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An unlikely radical

Amit Chaudhuri looks, and writes, like your regular guy. But a different aspect to the man is revealed in his latest non-fiction work, says ANITA ROY.


AMIT CHAUDHURI is an unlikely radical. He dresses conservatively. His hesitant delivery is of one who weighs each word carefully before committing it to speech, as though language came to him in a box labelled "Handle With Care". His four novels, A Strange and Sublime Address, Afternoon Raag, Freedom Song, and A New World, are slim and sensitive — a bit like the man himself. "I was first and foremost a poet," he confesses, "I had no intention of becoming a prose writer" and yet it is fiction (albeit highly poeticised fiction) that has made his name.

But there is another aspect to the man revealed in his latest two works — both non-fiction. The first, a work of literary criticism which reveals him to be a fiercely intelligent and non-conformist critic; the other a collection of political essays, where he comes across as passionate, committed, and outspoken.

Reading D.H. Lawrence and Difference: Postcoloniality and the Poetry of the Present (OUP), I couldn't help but admire the sheer chutzpah of taking on: (a) Lawrence, the Wild Man of Eng. Lit.; (b) not even his novels but his poetry, a notoriously mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ikky; and (c) coming at it via post-structuralist and post-colonialist theory. It sounded like a recipe for disaster — or, worse, a print run of 500, and a lingering death on some dusty university library bookshelf.

Chaudhuri describes Lawrence as "a strange mishmash". Some of his poems are wonderful, "great work crystallised in a moment of time" and some are just plain bad — but strangely, he says "The badness was something I couldn't get out of my head." It seemed to be the opposite of everything that western Enlightenment expected from great literature: finished, polished, perfected, with what Lawrence calls a "pearl-like hardness".

Perversely, for such a perfectionist writer, it is the imperfect, the flawed, that Chaudhuri celebrates as allowing not only great creativity but the possibility of a truly liberal, open society. Talking not of Lawrence, but of Indian society today, he laments the fact that nowadays there is no place for daydreamers, for those that "yearn for the irresponsible", for what he calls "the cult of failure": "When I was growing up (in Kolkata), if you were sensitive and intelligent, basically, you must be a misfit. I used to laugh at the cult of failure, but now I do believe that there has to be a place for the misfit, for the outsider. The person who lacks ambition or is an outsider is seen to mount an implicit critique of the value systems which people live by, and is therefore looked upon with great intolerance in this society."

The increasingly intolerant society is subjected to scrutiny in the other book released last month, Small Orange Flags (Seagull). This is a collection of six essays: the first, from which the collection takes its title, published in 1993 and the rest in the last two years. Whether it is the Babri-Masjid, the carnage in Gujarat, or the "New World Order" post-September 11, Chaudhuri approaches each topic via a personal moment — his young daughter's bare feet on the marble floor of the Birla temple in Kolkata; a chance meeting with a dignified Hyderabadi Muslim on a Greyhound bus; a Sikh man drying his hair after a bath — an image of unsettling tenderness.

After listening politely to Chaudhuri's "Thoughts in a Temple", an elderly Hindu gentleman at the book launch points out that Hinduism is not synonymous with Hindutva — that this is a gross reduction. Chaudhuri agrees — but goes on to observe that whereas previously, although agnostic, he found himself "alive to the possibility of being moved" by a temple bell, or devotional music, since the rise of the RSS and BJP, this realm of feeling has been cut off for him. He regards this as an amputation of the human spirit, and looks genuinely grief-stricken at the loss.

In another essay, he talks of Walter Benjamin's philosophy of history whilst walking through an East German city and unearthing traces of its violent, holocaust-ridden past. "It is only after walking around Schoenberg that I understand something of the panic that fuelled his eloquence," he writes, and it is in these essays that one gets an inkling of what fuels Chaudhuri's own. It is not panic, but a heady cocktail of outrage and despair. "A writer does have certain duties, but not only the crude one of `I have a platform and I must use it'. The main duty the writer has, besides being true to what he's doing, is to give voice to self-critique. The admission of complicity. The networks of nepotism that we ourselves live by." Not a popular sentiment, in these times, in this city — and all the more valuable for that.

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