Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
‘Questions of Travel’ by Elizabeth Bishop.
THE PARADOXICAL PULL BETWEEN HOME AND ELSEWHERE FORMS THE POIGNANT TENSION AT THE HEART OF AMIT CHAUDHURI’S NEW BOOK CALCUTTA: TWO YEARS IN THE CITY. INDEED, IT IS A CONFLICT WITH WHICH CHAUDHURI HAS GRAPPLED THROUGHOUT ALL OF HIS WORK. THE WRITER SHEDS GREAT INSIGHT BY COLLAPSING THE DICHOTOMY BETWEEN THE LOCAL AND THE FAR-OFF, INSTEAD SEEING THE TWO AS ‘ENMESHED INTIMATELY’.
Calcutta, Chaudhuri’s place of birth, has haunted his work in a multiplicity of forms. He is the author of five acclaimed novels, from his debut A Strange and Sublime Address (1991) to The Immortals (2009). The city is also a palpable presence in his collection of critical essays, Clearing a Space: Essays on India, Literature, and Culture (2008), and pulses through his music videos. Indeed, Chaudhuri is also an academic, currently Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia, and a trained, critically-acclaimed singer in the North Indian classical tradition, whose projects and albums include This is Not Fusion and Found Music.
Our interview takes place almost 5,000 miles away from Calcutta: we meet in central London one freezing cold day in February. Nevertheless, through Chaudhuri’s conversation we are imaginatively transported into the heat of Calcutta, the central character of the new book, which the author explores in all its complexities and contradictions. One can almost see, smell, taste and touch the life of the city’s streets and its inhabitants.
QTHE WHITE REVIEW — Your work explores the meaning of the word ‘modernity’ – could you define this?
AAMIT CHAUDHURI — One of the new book’s concerns is the nature of modernity. Although I was growing up in Bombay, Calcutta is the first place I encountered modernity and became addicted to it. What do I mean by that? As I tried to say in the book, I felt I encountered the thrill of the modern. There are many ways of defining the modern but one is to say that an urban space, a man-made space, has some of the energy, wildness, unpredictability and randomness that we usually associate with nature. In another age, somebody might speak with the same kind of excitement about nature as the modernist does about the city.
That’s why when the modernist speaks about the city as Walter Benjamin does about Paris, he will speak about man-made things with the excitement of one who is confronting surprising, organic, almost natural things. He will speak about them with the sort of excitement that Wordsworth speaks about daffodils or nature. When Philip Larkin, a connoisseur of the suburban life in Hull, who talks about the ‘cut-price crowd’, says deprivation is to me what daffodils are to Wordsworth, he’s making that strange inversion in which the urban, the man-made, the industrial, becomes organic. That is what I encountered as a category of experience as a child in Calcutta; it made me excited in that particular way.
Even today in England as I go down the motorway and look at the countryside, it bores me and depresses me. In his essay on John Clare, Tom Paulin points out that enclosure laws have tamed and enclosed nature and turned it into private property. Something in you intuitively senses that – there’s something imperfect which has to do with control. To discover the natural you have to go to the city in certain areas, the inner city in certain neighbourhoods, and that inversion is definitive of modernity and the response to modernity. And this is the experience I’m talking about in regards to Calcutta.
QTHE WHITE REVIEW — You write: ‘By “modern” I also mean whatever alchemy it is that changes urban dereliction into something compelling, perhaps even beautiful. It was that arguable beauty that I first came across in Calcutta, and may have, without being aware of it, become addicted to.’ The new book offers a fascinating exploration of beauty in urban space.
AAMIT CHAUDHURI — It’s very much an aspect of this modernist excitement and inversion. There is beauty for modernists in the dereliction of the industrial city but it’s important to record this history of response to Calcutta; because Calcutta is this so-called ‘third-world’ city it will not be thought of by outsiders in this way. So when you look at ugliness in a third-world city it becomes a third-world ugliness, an Indian chaos that you don’t connect with the chaos of post-impressionism, which is a European aesthetic.
I was just saying to someone: you look at Vittorio De Sica’s film Bicycle Thieves and you’re looking at a Rome that is in a state of post-war trauma, with lots of poverty. Yet you also see how the city is alive and beautiful in the midst of that. He changes those ruined and deprived areas into a bricolage.
But when outsiders look at Calcutta they don’t see that contradiction of modernity, that it’s both derelict and alive and has made both those things energise each other. This is not to take away from the difficulties of the trauma that the city might have come through. This is true of Berlin too. You have a church that was bombed in the war and right next to it is a new church which is almost postmodern, built of glass. Each energises the other and defines what modernity is. People refuse to see that modernity and its contradictions. That’s what Calcutta is, a modern city.
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