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Strange and sublime

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RUMINA SETHI

Amit Chaudhuri’s collection of previously published articles is an attempt at an alternative story of modernity.

Clearing a Space: Reflections on India, Literature and Culture, Amit Chaudhuri, Black Kite, 2008, p. 330, Rs. 395.

Amit Chaudhuri’s new book is not new: it is a collection of random essays and reviews he has been publishing over the last 14 years in journals and periodicals. The sub-title is expansive and elucidatory. But the intention towards “clearing a space for a particular kind of discussion” is specific and pointed. Chaudhuri endeavours to get hold of some kind of a perspective on the Indian English writer’s particular placement within India’s modernity vis-À-vis postcolonial theory, and in the process chart his own space, not as a Rushdie clone but as the offspring of manifold traditions that have scarcely been explored. In this context, marginality — which is a major theme in all issues explored in these pages and which constitutes Chaudhuri’s own experience — is singled out as a trope that has been appropriated completely by postcolonial theorists when speaking of identity. In tracing the advent of modernism in India, these essays laudably try to account for marginality and minoritism in a way which is removed from the regurgitations of contemporary postcolonial theorists.

Well, in a certain way, this is a reprieve because as teachers of English, the connections between English writing in India and the experience of displacement, hybridity and hyphenation issuing out of its colonial past has begun to breed monotony and tedium. We have become exasperated with being tied to an absolute grid. So, Chaudhuri’s “clearing a space” for Indian writers like himself would have to involve the removal of the debris of many an orthodox tradition emerging out of India or having been imposed by the British. The national preoccupation with Salman Rushdie in articulating views about language and identity would also have to take a beating here because Chaudhuri refers to a space Rushdie has not been able to encroach upon. And why not? Indian writing both predates Rushdie and exists side by side with it. Unfortunately, postcolonial studies have not given it much consideration.

Omissions

In their obsession with globalisation and diaspora, postcolonial theorists have neglected globalisation in its other, more important, avatar which may be called “internationalism”, a quality which was present in the work of R.K. Narayan (in spite of never travelling beyond Malgudi) and A.K. Ramanujan, both of whom existed before Rushdie arrived with the big bang Booker. Chaudhuri’s book is thus a plea for “the so-called ‘bhasha’ or Indian language writers” who undoubtedly have suffered because they have been eclipsed by the likes of Salman Rushdie who has been the toast of postcolonial critics.

The space that Chaudhuri tries to map is evidently one that should exist outside the binaries — “East, West; high, low; native, foreign; fantasy, reality; elite, democratic” — almost interstitially. The space is also constituted in an absence, for instance, that of the modernist turn in Indian writing, a turn which was never fully (or even partially) conceptualised because of the importation of the “postcolonial” from the Western academy that tempts us to use a terminology of “native/foreign” or “authentic/derived”, leading us to abandon a trajectory that our own narrative of modernity might have pursued. One would have to point out though that the very idea of interstitial space that Chaudhuri is trying to recover has been usurped by long-time postcolonial theorists like Homi Bhabha whose concept of hybridity is predicated upon just such a notion of space which does not straddle any binary positions.

Chaudhuri dwells predominantly on kindred Bengali writers, sometimes self-consciously using the collective pronoun “ours” as though they were representative of an entire community of Indians. Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Jibanananda Das and Nirad C. Chaudhuri are his models to explore artfully an inherent self-division which may be the only hallmark of their modernity. But in all fairness, the essay “Poles of Recovery” attempts to dispel his Bengali bent as he embraces O.V. Vijayan, U.R. Ananthamurthy, and A.K. Ramanujan to tell his “alternative story of modernity and modernism”. But when Chaudhuri comes to describe his own individual “turn”, he is at his most eloquent. The story of his conversion from a guitar-strumming youth with a proclivity for Western, elite pop to a mature proponent of the genre of Hindustani classical music is described as a process of “assigning new values to reality —to light, to air, to evening, to morning.” Chaudhuri is finally in sync with his Indian environment. Many would see that as a homecoming, as an end to displacement, ironically, within a mould postcolonial critics would call “native” and “authentic”.

Yet the act of writing in English is a sign of inauthenticity of the Indian author evident in the pattern of questions and answers repeatedly surfacing in conferences and literary festivals: “Which audience do you write for?” and “Are you exoticising India for a Western audience?”’ With these concerns, the essay “The East as a Career” starts merrily enough but Chaudhuri does not maintain the vein of humour here and elsewhere. His essays can be ponderous and turgid for those who cannot engage with the density of his argument about “the aesthetics of estrangement, of foreignness, in art” which works best through defamiliarisation of the commonplace, often taken as exotica.

Reclaiming spaces

And what if these questions were posed to Indian writers of another dispensation, Chaudhuri’s real forbears (though not linguistically), who do not write in English? The questions would be hollow, of course. And so would those writers. For the Western audience would regard Indian writers as meaningfully “Indian” only when the representative Indian ethos they produced in their writing was “plural, garrulous, rambling, lacking a fixed centre” (Rushdiesque, in short) as though “delicacy and nuance”, and even reason, were qualities that had never touched it. Evidently, orientalism persists.

Such are the themes, then, that Chaudhuri explores in the many essays in this compilation. I could perhaps best describe them with the adjectives “earnest”, “erudite” and “elegant” but also call them “inconclusive”, “wordy”, “weighty” (as in the phrase “market-intimate onslaught of Indian writing in English” or in the tendency to use parenthetical references repeatedly) and not at all minimalistic. Without doubt, they would be read and enjoyed by a literary mind that is trained and tutored.


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