of the writing. But there is something addictive about reading and wanting to know what happens next is not a good enough explanation for this mysterious addictiveness which narrative or poetry sometimes has. And anyway some of the reviews are very badly written, which kind of makes me take what they say not very seriously even if I find them a bit irritating."

He is planning to write another novel after the book on Kolkata, but won't be drawn any further and returns to the state of contemporary culture. "For me it is about knowing how to tread that thin line between carrying on doing exactly what I want to do, writing the kind of essays I want to, writing the kinds of books I want to write and doing the kind of music I want to do. It is about having the freedom to do that and still be part of the world."

Musician, novelist, essayist, academic; is there any one genre he would link himself to than any others? He thinks for a moment. "The novel is what I'm identified with," he says smiling. "Reluctantly, I would say the novel." In Conversation With Amit Chaudhuri will take place on Saturday March 6, 7pm-8.30pm at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, followed by a book signing. Amit Chaudhuri will also be performing with local musicians at a special concert, 'This Is Not Fusion', on Friday, March 12, at 8pm, and is participating in an author session entitled Books And Music with Alexander McCall Smith on Saturday, March 13, at 4pm. Both take place Emirates Literature Festival, InterContinental Hotel Event Centre, Dubai Festival City.