Interview: Amit Chaudhuri's Redemptive Realism

By | on September 29, 2009 | 0 Comment
I recently reviewed Amit Chaudhuri’s novel on Three Guys. His publisher, Knopf, generously gave me the opportunity to ask the writer some questions. Reading over the interview, I was struck by hints of the same wayward lyricism that I found so affecting in The Immortals. His tossed-off comments that adolescence was a form of fiction and that realism could be redemptive amazed the hell out of me. But what could realism that’s not naturalistic be? What a bright man…see below:

DH: In The Immortals, I found extended families, friendships and business relations laid out, more or less, on the same plane. It’s as if a carpet with a striking pattern were quickly being unrolled in front of me. There’s a great sensitivity to family groupings and social networks in the presentation of individuals. It’s sort of Trollope-like. Do you think that I’m on the something in how you are presenting the personalities of your characters?

AC: D.H. Lawrence called the novel the ‘one bright book of life’, and also said its particular power lies in its ability to capture ‘subtle human interrelationship’; and, although I long valued Lawrence for his other qualities (his powerful sense of the ordinary, of the real), I think I’m finally beginning to understand, and explore in this novel, the pleasure of the process he’s talking about. One thing I always liked about Sons and Lovers, though, was that it did not give weight to any particular life-experience over another; and it’s something I’ve often tried to be true to.

DH: The exception to this “I’m in the group.” sort of identity is Nirmalya. Nirmalya is not a people person. He is especially close to his mother and reveres the musician Shyamji but he can take or leave his friends.

Nirmalya is a character in suspension. You kept me wondering what he would finally fall into. Also, you made me want to know Nirmalya’s opinion of the other characters and of life more than I wanted to know anyone else’s opinion. Is that the way you saw the function of the character…as a point of reference, the square peg in the round hole?

AC: Parts of Nirmalya are very like what I was like when I was sixteen. The simultaneous sense of destiny and anonymity – only in adolescence do we have that sense of holiness and mysterious (because it has, as yet, no proven reason) purpose. And yet, because adolescence is such a recognizable and temporary phase, that holiness and sense of purity are held within quotation marks: we cannot quite take them seriously. The quotation marks also render that phase in life novelistic, almost as if the adolescent were inseparable from fiction. And yet fiction has its own peculiar and undeniable truth, doesn’t it; which is why I can’t entirely laugh at Nirmalya, or ignore the force or truth of the things he says.

DH: I noticed from your website that you are a musician as well as a writer. Certainly Indian music plays an indispensable role in The Immortals…the novel can’t be imagined without it.

It’s my guess that Indian music has affected the form and tempo of your novel and is a key to understanding some of its multiform meaning. The raga seems like a fascinating kind of evolving form. Has it affected your writing?

AC: I’ve been asked this question before, and I find it difficult to answer. I’m not consciously importing Indian musical forms and their textures into my writing. But an analogy could be made, I suppose, with Western forms of music – because I compose in movements (paragraphs and sections) rather than through plot, and also through pauses and silences. These are as important to me as twists and turns in the plot are to other writers.

DH:There’s a hint of malaise in the student/guru relationship between Mallika and Shyamji. Mallika is a talented amateur. Her family dreams of the recognition that they feel is her due. But she is not willing to do the work.

There’s a sense of promise that falls short in The Immortals…of characters that are all too human grasping at something magical through art without being wholly aware of it. Do you mean the title ironically as a form of social satire?

AC: I guess I was thinking, in the title, of the raga itself; of how it is, in a sense, immemorial, but how we must only encounter in only in a world of mortality and compromise. Music, like the gods themselves (brass figurines in the drawing room), transcends this world of complicity and compromise we live in, but can never be encountered outside this world, in some pure untainted paradisial context.

DH: I loved your depiction of the memorial concert for Shyamji’s revered father, a legendary musician. It’s strange mix of serious art, which wasn’t popular with the crowd, and amateur night, when the wives of business executives went upstage to perform.

Would you say something about the vitality of the Indian music scene? It seems all mixed up to me…a mix of the corny and the sublime. Perhaps my question relates to the issue of fusion in music which you have written about.

AC: I think the classical scene in Indian music has suffered in the last three decades by becoming a national music; something that possesses more symbolism than vitality – that has been the tragic legacy of gifted musicians like Ravi Shankar. The corniness you speak of comes from that feelgood nationalism, that kitschy satisfaction that comes to an art-form when it begins to believe it’s essentially ‘Indian’ or ‘American’ or ‘African’ or ‘Japanese’. Fusion is not really an avenue out of this unless it deliberately unsettles these static qualities.

DH: I was delighted to encounter a reference to Frege…as well as Wittgenstein in your novel. Nirmalya hugs his Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, with its dog-eared pages.

Nirmalya yearns for something more fulfilling that our quotidian lives but maybe it’s just not there. As a writer are you a realist or an idealist?

AC: I’m a realist – but not in a naturalistic sense. The real is, or can sometimes be, redemptive for me – something that Nirmalya is yet to discover.

DH: Professor Chaudhuri…I wanted to thank you so much for considering my questions. Here’s the last one: Which contemporary writers especially interest you and what books would you put on your writing desk for inspiration?

AC: Off the top of my head, and from very recent memory, I could mention the Pakistani writer Nadeem Aslam, and the Indian novelist Sunetra Gupta.

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