Literary Review

‘I hate silence and suburbia’

Amit Chaudhuri. Photo: Geoff Pugh  

Sahitya Akademi award winner, literary critic, classical musician and many other things besides, the eclectic Amit Chaudhuri has been short-listed for The Hindu Prize for Best Fiction 2015 for his latest book Odysseus Abroad, He talks here about people, places and how the quirky often co-exists with the epic.

Vaishna Roy

If I said the protagonist in Odysseus Abroad was London and the individuals the foils whose reactions define the city, how would you respond?

There are many protagonists in this novel. To name just a few at random: there’s Rangamama, who’s been living in a bedsit in Belsize Park for two decades, and for whom London is almost a room: maybe he’s also Odysseus. Then, certain texts play the role of heroes, or anti-heroes, in the book, the Odyssey and Ulysses among them. The figure of F.N. Souza, whose charcoal sketch titled ‘Ulysses’ set off the thought process that led to the novel, possibly inhabits the book as well.

Do places move you more than people do?

I don’t know if I’m more moved by places than people. I hate silence and suburbia, so I don’t know what to do with spaces with no people in them. But, then again, as Susan Sontag said of Walter Benjamin, ‘The melancholic is more drawn to objects than to people’. That statement is simply a critique of the view that the human being is the centre of the universe. I suppose it’s that centrality, which is the legacy of the Enlightenment and the European Renaissance that I’m impatient with: that the human being should always occupy centre stage, with the world around essentially playing the role that a backdrop does in a photographer’s studio.

You are at the forefront of the battle to save Kolkata’s heritage buildings. How do cities define us? And we them?

One of the things I am arguing against is the notion of ‘heritage’. The buildings I’m interested in Calcutta, and which are being destroyed daily, are residential houses of unprecedented architectural variety, which don’t qualify as ‘heritage’ because neither are they landmarks or monuments, nor did famous people live in them. To understand what’s arresting about them, you have to, first of all, look at them, and look at them in a different way from the way you gaze upon a heritage structure. The most interesting bits of the metropolis for me are those that refuse to remain static or demarcated. ‘Heritage’ applies, as far as I’m concerned, equally to Mritunjoy, the sweet shop, to Ujjwala Chanachur, and to the bench on which Sikh taxi drivers sit near Ballygunge Phari.

You once told me that you preferred the quirky to the heroic. What impact does ‘quirky’ have on an Indian imagination fed by images of the heroic, from the epics to the Hindi movie?

But very few cultures have found a place for the quirky or the anomalous in the midst of the epic in the way that the ‘Indian imagination’ has. Take the fresco at Mahabalipuram called ‘Arjuna’s Penance’. The magnificent figures in the main frieze and narrative, carved out of the rock, are themselves a mix of the divine and the humorous. But, most tellingly, not far from the main frieze, are the figures of two monkeys, one picking lice from the other’s hair. It’s an astonishing example of how this country’s traditions of miniaturism converge with its epic stories.

Odysseus Abroad plays with the quintessential adventure that is the Odyssey . The novel is also about your sojourn as a student in London. Tell us a little bit about what ‘travel’ means to you.

Travel is a state of estrangement. It can take place in your own house, or when you visit a street in the city you live in, which you’d never earlier visited. Similarly, you might migrate or travel far, and never move, psychologically, beyond your native constituency: this often happens to middle-class Indians. The novel itself is partly about such states of mind.

You are essayist, novelist, professor, musician… If you had to choose being just one of these, which would you pick?

I certainly don’t think of myself as ‘professor’: that term’s extraneous to me. I’ve been trying to experiment with forms and ways of seeing. I’ve also tried to not accept terms set by others about what’s important to the creative life, to state my own terms and make a case for them.

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Printable version | Oct 15, 2021 7:32:41 PM |

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