Amit Chaudhuri has this air of gravitas but he can be very funny in his understated way. When Anita Roy, moderating his session, cautiously said, “I hope you don’t take offence, but it seems you’re something of an oddity in the pantheon of Indian writers…”, Chaudhuri promptly retorted with a faux-offended “How dare you!” (Was it just my imagination at work or did it seem like a Naipaul send-up?)
Anyway, Anita’s point about Chaudhuri being an “oddity” was that he seems to belong to a different time-zone from the other major Indian writers of his generation – in terms of his influences and the nature of his writing. “On the one hand there’s been this prevailing notion that only big, sprawling books can capture the reality of this big, sprawling country,” she said, “but on the other hand your work is almost miniaturist.” (At this point Hurree leant across to remind me that Chaudhuri had once referred to a certain type of Big Book as “baggy monsters”.)
And yet, Anita continued, despite these differences, you are seen as a 36-point figure on the Indian literary scene rather than, say, a 24-point figure. (I enjoyed this cheeky way of expressing the difference between a heavyweight and an author of medium standing; also thought it was a nice comment on literary hierarchies.) Chaudhuri responded by discussing his discomfort with “the triumphalist nature of Indian writing” and by mentioning some of his early influences, including Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri: “this lineage is as important as the huge monuments of Rushdie and Midnight’s Children.” Here, he also touched on how his relationship with most of the books he read in the late 1970s has changed over the years. “I don’t feel the same way now about many of the books I enjoyed in 1976, and vice versa. Jejuri is one of the exceptions – I loved it then and I still love it.”
Shortly afterwards, he was asked what he thought of Suketu Mehta’s remark (made during an earlier session) that Indian writing in English is more interesting and dynamic than in other languages because Indians who are thinking/writing in English are seeing more rapid change. Chaudhuri looked around faux-surreptitiously. “Is Suketu here? No? Then it’s safe to disapprove?” He then proceeded to tackle the question in seriousness – he didn’t argue against Mehta’s position forcefully but with quiet effectiveness, by asking rhetorical questions: “Are good writers simply a product of rapid change? I’m not sure.” The classes of society that are not seeing very rapid change, he pointed out, still produce great writers (C S Lakshmi, for instance) because great writing can come out of a search for freedom – from feeling in the dark, and pushing the walls back.
“The old language of literature is being replaced by the language of the market,” he said later, alluding to the blurb culture. “There was a time when it took a while for a book to develop a reputation. Today we’re being told even before a book’s release that it’s a masterpiece. Time has turned around.”
P.S. Anita is a hugely entertaining moderator. She allows herself to be cheeky, gets sidetracked now and again and refuses to be didactic about the Big Issues – and paradoxical though it might sound, I think these qualities makes authors feel more comfortable when they’re talking to her. The format of a panel discussion at a literary festival is a bit stifling anyhow – it’s understood that serious issues are going to be discussed and meaningful things said, and some lightness and irreverence during the actual discussion always helps. Of course, what made this session such a success in the final reckoning was that Chaudhuri himself was responsive and articulate.