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Interview with Amit Chaudhuri

Evocative anthem to a changing India

Amit Chaudhuri Amit Chaudhuri (Shubhojit Datta)
By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / August 23, 2009

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In the gloriously crowded world of modern Indian fiction, Amit Chaudhuri stands out as a master craftsman who, with exquisite wit and grace, can depict a rapidly changing India in a single life and an entire life in a single detail. Best known for the novel “A New World’’ and for “Freedom Song: Three Novels,’’ Chaudhuri is also an essayist and an internationally acclaimed musician. His vivid and engrossing new novel, “The Immortals’’ (Knopf), set in 1980s Bombay, tells the story of the affluent Sengupta family and of the music teacher whose life becomes intertwined with that of his star pupil, Mrs. Sengupta, and of her teenage son, Nirmalya. A professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia, Chaudhuri spoke from India.

Q. This novel has been compared to Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks.’’ How does that strike you?

A. It’s an interesting comparison. When you’re creating something you have other texts in your head. I was tangentially thinking of Mann - specifically of “Toni Kroger’’ - and of how he portrays the movement from patrician fatherhood, social order, and bourgeois mercantile activity to a progeny that undermines all of that. Much of India’s literary and cultural history also fits that pattern. The poet [Rabindranath] Tagore’s family, for example, was an orthodox Brahmin one that profited from its dealings with the British while Tagore himself embodied transgression.

Q. Does Nirmalya, the teenage philosopher, resemble you?

A. Nirmayla is something like me when I was 16; that young self is certainly strange enough to be a fictional character. The novel came to me as an image of a boy who is not poor but who wears a torn kurta and whose music teacher wears a spotless white kurta. Somewhat comically, the boy wonders why this talented man accepts his role in this superficial world, as Nirmalya sees it, and the teacher is exasperated at the boy’s refusal to accept his privileges with good grace. Their spiritual yearnings are real yet they inhabit a world of complicity and material ambition. I am no longer Nirmalya, which is why I can write this novel, but it’s important that I feel moved by his anxieties and desires.

Q. And his priggishness?

A. [laughs] Yes. He reminds me of the Bob Dylan line: “But I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.’’

Q. Why is music so central here?

A. I wanted to give a sense of something immemorial that exists in the world of desire and ambition. I was talking to you about other texts, other sources. Well, two films by Istvan Szabo - “Mephisto’’ and “Taking Sides’’ - suggested how I might approach music in this novel. “Taking Sides’’ depicts post-war Berlin and the attempt by an American officer interviewing the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler to understand why this artist remained in Nazi Germany. Szabo constantly brings in the music which cannot avoid being part of that time and place. After all, we cannot encounter the paradisiacal - music - in paradise. We encounter it only in this world.

Q. Is England a looming presence in your India?

A. I can’t be completely clear about that. I know that England was important in the way I thought about writing and music. I used to play the guitar and sing in the Western popular tradition. But when I went to England at the age of 21, I realized that that was not my music and that Indian classical music expressed me authentically. The music that was popular in England at the time - Frankie Goes to Hollywood, all of that - confirmed my rejection. Over the years in England, through practicing Indian classical music, I realized how contingent works of art are on place, weather, seasons, even if they don’t specifically evoke those things.

Q. Were you struck, as your Indian characters are, by the silence in England?

A. That’s what dislocated me most; it still dislocates me because it embodies such a different way of approaching life. I grew up in a culture where one is never completely alone and is always slightly distracted by sound. All of that makes me look at story, plot, character, everything in a different way, I think.

Q. You seem to use silence to slow time and to create space around your sentences. Perhaps that doesn’t make sense . . . .

A. No, no, I agree. That sense of space is very important to me. You think of the tradition of Western music working through pauses, for example.

Q. Are you a Jamesian then?

A. I’ve never thought of myself in those terms although I am a fan of Henry James. What turned me into a writer was the sudden apprehension of the everyday; the fact that it could be looked at again and again. That realization brought with it what you just mentioned, the slowing down of time. I concentrated my craft towards that particular end and it remains a constant. At first, I slowed time to consider the present and the redemptive qualities of the everyday - in a Calcutta neighborhood, for example. Now I’m interested in relationships to power. Mann and James interest me because I think they see the role of the artist in relation to power, to ambition and worldly failure, and not just to creativity. I wanted to approach something similar without moving the story in a predictable direction.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at ama1668@hotmail.com.

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