Travelling between genres with Amit Chaudhuri

Soumabrata Chatterjee talks to Amit Chaudhuri about travelling between genres, being a flaneur, and lots more.

I recently read your article in The Guardian, ‘Travelling between Genres’, where you proclaimed that the act of writing is synonymous with freedom and thus you wish to move beyond spheres and between vocations, thereby undoing what you are and what you want to be. Can you elaborate on that?

To elaborate on that is not a simple thing to do. There are varied stages in your life as a writer where you are struggling to either discover something or make a space for something. Some of it happens due to the struggle to create a space where you try to write in a particular way, and other things happen because of history and the changes in history, leading to certain kinds of battles of freedom which, as you quoted me, are necessary.

Firstly, one needs to find the ‘material’, as Naipaul puts it, about which one wishes to write. For me, that process began when I wrote a poem about a street in Bombay, a street to which we shifted after my father retired. The street was located in Bandra, a Christian locality. I was an undergraduate in London and returning to St. Cyril road in Bombay was an unprecedented experience. It was like visiting a different Bombay within a Bombay I had known for years, a Bombay of churches and small lanes, etc. It was then, in 1985, that I wrote a poem on that particular road called St Cyril road, and it was the first time when I wrote a poem on a real place, a place which was known to me, and by doing that I gave it a certain sense of legitimacy in my own eyes, in the sense that it was possible to write a poem on St Cyril road and think that it was a literary production. It was possible to write literature on the banality of one’s life or the most common element of one’s life. Before that I might have been trying to write like T.S. Eliot, or Ezra Pound. So, by writing a poem about such a trivial thing I escaped those grand voices and wrote about something which I wouldn’t have thought of two years ago, given the banality of the subject. This was one of the struggles.

Then there are other battles; a struggle which you experience as a published writer, the struggle you experience when you get acclaimed for your work. The struggle not to repeat oneself, to allow oneself not to repeat oneself, to allow oneself to have the freedom to disappoint one’s audience who might have come to accept a particular genre of work or a product of art from you. My first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, was largely accepted by the people. My novel, Afternoon Raag, I knew was quite a disjunctive piece. I was moving away from my last novel and it was not appreciated by some reviewers in India, though it did get a very generous response in the UK; I ended up getting a mixed response here. So, that was the second struggle of my life, a struggle to have the freedom of disappointing one’s audience and move on, not to repeat or become attached to one’s own successes.

The third battle being the struggle to not get identified with a particular genre with which you are generally made synonymous. The freedom to move away from that genre when one feels it right to do so. And this is where historical changes also play their part. The market was changing and it had deemed novels as the most dominant literary form. By then novels were considered the most commercial of literary genres. This was followed by the creation of an unspoken edict for the novelist, that is, if you were a novelist, you stick with the novels. The moment that restriction came into being, one felt like moving away from that genre. The new development, instead of being a facilitator, became a reminder that it was kind of stopping you from discovering your creativity. The economic scenario which was predominantly controlled by the West formulated a situation where a novelist had to stick to the genre of novels; at the same time it necessitated the requirement of producing a novel every two to three years in order to maintain one’s footing in the industry. Therefore, the entire set up became oppressive and it marred one’s spontaneity. So, even when you are writing a novel you try to surprise yourself with something new as a writer. There was this constant urge brewing within me to turn to some other genre, turning to essays. So, it was a question of wanting the unexpected.

Taking into consideration the notion of space, I have just started reading your book Clearing a Space, and there are a few motives which are recurrent, one being the question of legitimacy which you have just talked about, and also further, the issue of owning and disowning. Your use of the personal to discover what it is like to be in modern India, and the larger question — what does modernity mean to every Indian?… There is a lack of the personal in most explorative or theoretical accounts, which sort of tends to define the nation in general, but you tend to use the personal, your memories in order to understand or discover your identity.

Firstly, the method I follow is one I adopt in order to explore an idea… I wanted to explore certain ideas. Some of that had to do with my own craft, my style of writing. Some of that had to do with my choice to write about being in this world rather being a part of the nation in a kind of ethos and atmosphere that has been dictated by postcolonial studies. That is why I felt like doing something different and creating a space of my own. I followed that thought process through the essay, and because that particular thought process came into existence from a person at a particular point in history, I had to include that person in my thought process. I had to use, in a manner of speaking, the cup of coffee the person had in the morning. That was something which I couldn’t do with academic writing. So I had to abandon the more conventional forms of academic criticism because I will never be able to begin an essay about a novel as an epic genre, whether or not I agreed with that reading of the novel, by mentioning the cup of coffee I had in the morning. But the person who is arguing with that novel, the reading of the novel as an epic, was of course this person in a particular time and place. While in academic criticism, I wouldn’t be able to include that person in a particular time and period – the person who has been formed by some ideas and certain personal memories in order to inhabit that particular time and place. So, in order to ensure the fluidity of writing in all directions and in order to write about the unfolding of the thought process and its various origins, I had to abandon the constructed neutrality of the academic piece.

I have been speaking both in my essays and the kind of writing I do in my novels for the shadow life of the secular in this country. Whenever we talk about the secular in this country, we think about secularism, which I call a constitutional idea, the idea of all world views and world religions being given space, and whenever we think of the secular in this way we think of the secular in a multicultural sense, the cohabiting of different world views and religion. We don’t think of the unconscious. When the unconscious directs us or when a certain consciousness pertains to our own selves, the consciousness to do with where we decide to go today, the consciousness that identifies a certain time of the day as congenial or not congenial, as homely or not homely, as familiar or not familiar, that consciousness is also assigning value to our life by saying this is beautiful or not beautiful and these assignations of value are secular assignations of value. While assigning these values we do not fall back on a specific idea emerging from religious orthodoxy or custom which would validate the assignation of value. So, we are not terming something as beautiful simply because it clearly shows traits of the divine. And I believe that all of our modern literature and cinema arises from this idea of secular unconscious or subconscious. The varied frames that are projected in any great movie, the ones that the filmmaker considers to be significant for no external reason except for the particular filmic perception of that world is a part of the secular history of a country, a secular history which is confined to the self and its subconscious and is not comprehended or attended by the language of the secular which talks of the communal harmony or the normal definition of secularism bestowed by the constitution. That constitutional idea of the secular doesn’t quite understand in which part of our history the emergence of this secular which has produced our cinema, our modernity and our culture, is located. The self has changed obviously in certain ways to allow itself to make those judgements and ascribe values to certain things without adhering to a particular set of ideas or dogmas formulated by religion or by the state. That is a very important part of the history of this secular imagination in our country which almost never gets talked about. And it is this ‘self’ which experiences modernity and assigns meanings without being driven by existing ideas.

The use of the subconscious in your first essay in which you traced a pattern through Indian English writing from some writers like Kalidas to Nirad C. Chaudhuri and you talked about disowning your heritage, going back and then going for an English language or English tongue and then coming back and reacquiring and then you described the whole process as very secular and how Nirad C. Chaudhuri inverted that pattern. While reading that particular essay, what I found very attractive was the fluidity present in that particular essay. What I gauged while reading the essay is that you were talking against the Cartesian self, the self-satisfied thinking creature but u were also talking against the postmodern fragmented self that can’t take a decision, like the act of legitimising oneself or creating a space, so this duality … how do u reflect it in your novel writing, where a character has to do something or act, so how do u encompass that duality in your novel-writing or in your non-fiction?

For me, ‘character’ is mysterious. Firstly, people say that character is at the centre of the novel, and secondly they say that character is a sum of certain psychological traits, certain tendencies and physical features, so when we think about a character, we often tend to conclude that a character is formed as a result of adding up certain physical features together and then pouring the psychological life in it as if the character were a kind of vessel. However, I am uneasy with such an idea of the formation of character, which, in its way, is oddly analogous to the idea of mixing, say, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Sikh world-views to arrive at the ‘secular’. For me character is a mystery and this mystery is simply not rebutted by self awareness in the postmodern sense. Secondly, when people, even students ask me what character is, I say that I don’t know. Thirdly for me character is not at the centre of the story, so, I don’t believe in the humanistic hierarchy where the character, like the figure in a Renaissance painting, is at the centre, and everything else is in the background and the background is considered to be important only because it tells something about the world or the story of the character. I don’t support this definition because for me often the background is more important. So what I’m expressing is a critique of the 19th century novel and the way we often think about the novel, a critique of the humanistic way of looking at the individual and the novel, and what you described as the Cartesian self; it’s an embracing of digressions, these acts of looking away, these interruptions but in a way that is closer to modernism and, superficially, post-modernism. However, I think post-modernism is not really fragmentary at all. Post-modernism is about pastiche, but it‘s often also involved in other things that came about in the same time, like post-colonialism, post-structuralism; it often has these epic stories to tell about magnificent journeys made, new worlds discovered, diasporas, immigration, all these get appropriated from post-modernism, globalisation, the global idea of home, the notion that everywhere is home. Post-modernism often has a triumphant story to tell, and that is why I don’t think it’s truly fragmentary, it does have an epic triumphant story to tell us and that way it fits in quite well with globalisation, the free market. And that’s where certain kind of narratives like the global novel, magic realist novels fits in well with the ethos of post-modernism. I believe in rejecting these kinds of ideas. I believe in rejecting the kind of triumphant and the sentimental ideas of diasporic journeys for instance. I believe we are always making radical journeys. I believe we are making journeys when we travel from South Calcutta to North Calcutta or West to East Berlin, I believe our own cities are often places that we discover last. I believe there are educated Bengali migrants who live in New York or in New Jersey, but in a sense still live in Dhakuria. For example, during the Banga Sammelan, an annual event celebrated by Bengalis in North America, organisers and participants choose a venue like the Town hall. They recreate Dhakuria in the venue. They invite people like Sourav Ganguly and Soumitro Chatterjee from Tollywood and actors from Bengali serials. The artists who participate in the annual event are not aware of the outside; it is just the ethos of Dhakuria within. Diaspora doesn’t mean that you see anything new; you can continue to live where you are, while you live in your own city. And it is quite possible that you might discover the city where you live in last of all. Similarly, mirroring this, it’s often the case that the city you live in and those closest to you don’t quite know you until very late in the day. For instance, when your city gets to know you at last, if you have acquired, say, accolades outside, your relatives, at times, are the very last to become aware of your achievements. And all that runs counter to the sentimentality of narratives of post modernity, globalisation, diasporas, and travel, everything which you have heard about for the last 30 years or so. We are in a kind of a place where I doubt such things, and surreal discoveries exist within these constant kinds of reversals.

I read a poem by Agha Shahid Ali, I don’t remember the exact line, however, he says that Kashmir exists in a post-box.  I read an essay associated with it, which pertains to the act of imagination and this imagination is also one of those recurrent motives in your essays too. So, the author says that when you are diasporic you can’t go back to the actual space, actual time, so, what you do is invent that place or time and you try to imagine a space for yourself where you kind of recreate those images. But, the author also mentions that there is a sort of nostalgia for the past and there is also a disruption. So, how does this work, is it really possible to be content when you are living in New York and create the feeling of living in Calcutta.

The thing which they recreate is not real, both in Calcutta and in the town hall in New Jersey; it’s a kind of invented Calcutta. Mamata Banerjee’s idea of Bengal is not real, it’s kind of manufacturing of Bengal. So it could happen in New Jersey or it could happen in Calcutta. The predominance Tagore has grown immensely in the last 10 years. Earlier, even in the realm of music, we could hear people singing Nazrul Geeti on TV, now we don’t hear them anymore, now it’s only Tagore. So, this centrality of Tagore is a part of a particular invention of Bengal. Even during Tagore’s time in Bengal, there were other musicians as well and their music gave a vivid idea of Bengal, so, it was not just Tagore’s songs. However, Tagore can be considered as the primary means of inventing this kind of strange golden age that Bengal had, which is going on right now in Bengal and every time I see a picture of Tagore at a bus stop or any institution named after Tagore or when I go to Oh! Calcutta and I hear Tagore being played on the synthesizer or a computer I know I am in the midst of this invention of Bengal.

So you are trying to say that multiculturalism or globalisation in the guise of expanding spaces has compressed them. So in the guise of say, giving multiple possibilities it has actually compressed them or given stereotypes.

Yes it has compressed them, that’s the way it works. The rhetoric of globalisation always has to do with plenty, the annual growth rate and the GDP goes up and more and more people are reading books. This is the rhetoric of the Booker prize, for instance. Or in politics –democratic but aggressive regimes claimed in the early 2000s that they were taking democracy to varied parts of the world now, to parts of the world where there were tyrannical regimes. The rhetoric of globalisation always claims to cater to plenty; actually, it keeps narrowing down the possibilities. I have written about that in Clearing a Space.

In one of your essays, regarding Michael Madhushudan Dutta, you have said something which is novel according to me, the idea of modernity, and you have said that the idea of modernity entered the Bengali culture in poetry via Michael Madhushudan Dutta not by a slaying of the coloniser but by the father… This oedipal quality, I want to know more about it, please elaborate.

Modernity has had multiple kinds of provenances, even in Bengal, even in India; one of them is leaving the father behind, not stepping in the father’s shoes, sometimes seeming to inhabit the same space. Lot of Indian people stay in the same house with their parents. Some people who participated in Young Bengal, they did outrageous things but they often lived with their parents, their fathers were shocked by their sons’ actions, this kind of expanded the idea of spaces which we had in India, which Foucault said kind of disappeared in Europe, wherein mad people from the late eighteenth century onwards were admitted to institutions unlike earlier, when mad people used to stay in the same house: and this happens in India till this date. So, in the same way, lot of radical people stayed at home, but they were overturning their father’s world. For example,Rabindranath and his father, Debendranath and his father who had moved even further away. So, that whole business of leaving the father behind even when the family unit seemed intact, was a kind of a marker of modern India. I was kind of noting because I was noticing other things happening after the introduction of globalisation and after the introduction of free market in India and after I began to discover by the late 80’s the way a new ruling class in India was legitimising itself and often following the footsteps of their fathers and I saw how a lot of people in Oxford in the late 80s had arrived from Delhi who came to Oxford after acquiring scholarships from Delhi, most of their parents were academics or bureaucrats. So, in a way one could sense that the children were not extending or challenging their fathers but consolidating their father’s world. For instance, the Marwari community in Bengal was quite fascinating; often capitalism depends on an urge for individualism, of creating an individual space but here in India capitalism has often depended on families, specially the closely knit families as support systems, extinguishing the sense of individuality. There were few people who led their life adhering to an individualistic element. Laxmi Mittal is an exception in that sense, in the sense that he didn’t emerge from the Marwari elite in Calcutta and was not wholly dependent on community or family support. I was also struck by the fact that I didn’t see that many young Marwari people moving away from the kind of ethos that they have been born into – except a few of them. On the other hand, in Bengal you note nothing in the first half of the twentieth century but people moving away from an ethos to do with entrepreneurship and many of them moved into jobs, taking into consideration the safety attached to the profession, studying and taking exams and taking up jobs. Today, the secular intelligentsia itself, in Bengal and out of it, has become self-perpetuating, a ‘family’ in many senses. So, there are a variety of things that has been making me think about how people deal with the legacy of their fathers.

This position of angularity that you spoke of inhabiting in the introduction to your Clearing a Space, and then in one of the essays you spoke of a theoretical framework which has dominated much post-colonial writing, for instance the Foucaultian understanding of the relation between power and knowledge and you moved slightly across it, slightly in an angular position, you criticised and moved a little towards, what I felt, Bhabha and then you employed this rhetoric which kind of investigated in-between space — like you are here and there, like the motif of journey, which reminds me of an essay by Bhabha which talked about the metaphor of a hyphen which joins two things but also separates them. So, as a modern intellectual, who has to speak the truth, how can you inhabit this in-between space while speaking the truth? Or do you completely disinherit the notion of truth altogether?

I disinherit the in-between space in terms of it being some space empowered by a certain post-colonial idea of politics. For Bhabha, the whole business of in-between is a statement of empowerment to do with a triumphant re-reading which says that, it is a characteristic of the post-modern, post-colonial kind of thinking to deem the pure suspect. The in-between, the hybrid is politically efficacious, significant and also imaginatively and morally good. The ethnically impure is what is in a sense sexy. One can learn lessons from some of that, but one doesn’t want it to be a defining formula and one also wants to keep eliding and evading this proximity to any kind of triumphalism. I don’t want to say anything with a sense of triumph.

There has been a trend in post-colonial writing where most of it is characterised with something which is writing back to the Empire. In the second essay you talked about Provincialising Europe. Anything European came before, and anything Indian has not yet arrived, it is always deferred. When you write in the English tongue and when people ask,who your readers are, you have to say people living in India or people living in my native place. How do you engage with this in your novel-writing when you write about post-colonial Calcutta or even after globalisation in Calcutta? Do you write back to the empire or do you totally obliterate that and create a totally new space for yourself? 

I never took the empire to be a kind of homogenous whole. As I wrote in Afternoon Raag: I discovered a group of people who seem to be on the fringes of the empires’ legacy and these were white working class people, maybe these are even the only people today who are going to claim the greatness of empire and worship the queen. The more you come into contact with people the more you see the complexity of human life. So I never did see ‘writing back’ as a long-term or intellectually challenging project. And never saw empire as a kind of, as a whole, as I said you don’t know the city you live in,  but also you make journeys over what used to be the centres of the empire like Oxford and then you see that much of the empire doesn’t know itself. So then writing back as a project can only be a very limited project. One is writing back to writing back the empire. One is writing back against oneself. You are writing back to varied things.

In one of the essays you spoke about how your agent wanted you to work on a piece of non-fiction on Calcutta.In the same piece you have talked about a period of transformation from a Nehruvian socialism to a rapid capitalist framework. Has that affected novel writing in India as it has popularised novel writing in the West?

Of course. Novel writing in India has been going on for a while and it has happened in varied languages. However, novel-writing in India in English from the 80’s onwards, the so called boom in Indian writing in English-has been propelled by the free market economy. Firstly, the novel itself became the prime genre in literature after free market globalisation and there are many reasons for that, free market globalisation sort of thrived on lateral connections, which is what globalisation is about. The novel doesn’t represent disruption. There are kind of shorter or jagged forms of poetry which are more formal and represent a disruption. There is no space for that disruption in globalisation. The novel generally fits into that ethos of seamless free-market continuity. Yet I would add something from my experience which often makes me pause and rethink my experience of globalisation – that, even when we travel in the western world we come across streets in Berlin or Paris, where we find a different kind of rhythm which is out of place. That is the only way to put it. And so I am optimistic about the disruptive still having a part to play in the world.

In your essay on Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincialising Europe, you talked about Baudelaire’s figure of the flaneur and you talked about how Benjamin talked about it and you linked it to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s idea of ‘adda’, but you said that it is something of a connection which he didn’t make explicit. Reading through your essays, what I found is that you (as an author) were very akin to that figure of flaneur… This is basically the readers’ perception of what my author is. So, when you walk around the streets, you have assumed a position of objectivity but you are also talking about the self, about the internal consistencies; thus, there is a subjective interest in what you are writing about, there is a tangle, there is dialectic between subjectivity and objectivity in your writing, am I right about this?

Yes, I don’t know about subjectivity or objectivity, but the flaneur and the loiterer have been of great interest to me definitely. I think it has sort of metamorphosed for me as well, this figure of the loiterer. As a child, I discovered that you could discover a lot while loitering, while loitering in cities like Calcutta, but of course you can’t loiter here anymore as there are no pavements left. But I discovered that in a city like Calcutta and with weather like India’s you can pause in certain ways in the outside and the outside is also in some ways continuous with the interior. There is no clear demarcation…there are people who are leading a part of the day outside and the weather makes that possible, and then that’s one of the features of the arcades which Walter Benjamin talks of the relation to the flaneur; the arcade is neither inside or outside, it’s a public space but it feels like an interior… where the loiterer wanders about as when he is in his drawing room, but it’s actually not his drawing room but he still feels at home…I was interested in that…Today I don’t know how far that kind of loitering is possible…It is possible to a certain extent but now my loitering leads me to understand that the globalised world has discontinuities in between. So, I walk into a street in Berlin or in Copenhagen and maybe somebody makes a racist remark and I think to myself, I am encountering a provincialism over here which ramifies intoa local life I know nothing about and which is not part of the triumphant story of globalisation, so, loitering into the by-lanes opens me up to a world which globalisation tells me nothing about. But it’s slightly different from the man in the arcade, there is a sense of menace and there is also a sense of discovery, and a retrospective sense of wonder that globalisation is not all encompassing, that there are multiple worlds within a world even today and not just one flattened globalised world, the entire idea of one world, one village is not true. So, loitering now for me is a means to discover that.

Recently, Sushama Swaraj proclaimed that Gita should be made the national book of the country. Now amidst protests in intellectual circles, I came across an old article of yours in the Guardian, written in the wake of the 2014 election which got the BJP govt. to power, you write that even texts that are now associated with Brahminical Hinduism, such as the Bhagwad Gita, are really subtly anti-brahminical given the influence on them of Buddhism, can you please elaborate.

No actually one thing I have noticed… I am not an authority on Gita or on Sanskrit literature or religion or whatever, but I was given the task of writing a foreword to the Bhagwad Gita for a re- issue of the Gita by the Folio society which is a niche publisher in the UK that publishes very expensive editions of certain books. So, I re-read the Gita. So, when I re-read the Gita, I realised what an extraordinary book it is. One of the many extraordinary things about it, is that it proclaims that even reading this book is not going to help you, even performing those sacrifices is not going to help, even the Gita wouldn’t help you to move away from the darkness of ignorance unless you really sort of embrace a certain kind of self knowledge and the knowledge of the self. And the Vedas are criticised in the Gita constantly. I had noticed this when I had read it for the first time. It must be one of the few kind of texts which says ‘Don’t rely on me’, which is a kind of sabotaging itself, so, as I was trying to find out the intellectual background to the Gita, I consulted a professor named Shibaji Bandopadhyay and he told me that this is the influence of Buddhism because it had a kind of anti-brahminical message. Of course, that continues not only in the Gita but it in the Bhakti period as well. The Bhakti period was all about critiquing the performance and the vanity of rituals. Earlier, when the Gita was composed, we see the influence Buddhism had on what we might call the counterparts of modern day philosophers, who were saying, ‘What I say or what we say is not enough for the purposes of illumination’, which is a wonderful and an amazing thing to say. I don’t think we say that in India now-a-days about anything, so, I just think it is ironic each time somebody fights and bans something on behalf of Hinduism, I just find it ironical, a great deal of Hinduism is against itself, is conflicted with  itself …and of course again I found it funny what Sushma Swaraj said, as to make Gita  the national book , because in that case the book will be reminding  the readers of the fact that it is  in itself no guarantee of wisdom . So, it’s self-sabotaging at the end of the day, in a very spiritual way.

I recently came across this idea of literary activism, I wasn’t aware of this idea earlier so I read up some pieces on it and I read Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire and he talked as to how literacy can fight against oppression, but I noticed that literary is different from literacy so I came across writers who say that the literary or the social sciences should have an ethical edge over any other stream of study. So the act of reading is important, I mean there is the content of the novel and the way of writing, much research has been done on that, but even the act of reading a novel will help us to promote some kind of activism. You had a talk on this in Presidency.

I organised a symposium on what I called ‘literary activism’ on behalf of the University of East Anglia. Among the venues were Jadavpur and Presidency universities. To put it very crudely, or very simply, it’s not activism through literature but activism on behalf of the literary that I mean. However, this kind of dichotomy falls apart because literature continually renews and argues for itself – that is, it performs a form of activism on its own behalf. It is arguing for  and setting the terms through which it might be read and each time it has to argue again, for, in truth, there are no classical parameters that you can fall back on to say that this is literature. Each time you have to argue your case, whether you argue through your essays or you argue through your work itself. So, I’m talking about activism on behalf of literature but literature also as a form of activism on behalf of literature- that is, literature arguing for it. Now what is literature… that is the argument. We have to accept that its meaning is not fixed. So it always requires fresh arguments, fresh assessments and engagements. It is very important in a world where the free market has taken up the terms of literature, where the free market tells us this is a masterpiece and this is a great work, while at the same time the academic departments no longer believe in masterpieces. The literary department has basically now become a social science department. Literature is only important to it inasmuch as it is a document to do with the historical or the political. And then on the other hand people telling us about, and selling us, literature are what I call ‘market activists’ – publishers, literary agents etc – they are activists who are acting on behalf of what I call market activism.  Selling books, making a big deal about it in market terms, and then subtly incorporating literary terms in their language, pronouncing the latest literary bestseller a masterpiece in advance of publication – that’s how market activism works. However, no book that ever sells less than a 100,000 copies is declared a masterpiece by a market activist. A masterpiece propelled by the market… And the ones in the academic department who don’t talk about literature at all still do talk, if they do talk about literary novels at all, about are the ones which have been propelled by the market. They won’t talk about obscure books. You have two poles, in the midst of this you have the literary, and you are trying to look again at the literary. I believe that since the free market is subject to constant boom and bust rather than constant boom, as we thought ten years ago, I’d like to take advantage of that pattern or rhythm and enquire into what the literary is as a category when you oppose it to the market. I want you to take advantage of the bust side of the market and open out certain discussions. This is what the discussion of literary activism was about. It was about literature in this kind of climate in between these two poles and also about activities undertaken on behalf of literature which are not directly related to success in conventional terms today.

Coming back to you first essay … So, I will quote you at first, The secular Indian middle class self’s struggle between disowning and recovering its, for the want of a better word, Indianess, something which you thought characterised modern Indian lit…and then you go on to describing the biography of Michael Madhushudan Dutta, who after being rejected by  magazines, he wanted to be an English writer, a proper romantic British author, but then he came back, but after his coming back and his reorienting the Indian heritage, was not as you termed, akin to divinity. He wrote Meghnad Badh Kavya, but he made Meghnad the hero as opposed to Ram, he said that I don’t like Ram’s ramblings.When I was reading this essay, I got reminded of another essay of Partho Chatterjee’s … on the notion of nationalism, where he said, he brought this notion of thematic-problematic. The problematic was emulating the European ideals of development, progress or what so ever, because we had to fight the British…but the thematic remained about keeping that core Indian, like that very Indianess, which was delegated to the  women. It was his critique of the woman question But, in the poem you described which was written by Madhushudan Dutta , in the last line you say that finally the mother tongue ,the kulo lokkhi calls him, so, there is an ultimate tranquillity in that situation, he gets reconciled, but in the Partho Chatterjee’s concept of modernity you don’t reconcile, there is always a disjuncture, because it’s always borrowed something…but in this one, Madhushudan Dutta found peace, so I am trying to make sense of this disjuncture between two narrative accounts.

Dutta found peace, but I mean, I am only looking at a particular kind of narrative over here, as to how these homecomings can shape histories, sometimes deceptively, how many of these people who become synonymous with certain trend or practices actually invent their traditions abroad or during journeys…so all I am saying is that Indian history or the Bengali lineage in modernity was never there to just claim or wasn’t kind of appended to us like a tail. It was invented, it was re-discovered, after having been rejected and ignored at first, it was then invented, often in a foreign country, and often for secular reasons, but that re-invention, all it did was, it represented a temporary homecoming.  But I don’t believe in this whole business of borrowing or Partho Chatterjee’s idea of derivative discourses or borrowing, I don’t think creative minds work like that, I mean, the creative mind is always borrowing. So in our country we know that on one level Tagore was for instance a great borrower, Tagore was a great bricoleur, somebody who used available materials, recycled it. I am sort of going back to terms created by Levi Strauss and Genet, who distinguished between the engineer, who claims to spontaneously make something and the bricoleur who never pretends that he had made something out of nothing but you can see that the materials he had used were already there, like Picasso’s little sculpture of the pregnant goat using baskets, you could see that material, that’s a bricolage. You see that with Tagore also, once you see the baul’s tunes being used for national songs … the kirtan or dhrupad form being used, the Irish folk songs being used, the delight in reusing material. So, during moments of creative efflorescence, one is not only creating out of nothing ,one is making use in a new way what is available in history. One whole range of stuff became available to people like Tagore in around 1878…so then how much, how far do we confuse that with…the borrowing of a colonised man, a colonised man borrows because he has nothing of his own except for an idea of core Indianess and the rest he needs to borrow from outside?There is nothing like core Indianess. And the most persuasive sort of examples of Indian modernity or any kind of other modernity has to do with re-workings or borrowings. And it would be lovely if Partho Chatterjee, who has said many important things, found a language to speak of that.

What are you working on right now or what are your future endeavours?           

I just have a novel out … Odysseus Abroad, which is itself a work of borrowing and brings together London, Sylheti life, familial relationships with the Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses… and choices you make, and again these are convergences available to the modern and to the critical kind of Bengali modern even today. And what I am working on right now it is too early to talk about.

Soumabrata is a research scholar in English Studies at JNU.

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