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‘I had cinema in mind when I was writing’: Amit Chaudhuri on ‘Afternoon Raag’

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Amit Chaudhuri talks about his 1993 novel, ‘Afternoon Raag’, which now has a 25th anniversary edition with an introduction by James Wood

Afternoon Raag is my favourite book by Amit Chaudhuri. Reading it in the mid-1990s as a student who was just beginning to develop a special relationship with literature is one of my richest formative experiences. I’ve since cherished the short novel form. I’ve sensed something about the form that tends to wander away from the logic of narrative, breathing into it the life-force of music or poetry, scattering, as Chaudhuri might say, the “storytelling” impulse.

Sometimes it is the playing with space rather than time — going away somewhere, whether as a student, tourist, migrant — that initiates a tantalising relation with atmosphere. Always it is the throbbing personality of the sentence, as pointed out by James Wood, who reviewed Afternoon Raagwhen it came out in 1993, and who writes a moving preface to its 25th anniversary edition.

Excerpts from a brief conversation with Chaudhuri:

I remember reading Afternoon Raag in 1995 and talking to you. You had mentioned the anxiety you had felt, having written something so distant from the large and psychedelic postcolonial national narratives blazing their way through the 1980s and 1990s. What do you make of that anxiety now?

I remember being depressed before the book came out. I’d put together a cluster of paragraphs — something I’d done in A Strange and Sublime Address — but done here without any attempt to conceal the fact that the novel was a montage instead of a narrative. Was it really a novel? There were ways of identifying the realist and the postcolonial novel, but what exactly was Afternoon Raag?

‘I had cinema in mind when I was writing’: Amit Chaudhuri on ‘Afternoon Raag’

I was unsure whether the montage worked, and was nervous — if indeed the book wasn’t a novel — of being found out. And it was 29,000 words (I love the beauty of the short novel) at a time when novels seemed to need to be at least 400 pages long. Today, after 26 years, I find questions about what a piece of writing is, putting prior assumptions to one side, among the most productive questions to ask myself. I have greater clarity, with hindsight, about what I’d set out to do.

The novel as a work of a certain length, especially when tied to plotted realism, is very much rooted in Western modernity. Fiction in South-Asian languages has never felt bound by the length expectation, often being much shorter. Do you see yourself participating in this tradition?

I think the realist novel is tied to Western modernity, yes; but maybe to Anglophone modernity in particular. European languages like German, French, Italian and Spanish seem to have no shortage of novellas, and make room for unfinished forms. These forms bring with them a sort of playfulness, an embrace of the idea that fresh departures are more important than finished projects — think of Colette, or Duras.

But my models weren’t literary alone: I had cinema in mind when I was writing; photography, art, and philosophy too. An idiosyncratic little book like Mandelstam’s Journey to Armenia was proof that brevity and linguistic eccentricity could resonate more than realist narrative. Non-Anglophone modernity — and, in India, non-Nehruvian modernity — made a deep impression.

Do you see the publication of new editions of your earlier books as participating in what you have called literary activism? I’m particularly interested in the relationship of these publications to the question of reassessment, and how that plays out in the career of a living writer.

I’m fortunate in having new editions of A Strange and Sublime Address and now, Afternoon Raag. Given the kind of novels they are, the fact that they were published at all in 1991 and 1993 was the result of chance and the decisions of editors who weren’t entirely fettered by marketing. The introductions by Colm Toibin and now, James Wood: both making themselves available and enthusiastically taking on the task — that was a moving surprise.

They had once been generous about these books; Toibin in his selection, The Modern Library, and Wood in his 1993 review for The Guardian. We aren’t friends: as Wood pointed out while interviewing me about Friend of My Youth in Brooklyn this year, we’d met only three times in 28 years.

So there’s a kind of loyalty at work, to the writing rather than to the author, which one can only be grateful for, and which is at the core of the ‘activism’ you mention. But there also has to be openness in order for reassessment to take place; to admire or dismiss a book, and then be open to rereading it a quarter of a century later.

The poetic impulse, the narrative impulse, the musical impulse. Do they ever throw stumbling blocks in one another’s way?

For me, there are two kinds of writing: the imaginative (maybe that’s what you mean by ‘poetic’), which makes you see things anew; and the institutional, which confirms what is, by consensus, important. Generic differences to me are less real than the difference, and the argument, between the imaginative and institutional.

By the way, the imaginative doesn’t have anything to do, for me, with ‘making things up’: it’s to do with understanding afresh. I must have felt this way instinctively, which is why — Afternoon Raag is an example — ‘making things up’ has not been a primary concern. My interest is in arriving at a new place. One might embark on a journey through a story, and the story might lead to a meditation.

My critical essays often begin with autobiographical anecdotes; story and critique become one. Again, Afternoon Raag might be an example. You mention the ‘musical impulse’. For me, singing is the opposite of self-expression: to sing is to efface the self and allow the note to speak. With writing too, even when the subject is ‘your life,’ you want the writing, rather than your feelings and thoughts, to have primacy. Impulses aren’t stumbling blocks; the stumbling blocks are the conceptual parameters with which we corral our impulses.

The interviewer’s most recent novel is The Scent of God. @_saikatmajumdar

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2020 7:26:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/i-had-cinema-in-mind-when-i-was-writing-amit-chaudhuri-on-afternoon-raag/article29230230.ece

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