Amit Chaudhuri is the kind of writer who can shake the foundations of a culture very, very slowly, but very, very surely. With a deeply literary style, a trademark humor and wit that’s as subtle as it is potent, Chaudhuri creates cityscapes primarily through sounds and people; capturing the chaos of Calcutta (Freedom Song), the buzz of Bombay (The Immortals) and most recently, the layers of London, circa the late 80s, in Odysseus Abroad. A balanced rhythm of language pervades and dominates his books, making them richer—it is no wonder then, to learn that Chaudhuri is also a proficient musician in the Indian classical tradition.
Odysseus Abroad follows a young Indian student, Ananda, studying the Romantic poets in London as he walks about in the city, with his incorrigibly “Bengali” uncle, Ranga Mama. In the span of an evening, it would appear, he has undertaken more than one journey; given the resonance of the title, a mock-epic journey, perhaps…
Interviewer: Could you share with us the genesis of Odysseus Abroad?
Amit Chaudhuri: I based this upon my memories of my years in London and also my memories of this particular uncle who was a bachelor who lived in London for about 30 years until I finally managed to drag him back to Calcutta for my wedding in 1991. He was my only companion in London at the time in the early 80s. We used to meet up with each other and we looked forward to each other’s company but we also looked upon the prospect of the meeting with some dread. We both knew that we would end up arguing endlessly about things. I knew that he would start stating things about either Tagore or my mother that I couldn’t agree to. So, meeting him was always something I looked forward to given my utter loneliness and the fact that I was fond of him, but it was also always something I had to be battle-ready for. I finally managed to bring him to India in 1991—he had told me he never wanted to go back, he simply wasn’t interested and felt no homesickness at all. But the minute he came back to India, he didn’t want to go back to London. With his typical perversity and difficulty that was intrinsic to his character, he totally immersed himself in the joy of living in Calcutta.
In early 2001, I bought a painting by FN Souza—this marvellous charcoal sketch of a person’s head and torso—it was only Rs. 55,000 then. This uncle of mine came to visit me and said, “I hear you’ve bought a painting for Rs. 55,000. Show it to me.” So I showed it to him and he said, “May as well have paid me Rs. 55,000 for farting.” He’s a very rude man and as you can tell from the book, he was very interested, in ways that were physical and spiritual, in the body. I said, “This is a great painting by a great painter.” And he said, “Sometimes what the child or idiot produces and what the genius produces is more or less the same.” And then he went off after having delivered this kind of aphorism. The man in the sketch looked a lot like my uncle and this was probably because it was a self-sketch and Souza did look a bit like my uncle and they were also very similar in character—in that both loved life and both were great ranters. The only difference between them was my uncle ranted on behalf of Tagore and Souza ranted against Tagore.
As I looked at this sketch, I recalled Souza calling the sketch Ulysses—Ulysses of course being the Roman name for Odysseus. I began to think how my uncle is like an Odysseus figure and I began to play around with constructing a narrative based on The Odyssey. I had a vision of myself setting off from Warren Street and ending up at that bedsit in Belsize Park and hovering in the kitchen. And it felt to me like the journey that Telemachus had made—a version of that journey. But it seemed like such a risk, taking the plunge, that I kept deferring it. I finally took the plunge in 2012, 10 years after I first had the idea. I began by trying to write it as an essay/memoir but I realized it was worth it as a novel. So I started it again.
One of the things that came to me when I lived in that studio apartment in Warren Street was that I had very noisy neighbors and I thought these neighbors are like the suitors in The Odyssey who made Penelope and Telemachus’s lives miserable and made Telemachus feel as if he had no control in his own home. Once that bit fell into place—the neighbors are the suitors—the other bits began to fall into place too. And that’s how the structuring happened. The structuring allowed me not only to tell the story of those two people and the story of London but also to engage in a kind of play with these source texts.
Interviewer: Could you describe London then as you perceived and portrayed in the novel? How is it different from contemporary London?
Amit Chaudhuri: London today is very vibrant, and not at all the kind of London I went to in the 70s as a visitor and then in the early 80s as a student. One of the things you realize about London today, which is not the London of my novel, is that it is today a city for the global super-rich. London has come to embody Britain but is also parasitic on Britain to a certain extent. All the economy seems geared towards London rather than towards Britain as a whole. Even the Scottish referendum wasn’t so much about staying with Britain so much as London, I feel—that’s the kind of centrality London has now. So, the vibrancy I mentioned has this regrettable side enmeshed in it.
The London I went to live in in the early 80s and in the novel was a London struggling to come to terms with multi-culturalism and making a go of it. The landscape was still vitiated with memories of William Whitelaw’s virginity tests where South Asian brides who came to marry their spouses in Britain were subjected to make sure they were “genuine” brides-to-be. That London was still bleak and occasionally interesting. Two things I remember from that London—that it was nothing like Calcutta—Calcutta was the Empire at one time, it was the capital of undivided British India. But there was very little of Calcutta in London and London in Calcutta.
The London I saw was a very Victorian city—a past that was self-denying, sacrificing, and how through all the hard work and sacrifice, you built up the city. It wasn’t a city where you dawdled on the veranda and the balcony. It wasn’t a city for the flaneur. Architecturally, also, there were no balconies in the London houses. In any other European city, in Paris, for instance, you’re struck by the balconies and you wonder what act of self-denial has kept the English away from balconies.
I was learning so much from that ethos as a writer, whether it was in London, where you could have the window open literally for 30 or 40 days through the year, or in Bombay where you could do that all through the year. And how that changed your consciousness, your habits of reading—how you read completely alone in a room and when you’re constantly distracted by all the noises around. How these are different experiences not only of reading, but also of the self.
The silence of the London rooms is something I learnt in the early 80s.
It also made me re-think language—the English language. Like words of a particular register—like cool, or summer. I’ve written about that in a slightly paradoxical way in the novel with Shakespeare’s sonnet (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?). It is of course a reference to Stephen Dedalus’s pre-occupation with Shakespeare in Ulysses. When I describe Ananda re-thinking Shakespeare’s sonnet, I’m recounting something that actually happened. I myself did re-think and re-visit the sonnet, as a 22-year-old in the light of what England’s climate was like. But I’m also allowed to do that because I’m constantly referencing Dedalus who’s always looking for a key to solve Shakespeare, to unlock Shakespeare.
Interviewer: Did you feel liberation in treating The Odyssey & Ulysses as source material?
Amit Chaudhuri: Yes. Liberation is one word for it. It released a sense of play in myself. There was this playfulness going on which I’ve experienced before in the kinds of musical projects I do, where I’ve played around with re-conceptualizing Eric Clapton’s “Layla” and the riff to “Layla” in the Raag Todi and “Summertime” in Raag Malkauns, only because of a series of mis-hearings which would make me hear the raga in the other tune by accident. There’s nothing pre-meditated in uncovering or discovering this convergence. And once it does you see it in a slightly new light.
Interviewer: I know writers hate this question, but with this work it’s impossible to escape it—the autobiographical context?
Amit Chaudhuri: So much of my work is, in that sense, autobiographical. But I have to clarify, as of now, that autobiography does not interest me. I’m not interested in telling people the story of my life, I’m more interested in modes of perception, of experience, what it means to be looking out of a window.
I’m more interested in gathering or assembling these moments rather than telling you the life Amit Chaudhuri has lived.
I’m more interested in telling you the process of transformation that happens when you imagine or remember something—and remember that Coleridge had said that Imagination and Memory were one thing. He distinguished Imagination from pure invention, which he called Fancy. And he allied it to Memory. I’m interested in the transformation of imagination expressed through language. The autobiographical, in itself, is of no interest to me. The autobiographical in that most crude sense, which Naipaul and Katharine Mansfield and Proust and Joyce have given us, is not why we read them. The autobiographical is in that sense a life that is important only ironically. When Naipaul is telling the story of his life, he is not telling the story of an emperor, or even of a great writer, because he is still to be a great writer. He’s telling a story that’s intrinsically banal or anti-epic, really. The autobiographical is an impulse towards the anti-epic, or anti-great work.
When I was an apprentice writer, I was enamoured of the great works and I tried to write in the tone of TS Eliot or Tagore or Baudelaire, and the first time I broke out of that was by writing about a lane in Bandra (Bombay) to which my parents had moved after my father’s retirement. And that was the first time I wrote something real. And the reason it was real was not only because it was autobiographical, but because I’d got something that I hadn’t considered worthy of literature—a street in my own life—into the realm of what we call literary.
Interviewer: Was it always on your mind that you would make this a funny book?
Amit Chaudhuri: No, that wasn’t on my mind. I think most of my books have humor in them. That’s been noted as well more outside of India than in India … But I think now that is changing. I’ve always been interested in absurdity, and so these characters have absurd preoccupations. I’ve always been interested in the quixotic, in people who are energized by absurd dreams, and who seem to believe that they are in a world which maybe has already lapsed. Like Bhaskar in Freedom Song, engaging in Left politics, street politics, street theatre, thinking that somehow it’ll make a difference to free market globalization by doing so. These are quixotic characters. I’ve always been interested in that. I’ve been interested in humour but I’ve always also been interested in delight. I’ve always been interested in joy. And I’ve been interested in the convergence of these things … Over here, I suppose because I was dealing with a character like Ranga Mama who is in his own way delirious and kind of absurd. You know, here are people who’re constantly preoccupied with what’s happening to their digestion, with every kind of tremor of change to do with their appetites (sexual or bodily or whatever) and so they end up being quite funny. At the same time, they’re talking about Tagore, so that makes them doubly funny.
Interviewer: Could you tell us about how Ananda’s mother was fleshed out? For someone who isn’t named throughout the entire book, she has great presence…
Amit Chaudhuri: In fact she’s not there. She’s absent … What I do want to say about her is that I build her up using source material, so she is both Athena and Penelope. She is of course Penelope and therefore I introduce the story of her waiting. She waited to get married, waited also to leave Silhet, to come into her own as a person. But I also introduced the fact of her militant courage, and how through her courage she fights with people and makes space for Ananda and earlier for her husband and even her brother to do their own thing. She has fought for them. In this sense she is Athena. I’ve brought in this figure of the mother both Athena and Penelope. Athena I’ve brought through the metaphors or the events to do with her wherever it is that she’s fought for something on behalf of these men in her life. So even in Warren Street she’s fought with the neighbors. And I also mentioned that she has large eyes and she flashes her eyes when she’s angry. That’s also a reference to Athena, who’s called The Goddess of the Flashing Eyes by Homer. So that’s the way that this character, who is a kind of mixture of my mother and what I know about this mother of mine, and Athena and Penelope. That’s the way this person was created.