Be it food or literature, author Amitabha Bagchi’s influences are rich in character
The way he dresses up it seems Amitabha Bagchi desires to be lost in the crowd. The way he decks up his sentences it seems he wants to eke out the last bit of ostentation that we associate with writing in English. Simple yet profound, unassuming yet hard hitting, that’s Bagchi for you. His eye for detail and moral dilemma first besots you and then cripples your superego. His second novel has just hit the stands and as you get introduced to The Householder you can make out that this one is equally ‘above average’ as the bestseller that announced his arrival. In times when we are being told that only people at the top are corrupt, Bagchi unravels the moral condition of our times through the undulating life of a personal assistant to an IAS officer. Drenched in corruption, Naresh Kumar, is not just the doorkeeper of the power house, he is a gateway to our collective conscience.
At Hyatt Regency’s Aangan as we acclimatise to traditional Indian décor with chhach, Bagchi gives us an insight into his world that gave him the capacity to make a corrupt character not only central to his story but also humanise it. And when he gently drops the names of Bashir Badr and Shrilal Shukla as his influences, things begin to fall in place. Very much like the lamb chops on offer!
“The context of this book is not so much of what other writers in English are writing today. It is the journey that I undertook in the last 10-15 years. The prose voice is something I developed myself but what happens is when you read Shrilal Shukla (Raag Darbari, Bisrampur Ka Sant) or Bashir Badr there is a tremendous feeling of intimacy. My background is very different from the background of Shukla’s characters or the world that Bashir Badr talks about. I grew up in Delhi. My father was a senior officer in Indian Postal Service and I studied at DPS R.K. Puram and IIT Delhi but still I felt intimacy because those people (that Shukla talks about) were everywhere around me while I was growing even though I didn’t have a direct access to them. Through their works I got an access. The best part with their works is you don’t want to leave that world even when the book finishes.”
Bagchi says writing this book was an attempt to enter that kind of world on his own. “Of course it is updated to today’s times – from small town UP to government flats that dot different parts of Delhi like R.K. Puram Sector 3, Moti Bagh (South), the stretch between Anand Niketan and Ring Road. You will find Naresh Kumars there. As a child I went to these flats but as the son of a senior officer. I could enter the house but I had a very specific position. Those were the houses that I wanted to enter again and see what was cooking inside,” says Bagchi digging into nalli nihari. In love with North Indian food, Bagchi is proficient with chicken rice, something he practised during his Ph.D days in the US.
Bagchi’s ancestors left Bengal early and when a shopkeeper in Bhopal told him ‘aap to UP ke lagte hain’, he thought the transformation of probashi was complete. However, he could still make a delicious payes that his Punjabi wife (author Ratika Kapur) loves to have. “It doesn’t taste as good with sugar. I keep looking for khajur gud,” he sighs. “When I write the book I always have an end in mind but with cooking it is not possible. With writing you can undo a lot of things, it is not possible once you have taken a route with ingredients,” he compares his interests. “I am never conscious about what people would say about my writing but with cooking I am concerned about the public opinion.” As for food it is only tea that consciously makes way into his writing. “I believe while making tea you have enough time to reflect and that’s why at two places in Householder, I have used the process as points to ponder.”
Yellow dal has seldom felt so rich and the conversation shifts to his concerns for his corrupt protagonist. “Writing is about developing empathy for people who are not like you but there was a personal reason as well. In 2005, I moved back to India and started teaching in IIT Delhi. For anyone, who has not spent his 20s in India and in 30s starts working in a public sector it was very difficult. All kinds of encounters with the clerical people were very frustrating. The demand for this certificate and that certificate took its toll on me. The writing was a way to deal with the anger and I started by trying to put myself in the shoes of one of those people.” But the kind of problems that Naresh faces, it seems Bagchi is taking a moral stand. That if you are corrupt your personal life will go for a toss. “I am trying to say when you are corrupt, when things go wrong you don’t even have your honesty, your character to fall back upon. Instead of a pathetic figure you become a despicable figure.” Time to cool it with kesar kulfi and khajur rabri with gulab jamun deliciously corrupting the rule book!