Almost like a painter, Amitabha Bagchi delineates the inner lives of the prime characters of his books. The author tells us how he attempts to go deep down yet again in “This Place”.
The ﬁrst piece of writing Amitabha Bagchi published was a short piece for “The Little Magazine”, called ‘The Delhi Triptych’. A set of reﬂections “put together in a complicated structure”, the piece contained no characters, “just formal essays on Delhi.” Bagchi happened to show the piece to Krishna Sobti, his parents’ neighbour and, according to him, one of the greatest living writers anywhere in the world. She told him, Achcha hai, lekin human element hona chahiye. Her words have been Bagchi’s lodestar ever since, and his quest in ﬁction has been to present the often ineffable interior lives of characters. If “Above Average” provided an account of the drift its protagonist Arindam experiences in IIT Delhi, the author’s alma mater, in “The Householder” he introduced us to the conﬂicted life of Naresh Kumar, PA to a powerful civil servant, for whom corruption is a survival tool. In both these characters, the writer also makes apparent the stamp of their milieu on their inner lives.
His new novel “This Place” (Harper Collins) too reflects once again his belief that “the city, like a good percussionist, should be in the background”. “I don’t like books which fetishise the city; when people say “the city is a character” in a novel, it irritates me...A lot of people celebrate the urban setting without going into what it means and how it plays through the lives of the characters,” he explains.
Set in a Baltimore neighbourhood which, as any viewer of The Wire might guess, is a dangerous one, prey to dereliction and major crime, the novel details the lives of a few of its residents. The municipal authorities are planning a gentrification, and this necessitates the demolition of a housing block. This project will benefit Shabbir, a Pakistani immigrant who owns the block, but at great emotional cost to the likes of Henry, a war veteran, his affable dog Oscar, and Ms. Lucy, a widow, who have a long attachment with their houses.
Jeevan Sharma also lives in the same block, and owes a significant part of what he is to Shabbir. Having first driven a taxi for him, Jeevan now manages the accounts for his various businesses, in exchange for rent-free accommodation. He has near familial ties with Shabbir but has over the years also gotten increasingly close to his neighbours — Ms. Lucy makes pancakes for him, and he and Henry have their own little joke about baseball. His new neighbours Kay and Matthew, who are trying to keep their marriage afloat, like him too. Jeevan is caught between these two sets of people, and the values they espouse, which are right and wrong in their own way. Like his earlier novels, “This Place” examines the moral possibilities for men.
Having lived in Baltimore from 1996-2002, not too far away from where the book is set, while he was a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University, Bagchi knew the terrain well and yearned to recreate it. The first characters to come to him were those of Matthew and Kay, but he didn’t know where to go after them. A visit to Baltimore in the summer of 2008 got things flowing; it brought more clarity about other characters, as also a knowledge of how redevelopment works.
While he knew all along that he wanted to set the story against the backdrop of gentrification, he hadn’t realised it was going on in Baltimore in such a big way when he was actually there as a student. “In retrospect I realised that one other thing was playing on my mind. In the late ’90s, it was the high point for the Narmada Bachao Andolan…I was thinking of gentrification and displacement because for me that time of the ’90s, which I was trying to capture in this book, was very much associated with the political awareness of this notion of displacement…”
At the same time, he wanted to steer clear of the polarities, and the shrillness, displacement creates in its wake, and to instead get into the interstices, into what happens to people “when your world is about to go away.” “There’s this TV debate dichotomy that gets set up, and it makes it very difficult to see the human emotion that goes around in the process,” he explains.
Incidentally, the book was completed before “The Householder” was published, but did not materialise until now because he had hoped to get it published in the U.S. “I wondered how an Indian audience would respond to it, because it’s actually about American life… The Indian and South Asian characters are there because their locus, their position, is similar to my position there — the insider outsider.”
Bagchi, whose father was in the Indian Postal Service, grew up in the “Government part of Delhi”. “I had some idea that I wanted to be a writer, but I was also good at math and everyone around seemed to be taking IIT so I took IIT. But in a year or two I got pulled in by the mathematical aspects of computer science…” he recalls.
The experience at IIT proved significant in another way. It inaugurated his concern with masculinity, which has stayed with him in subsequent writing. “In the process of figuring out what to write in that book (“Above Average”), I began to realise it’s all about what it means to be a man, and what a pressure that is. At IIT we had a hyper version of that; we had all come through a difficult exam, we were all the big shots of our gully, neighbourhood, village, but once you got there, there were all the other guys who were much better than you, and you had to deal with it,” says the author, who is now a professor and a researcher at the institute.
“I am trying to present some notions of masculinity which are different from the ones we have become used to celebrating…we celebrate this kind of macho masculinity, the hyper achievement and then we ask ourselves what’s wrong with men when they behave in the way they have been behaving…masculinity is also about admitting your kid to school, fixing your puncture, paying the bills. No one celebrates that, no one talks about it, no one even presents it so that people who are living that life may recognise it.”
Bagchi feels he has exhausted whatever he had to say about masculinity, but it is unlikely that his focus will shift from his belief that “the strength of weak people is the stuff of literature”.