From Kolkata to Mumbai, London to Berlin — Amit Chaudhuri's fiction travels off the beaten path
Amit Chaudhuri is regarded as one of India's finest contemporary writers. Born in Kolkata (then Calcutta) in 1962, he was raised in Mumbai (then Bombay) and educated in Britain, where he began his writing career. A poet, essayist and musician, he's best known as the prizewinning author of exquisite fiction that captures the intimate rhythms of daily life with remarkable sensitivity. As Hilary Mantel once described him, he's "a miniaturist, for whom tiny moments become radiant."
Chaudhuri's latest novel, Sojourn, is a fable-like tale both comic and unsettling. When an Indian writer arrives in Berlin to spend four months as a visiting professor, he finds the once divided city strangely familiar. His imaginative engagement with Berlin's turbulent past leads him on a transformative journey. Chaudhuri's previous novel, Friend of My Youth, similarly involves an encounter with a city — in this case Mumbai, when a character named Amit Chaudhuri visits.
Chaudhuri spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from his home in Kolkata, India.
Finding meaning in the mundane
"I would say that in Kolkata what's most interesting are neighbourhoods in which people have lived historically in the last 200 or 100 years. Those neighbourhoods have always fascinated me, and they contain some of the mystery that maybe cathedrals or temple spaces do.
I was always interested in the way history played out in everyday daily objects and spaces rather than in the larger historical narrative.
"I don't think you go to Kolkata to look for monuments. What's interesting are the streets and neighbourhoods and ordinary people's houses, such as my uncle's house — this emergence of the little man, the creation of the space around their families. The argument against the importance of single monuments or historic structures is what I think of as a form of ordinariness that kind of militates against the larger kind of narratives of history.
"I was always interested in the way history played out in everyday daily objects and spaces rather than in the larger historical narrative and the historic monuments that embodied or symbolized those narratives or supplied those narratives."
Meeting in the middle
"There are commonalities between the two books [Sojourn and Friend of My Youth]. One of them has to do with the books being about visits, through which the everyday becomes transformed so that nothing happens in the visit, but something becomes transformed.
"The other often has to do with some protagonist and another character. The character could be a substitute father figure, or a friend. I'm drawn to these figures in my real life, but I'm also drawn to them as characters in stories. I'm drawn to the idea that there's a sense of dependence between these people who are so unlike each other.
I'm drawn to the idea that there's a sense of dependence between these people who are so unlike each other.
"They seem ostensibly quite unlike each other, but they are dependent on each other, and also instruct and illuminate each other in some way, and also have a somewhat fractious and mystifying relationship in other ways."
"The title Friend of My Youth suddenly came to me because of the sense of loss that I had experienced when I couldn't meet up with a friend of mine because he'd been sent off to rehab outside Bombay and he was inaccessible to visitors and friends.
"I suddenly felt unmoored in Bombay. I never thought that the absence of this particular friend would have such an impact on me. Then I thought, 'Can I make something out of this in terms of a story?' And then I thought of the title Friend of My Youth, and I thought, 'This is that story. What better title for it?'
"I suppose I'm playing around with this act of distancing, which we now attribute to autofiction. I didn't even know this term before Friend of My Youth began to get reviewed and the term came up. I think there's a lovely, comical sometimes, sense of disorientation that arises from certain kinds of work where the author is a character in the work."
The weight of history
"I went to Berlin first in 2004 and I was very moved by the city. It still seemed haunted by the fall of the Wall and the fact of reunification and trying to come to terms with it. Then, of course, it was haunted by its past and everything that had led up to the war. I was very moved by this city that felt the weight of its past and the wrongness of the past, but could not mourn its past.
I was very moved by this city that felt the weight of its past and the wrongness of the past, but could not mourn its past.
"I wondered what it meant for a city not to be able to mourn its past, but to keep remembering it because it saw its remembrance of the past almost as a kind of lesson and a kind of precaution against repeating the same mistake."
A fable by any other name
"I think of Sojourn as a fable. It's the only story I've written which I thought of after I wrote it as a parable or a fable. Part of it has to do with this almost allegorical loss of consciousness. But again, allegory has certain associations in our heads where the meaning that's being gestured toward or symbolized is clear fable or parable. These things have the qualities or the associations of fairy tales.
"I played with the idea that something is happening over here that cannot be completely addressed by just a realistic understanding of a story. I make gestures towards this — besides the loss of memory — gestures to do with how happy people are in this story with not knowing what things mean.
I played with the idea that something is happening over here that cannot be completely addressed by just a realistic understanding of a story.
"This comes to me from personal experience, having lived in Berlin and later in Paris, getting by without actually speaking a word of of those languages or very little. I was able to completely subsist quite well in those places without those languages. The whole experience of not knowing the languages was freeing me from various kinds of histories and responsibilities and obligations."
Amit Chaudhuri's comments have been edited for length and clarity.