The West Bengal city of Calcutta looms over Amit Chaudhuri’s fiction; in many cases the city itself is his real subject, its myriad stories captured in exquisitely crafted, meandering prose. In A Strange and Sublime Address, his first novel, he saw Calcutta through the eyes of the 10-year-old Sandeep, who, visiting from Bombay, is in thrall to everything around him, from the smallest gestures and household routines to the mysteries of the jumbled lanes, balconies, and homes themselves. “Why did these houses seem to suggest an infinitely interesting story might be woven around them?” the narrator asks. “The story would never be a satisfying one, because the writer, like Sandeep, would be too caught up in jotting down the irrelevancies and digressions that make up lives, and the life of a city, rather than a good story.”
But that is exactly what Chaudhuri has continued to do, spinning a web of alluring and satisfying stories from the lives of Calcutta and its fleeting, everyday moments—from Freedom Song, which won the Los Angeles Times‘ top book prize in 2000, to his latest novel, A New World. And if the rush of contemporary Indian novels has been something of a clamorous jamboree, a hullabaloo of melodrama and striking debuts, Chaudhuri’s work is all the more affecting for its hushed sense of wonder. (Salman Rushdie has praised his writing as “languorous, elliptic, beautiful.”)
Chaudhuri’s debut collection, Real Time: Stories and a Reminiscence, enhances his position as one of the most versatile and talented of this generation. Among young writers like Pankaj Mishra, Raj Kamal Jha, and (the sadly overlooked) Sunetra Gupta, Chaudhuri is perhaps the most literary—and self-conscious—of them all.
Chaudhuri, a boyish-looking 40, with large, serious eyes, is soft-spoken yet animated when we meet over tea on the back verandah of the Calcutta Club, an old, colonial-style social club in central Calcutta. Encountering him in this city—where his essay on Indian classical music has just appeared in the newspaper and the next night he’d be reading from his anthology at a local bookshop—one realizes how immersed in Calcutta life he is. Distant traffic sounds punctuate our conversation as Chaudhuri attempts to express what’s at the heart of his writing: his affection for this shabby, timeless, ever vibrant city. An only child, Chaudhuri was born here but grew up in Bombay. “Calcutta was everything that Bombay wasn’t,” he explains, comparing the intimacy of Calcutta life with the high-rise, corporate world that he associated with Bombay, where his father was an executive with Britannia Biscuits Company. “Calcutta meant coming to my uncle’s house in Bhowanipore, in South Calcutta, a very old part of Calcutta. A house that, for me, was a really magical house. It looked out on the streets and we could see and hear everything that was going on there.”
It wasn’t until Chaudhuri was studying literature at Oxford in 1985, however, that he realized he could write about the swirl of activity just outside his terrace. He evokes this achingly in the story Portrait of an Artist, in which both Calcutta and the poet-tutor mastermoshai are seen in a new light: “Going to England blurred certain things and clarified others. I realized that a strange connection between this small, cold island and faraway Bengal had given rise to the small-town world of Calcutta, and even to mastermoshai; from a distance, I saw it gradually in perspective—a colonial small town, with its trams and taxis, unknown to, and cut off from, the rest of the world, full of a love for the romance of literature that I have not found anywhere else.”
In the late ’80s in India, while taking a year off from school, Chaudhuri found his writing voice in which the dust of daily reality, “the physicality of life lived,” he says, is refracted through a heightened, amorphous sensitivity: “What I discovered, at least at that time, was that I wasn’t all that interested in one hero, one protagonist, and his or her thoughts. I was interested in things flowing in and out of you—sounds, events, thoughts.”
With the stories of Real Time, however, Chaudhuri, who returned from England to live in Calcutta in 1999, takes a more focused look at themes that have been occupying him lately. In tighter, concentrated vignettes he examines the cultural unmoorings of a modern, globalized India. “The Second Marriage” is a glimpse at the awkward negotiations of remarriage; “Real Time” eavesdrops on a couple’s discomfort at a shraddh, or funeral service, performed for a suicide victim. “The hubbub common to shraddh ceremonies was absent; people welcoming others as they came in, even the sense, and the conciliatory looks, of bereavement,” writes Chaudhuri. “Instead there was a sort of pointlessness, as people refused to acknowledge what did not quite have a definition.” It is here, among the fractured and confused Bengali middle class, that Chaudhuri finds his true prism (though stories like “The Man From Khurda District” offer moving tales told from the servants’ quarters as well). “The kind of culture of middle-class Bengalis was coming to an end,” Chaudhuri adds, referring to the fault lines exposed in Real Time. “And I felt here was a society which didn’t know what it was.”
Speaking to Chaudhuri, one feels caught in those societal cracks—between the old world of Bengali poets and bookshops captured in several stories and the uncertain signposts of a new, international culture, “the sort of junkyard that makes up our lives now.” But this is a familiar position for Chaudhuri, whose critical work has helped bridge those gaps, too, providing much-needed perspective to the recent boom in Indian novels. “I don’t like living in an intellectual context in which you only refer to other contemporary writers whom you never meet,” he says flatly. Fortunately, he’s avoided that: He’s recently edited The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, an accomplished, expansive look at the diverse literary traditions of India—from the Bengal Renaissance and other literature in vernacular or regional languages to neglected work in English before and after Rushdie. The anthology is actually a fitting rejoinder to Rushdie’s own 1997 collection, Mirrorwork, which limited its scope to post-independence writing in English.
As we part outside the Calcutta Club entrance, Chaudhuri hurries off to catch the end of a poetry reading down the street. Here is a place where past and present, music, art, and literature, continue to converge. And where Chaudhuri, like mastermoshai in “Portrait of an Artist,” has found his creative essence: “Calcutta is his universe; like a dewdrop, it holds within it the light and colours of the entire world.”