The problem with present-day literary criticism is that it’s disconnected from any real sense of the past, says the writer
Stepping into Larry’s China at the Ambassador is like stepping a decade back, into another city. Chosen in haste, out of expediency because of its proximity to the India International Centre, it turns out to be the right setting for Amit Chaudhuri. It could be a respectable Chinese restaurant from either Bombay in the 1990s or Calcutta in the early 2000s, both cities that the writer knows well.
Larry’s has the slightly shabby charm of an old friend who did less well than expected on the stock market, allowing Chaudhuri to confide that he intends to eat lightly. “Too much rich food,” he says. It’s a Delhi tradition, a way of testing visiting writers by force-feeding them a promiscuous range of Mughlai, Thai and whatever the fashionable cuisine of the day might be. I suggest steamed rice, some light greens, perhaps a gentle soup. “Is the lobster good?” says Chaudhuri hopefully. He indicates that this is the menu’s fault, its old-school flourishes are too tempting to resist.
We order the lobster in hot bean sauce, some greens sautéed in garlic and steamed rice. It is, in essence, a very Bengali summer meal — fish, rice and some barely wilted greens; the only thing we lack is spice, which arrives in the form of a fiery kimchi and a Cantonese bean sprout salad.
As with his books, the author shuttles between countries and cities, faithful to Bombay, where he grew up and where The Immortals – his most recent novel – and St Cyril Road, a collection of poems, is set. Calcutta, where he was born and spends much of his adult life, is the background to A Strange And Sublime Address and Freedom Song. He can also claim the university towns of the UK, where he went to college and later taught, his days there colouring an early novel, Afternoon Raag. He compiled an anthology of writings on Calcutta in 2008 and is writing a book about the city due in 2013.
As the lobster arrives, Chaudhuri talks about his disquiet over the systematic demolition of the old houses in south and north Calcutta, the vanishing landscape of a city he’s preserved in careful images in so many of his books.
What gets to Chaudhuri, as it does to many Calcutta expatriates, is what he calls the easy middle-class disavowal of its own history. “Preserving those houses is very low on the list of priorities of people who live in Calcutta,” he says, warming to his argument. “I wouldn’t want to hang on to those houses for some sense of heritage and nostalgia. In Europe, or South America, any culture that is aware not just of its past but of its modernity, any city that is doing creatively interesting things has preserved and used its recent past, like Berlin for instance.”
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s plans to preserve Calcutta’s heritage by painting the city blue might not, you suspect, cut much ice with Chaudhuri. “Calcutta is a relatively recent city, it comes into being out of nowhere, as many of these Indian colonial cities do, and then it accumulates all this history in a 100 years, and that history is not embodied in the monuments — I don’t take visitors to the Victoria Memorial or other monuments, but to the neighbourhoods where people live.” The names roll off his tongue like beads on a rosary: Bokul Bagan, Khiddipur, Hindustan Park.
Chaudhuri’s resistance to nostalgia, and the way it shellacs the past, is deeply rooted. He’s just finished a short book on Rabindranath Tagore – it is impossible to discuss Calcutta and not Tagore, especially in the year after the writer’s 150th anniversary celebrations – which probably stands as an act of salvage as much as an act of criticism. It’s a rejection of the “sage-like” Tagore, he says.
The greens with burnt garlic are excellent, and with the discernment of a born critic, Chaudhuri zeroes in on the asparagus, marching it into a separate corral on his plate. He grew up in Bombay, distanced from the Bengali language but in a family that had “great secular reverence” for Bengali and Tagore.
“Bijoya Chaudhuri – that’s my mother – and Shubina Roy, these two singers sang Tagore for me in a way that was distanced, detached, disinterested without an over-emphasis on the individual’s emotions or the emotions of the songs,” he says. The phone rings, on cue; it’s his mother on the line, as though his mention summoned her into existence.
“It is rare,” he continues. “This is what Tagore praises in the Bengali writer Kalidasa, when he contrasts Kalidasa with Shakespeare, accusing Shakespeare of being everything James Mill accuses oriental writing of — of overwriting, being overblown, melodramatic, exhibitionistic.” This is Chaudhuri at his best, making the connections, joining the dots, helping readers see a larger and more complex literary history than they might have imagined.
“And then Tagore praises Kalidasa for being oblique, indirect, for holding back — for having all those virtues in temperament, in writerly temperament, which traditionally nowadays we associate with western writing.”
The problem with present-day criticism, chiefly in India but also perhaps in the West, is that it’s disconnected from any real sense of the past. This is an argument Chaudhuri’s been making for years – most powerfully through the writers he selected for his landmark Picador Anthology of Indian Literature – and he warms to it with the zeal of a man whose lobster has all the spice and depth that he feels the Indian literary landscape lacks.
“It’s as if every book comes out of nowhere — academics will not talk about Kolatkar, Ramanujan, Ezekiel, unless they become liberal causes. We are formed by a literary culture we don’t acknowledge, in English and in other Indian languages,” he says.
“And we will elide the fact that people like Tagore or Qurratulain Hyder may have been responding to Shelley or Elizabeth Bowen or Virginia Woolf — a network of reading and cross-fertilisation that has formed us over the last 200 years. There is no genealogy for anything.”
To round off the meal, I ask about the literary world in the UK, which Chaudhuri knows well — he was, for instance, a Booker judge, a task that he performed conscientiously though with his habitual scepticism about literary institutions.
“This meagreness is also now part of British publishing,” he says, turning down dessert with admirable firmness. “In the domain of Thatcherite and Blairite Britain, the changes brought about to BBC 1, BBC 4, the books pages were shrinking, dumbed down. The Booker Prize changed in complexion from a literary to a popular prize, with comedians and chefs judging the prize, Waterstones became more and more of a warehouse. But there are cracks in this smooth surface, and voices from the cracks are still audible.”
I manage to persuade Chaudhuri to have just two more pieces of the lobster. This also allows me to ask him about changes in his fiction over the years. “The early novels were about the sheer pleasure of a certain kind of interruption in life,” he says. “Then with A New World, I was interested in this new generation, who have a sense of entitlement, who have been brought up to slip into a future patriarchal role, a role of power, and then find themselves at a loose end. Then the theme of power, the market began to interest me. To some extent, The Immortals was about what happens when a traditional person wants to adapt and reinvent themselves for the marketplace.”
Though we’ve said no to dessert, Larry’s China brings out fortune cookies with a flourish — an old-fashioned coda to a very pleasant, old-world meal. Mine is dour: “Everyone has ambitions but you work to make yours happen.” Chaudhuri’s is more dashing: “Getting together with old friends brings new adventures.”
He looks so pleased as we leave the restaurant for the early summer warmth of Delhi’s streets that I decide not to tell him The New Yorker story about Donald Lau, a fortune-cookie writer. After years of writing thousands of fortunes (“think in 10-word sentences,” Mr Lau advised newcomers), the inevitable happened. There are only so many times one person can generate gems like “True gold never fears the fire,” and 11 years after he began, Mr Lau retired, suffering from writer’s block.
Chaudhuri, wiser in the ways of channelling his creativity, interspersing his novels with criticism, poetry and anthologies, is unlikely to suffer the same fate.