In a free-wheeling conversation, Amit Chaudhuri talks about books, his relationship with Calcutta, and current literary trends.

Even after 16 years in England, Calcutta is still home to author and literary critic Amit Chaudhuri. His beloved city — the more endearing “Calcutta” and not “Kolkata” — is the subject of his most recent book. .

In his recent book Calcutta: Two Years in the City, Chaudhuri notes his affection for the city that is at the crossroads of modernity. He says: “I was reflecting on what it was that had drawn me to Calcutta, given the fact that ‘that’ Calcutta had changed. What had drawn me to Calcutta was the city in its phase of modernity, and I tried to describe in the book what I mean by modern, as a particular kind of convergence of the urban process, history, but in a way that is not finished and polished in the way Dubai is, but… in process and [that] sometimes seems to be in a state of disrepair or dereliction, because it is in process, like New York. These are cities which are falling apart and getting re-generated before your eyes.”

What Chaudhuri writes or wants to write is not reflected only through his writings in fiction. “When I was writing fiction, I didn’t want it to be just another conventional story about certain characters. I was interested in exploring my sense of living in the world, and I continued doing that with essays. I was also writing fiction that was in part expressing my sense of living in the world. It wasn’t the kind of historical novel, that often comes out in India, or a particular kind of realist novel that gets written all the time. I had to figure out why I was doing this and that led to some of my critical reflections on whether I was alone in doing this, whether there was a tradition which we weren’t looking at in our rush to describe Indian writing in English or Indian writing in a certain way.”

“Non-fiction provides me with opportunities that fiction will not necessarily offer. In fiction, one is presented with certain opportunities, but others are closed down the moment you enter the world of the narrative. There are things for which I turn to non-fiction; to be free of that kind of narrative, that bondage, those shackles. But there are certain things that you can explore only through the shackles of that particular form: then you turn to fiction. But I don’t think that everything that I want to write about can be addressed by just that one genre, that is, fiction or the novel,” said Chaudhuri.

Chaudhuri’s book of essays will be released early next year in India. Called Telling Tales, it comprises essays written for The Telegraph in Kolkata, The Guardian, Granta, the London Review of Books and introductions to writers like Walter Benjamin, Shiva Naipaul, and D.H. Lawrence for the Penguin Modern Classics, while simultaneously finishing his next novel, which is set in London.

Of the burgeoning phenomenon of literary festivals, the writer observes: “I have mixed feelings about them. On one hand, I think that they do attract genuine audiences that care for the work of the writer they’ve gone to listen to; even an over-the-top congregation such as Jaipur is a good example of this… But, on the other hand, celebrity culture is fostered by festivals and … in India, the media conversation largely seems to pander to a kind of a mindless need to distract oneself on a diet of celebrities. Few nations can match India in its obsession with celebrity.”

Amit Chaudhuri refuses to get too excited about the Booker Prize being opened to non-Commonwealth writers. He believes that our engagement with the more vibrant bits of American writing should hardly be contingent upon the Booker. “It’s also worrying how the Booker has morphed in the last decade and half into a celebrity-oriented prize like the Oscars,” said Chaudhuri, the winner of seven awards including the Betty Trask Award and the Sahitya Akademi Award.

Ever optimistic about the future of writing in India, he said that the quality of emerging novelists and writing is better than what it used to be. Now writings appear more “playful and challenging” and newspapers have “better-written commentaries”, although “most writing that comes out in Anglophone papers in India continues to be poorly written”. However, the possible overshadowing of vernacular literature is a matter of concern for him.

“Indian languages are languages of great cosmopolitan pedigree in modernism and I worry about their marginalisation,” he says.

Though born and brought up in big cities, Chaudhuri firmly believes that cosmopolitanism has its roots in small towns. He recalls that his father’s roots in a small town in Bangladesh made him what he is — and also contributed to making his son the writer he is today.

Amit Chaudhuri will conduct the University of East Anglia’s International Creative Writing Course along with Kirsty Gunn. More details at https://www.uea.ac.uk/literature/creative-writing/creative-writing-india-workshop

Amit Chaudhuri is a panelist at The Hindu Lit for Life 2014.

Dates: January 11, 12 & 13, 2014

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