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`Reluctant' man of letters


THE Imperial Hotel in Delhi contains a coffee shop called "1911". It spills over from the main building, flows down across a terrace and a short flight of steps to the lawns, and is particularly pleasant to frequent in the local winter, when the sun is out. One day last week Amit Chaudhuri and I sat inside "1911", and drank coffee while we looked out at the terrace, the lawns, and the sun.

Chaudhuri had come to Delhi for several reasons. The World Book Fair was on. Also his publisher, Picador, was to make the award for an essay competition he had helped judge, and his presence was required.

Edmund Marsden, Director of the British Council, had earlier asked him to produce an illustrated exhibition of The Picador Book of Indian Literature, which Chaudhuri edited. This exhibition had been done, with the help of an artist friend in Kolkata.

It had been mounted the previous evening in the British Council Library: a good exhibition, though the abundance of invitees tended to prevent any close inspection of it. Chaudhuri was about to return to Kolkata, but would be back in Delhi on February 18 for the World Literary Festival.

A book of his short stories is to appear in London later this year. He leads the busy life of a professional man of letters, which I gather is not exactly how he wants to be looked at.

He is an exceptionally likeable person, with a gentle face and large receptive eyes, and speaks quietly, usually to the point. His family originally came from East Bengal where, as its name shows, it owned land. "My parents were born in the 1920s. They migrated, and I was born in Mumbai, in 1962." His father was in business there, and eventually became CEO of Britannia Biscuits. His mother was a student of Bengali literature and often read to him from it.

"It's curious that I resisted learning Bengali. I can speak it but I could never learn to write it. So when it came to a question of what language I should write in, the question of a choice never arose. I always wrote in English. In 1973 when I was 11, I first went to England. I had a slight heart condition as a boy. It's gone completely now, but I was treated for it in London. That was when the National Front was popular. I felt racial hatred in the air at that time, and I didn't like it.

"I started to write poetry. That was what I wanted to write. Some of it was published, but I never had enough for a book. All this happened in England when I went back a second time, in 1983. This was Thatcher's England, there was less racial tension in the air. Anyway I was up at Oxford, where it never existed, really. In the vacations I had a flat in north London, in a kind of slum. The woman who lived under me worked in a bar and so she was out all night and slept by day." It is not widely known that Chaudhuri is an accomplished Hindustani singer. He has given concerts and commercial cassettes of his singing are available. When, as a very young man, he practised it in his London flat, his downstairs neighbour didn't like it. "She came up at 9.30 one morning and made a terrible scene. If she hadn't slept by day, there wouldn't have been a problem." The episode must have made a deep impression on him. He recounted it bitterly.

"I kept coming back and forth between India and England. When I went back to Bombay my parents were living in St. Cyril's Road in Bandra. The road fascinated me, its daily life, the lives it contained, its ordinariness. I developed a sense of place, home, family. I thought a lot about my uncle's house in Kolkata, where I had spent a lot of time. It was then I wrote my first novel. It didn't require what poetry required from me. I had to separate the part of me that wrote prose from the part that wrote poetry, separate those from the part that was a singer."

He seems to think of this ability, to me extraordinary, as commonplace. "I had finished my second novel by the time I was finished at Oxford. But I still write poetry, though it's different from what I wrote earlier. I'm thinking of publishing a book of it." He has now written four novels. "Because I shuttled back between England and India so much, the British authorities wouldn't allow me permanent residence. They offer you dual nationality now, but I still have an Indian passport.

"It doesn't matter to me, except that I still shuttle back and forth. I have a small flat in Oxford, where I go with my wife and my small daughter in summer. The rest of the year we live in Kolkata." He interrupted himself to say, "Actually it does matter to me because whenever I go through British immigration I have to waste time answering ridiculous questions from people much stupider than I am."

He has a scholarly side to him, not found in most writers. His literary criticism shows that. He also proposed to Picador that it should start a Modern Indian Library. Picador liked the idea, and the Library will start soon. Chaudhuri will be in charge of it. It will reprint books that it considers important to Indian literary history, such as Arun Kolatkar's very fine long poem "Jejuri", so far unknown abroad. Some of the reprints, I gather, will be of translated work.

We had been talking for an hour. I suddenly remembered a lunch appointment and departed in haste. Halfway to my destination I realised that, having invited Chaudhuri to the "1911", I had left him with the bill. But I didn't think he would mind. Unlike most other writers of my acquaintance, he seemed to be a naturally understanding person.

Dom Moraes is a writer, poet and columnist based in Mumbai.

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