On Amit Chaudhuri
Amit Chaudhuri. Friend of My Youth. New York Review Books, 2019.
Amit Chaudhuri. The Origins of Dislike. Oxford University Press, 2018.
Once upon a time, when modernism was alive and flourishing, artists and writers looked into the surfaces of individual cities and saw allegories of modernity: Benjamin’s “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century”; Joyce’s twenty-four hours in Dublin; Abbott’s 1930s photographs of Changing New York. Amit Chaudhuri’s early novels, written in the ’90s, were a late addition to this line; they looked to Calcutta and took from it a certain modernist inspiration. That this could be pulled off at the end of the 20th century seemed a minor miracle — a rooted, worldly modernism, appearing in the high days of globalization and postmodernism, developments associated more with spatial disorientation and free-floating pastiche, abstraction and dispersal, than anything rooted or worldly. But this late modernist run proved short, and from the start was endangered by a globalized historical moment to which Chaudhuri has remained both attuned and distanced. “I’m undecided about the time we live in,” the narrator says in his most recent novel, Friend of My Youth (2019). Through the line’s detached vantage unfolds a miniature history of Chaudhuri’s work, now spanning seven novels and four essay collections: from an embrace of the world, to a restless disenchantment, to, with Friend of My Youth, something like the productive confusion of a new chapter.
Chaudhuri was born in what was Calcutta in 1962. His father worked in management at Britannia Biscuits. Communist politics were on the rise in ’60s West Bengal, and sensing the tremors that would lead to the Naxalite movement and the eventual electoral victory of the Left Front in 1977, the company departed for the more congenial ground of Bombay. From 1965 on, Chaudhuri was consigned to life as “a Bombay person” — the quote comes, tellingly, from his nonfiction book, Calcutta (2013). Bombay was movies, glass, sea breeze and horizons, sunsets and skylines, tutors, dinner parties, private clubs, the balconies of tall apartments in swish neighborhoods on hills. It was a youth spent alone in a vast room with the view omniscient (“the swarms of lights in the evening, the hoods of tiny cars shining and vanishing in the sunlight during the daytime”), and it could be stifling. Life was elsewhere. Something was elsewhere in Calcutta, too, but it wasn’t life — more like world-historical monumentality, or any sense of the ideal or utopian. Calcutta’s neorealist peripherality: this was what lent Chaudhuri’s returns, for holidays and family visits, an aura of worldly presence. The city offered a contrary theater of associations: not political power (Delhi) or commercial glamour (Bombay), but intellectual life, gossip and debate over tea, streets thick with context, men pushing stalled cars, Marxists reading newspapers in bathrooms, families and domestic workers gathered around power-cut televisions, dust, randomness, the small, sparse, porous interiors of petty-bourgeois apartments. The city swelled, in its minorness, to allegorical size. “The Calcutta I’d encountered as a child was one of the great cities of modernity; it was that peculiar thing, modernity, that I first came into contact with here (without knowing it), then became familiar with it, and then was changed by it.”
Chaudhuri’s debut novel, A Strange and Sublime Address (1991), tours the peculiarity of the modern through the eyes of a boy from Bombay visiting his uncle’s house in Calcutta. It unfolds in a sweep of moments, narrated with a lightly abstract third-person control, a prose on holiday from immediacy but nevertheless lingering over the clamor of kitchen pots or the quick frenzy of the uncle’s morning routine. Many of its reviewers concluded that nothing happens, but it’s not hard to recognize its plotlessness as a species of modernist plot in its own right — one that becomes elevated, halfway through, to a thesis:
But why did these houses — for instance, that one with the tall, ornate iron gates and a watchman dozing on a stool, which gave the impression that the family had valuables locked away inside . . . or this small, shabby house with the girl Sandeep glimpsed through the window, sitting in a bare, ill-furnished room, memorizing a text by candlelight, repeating suffixes and prefixes from a Bengali grammar over and over to herself — why did these houses seem to suggest that an infinitely interesting story might be woven around them? And yet the story would never be a satisfying one, because the writer, like Sandeep, would be too caught up in jotting down the irrelevances and digressions that make up lives, and the life of a city, rather than a good story — till the reader would shout “Come to the point!” — and there would be no point, except the girl memorizing the rules of grammar, the old man in the easy-chair fanning himself, and the house with the small, empty porch that was crowded, paradoxically, with many memories and possibilities. The “real” story, with its beginning, middle, and conclusion, would never be told, because it did not exist .
You don’t have to buy into the philosophizing to enjoy the noticing, or the quality of modern experience opened onto by its ideas.
The premise of familiar estrangement — a boy from Bombay visiting family in Calcutta, in this case — runs through all of Chaudhuri’s novels. But its dispersal to other settings (Oxford, Bombay, London) never sheds the attachment to the ur-source of Calcutta. For much of the mid-20th century, Calcutta rested on a social foundation that shaped Chaudhuri’s imagination. Peripherality, quickened by cultural prowess; a generous and layered middle class, rich in leisure time but restrained by the nonaligned movement’s middle road between capitalism and socialism; a materialist middle-class thought-world, self-divided by a kind of modernist spiritualism; and an intriguing overlap of austerity and congestion, both in its streets and the modest interiors of its middle-class homes, extended families living together in the clean, bare space of three or so economical rooms: this matrix lent Chaudhuri the expanded alertness, the equal interest in character and place or atmosphere that lights up his early fiction, and that all his later novels have to be measured against. The quality of quotidian experience in A Strange and Sublime Address reaches out from mere artful noticing to something irreducibly social, or the “vague, vast” sense, from a gathering of interiority-eschewing cinematic fragments, of modern community: “their minds flowed outward into the images of the city, and became indistinguishable from them.” Small domestic observations (the sweeping of the floor, an exchange of furtive glances in the lane outside) drift into warm, often humorous character portraits (“Here, filling the room with cigarette smoke, he read the significant news of the day; he pondered on ‘world affairs’ and ‘home affairs’; he pontificated to himself on the ‘current situation’ from a Marxist angle. He was a water-closet thinker”), and finally spill into the city itself, dividing into montage (“past the bridge in Dhakuria, past Gol Park, where a statue of Swami Vivekananda, with arms folded in fierce serenity, stood staring unflinchingly at an advertisement for biscuits”) and impressionism: “Between two and four o’clock, a golden stupor descended upon the city. Sandeep loved these two hours when it was too hot to move, when the eddying waves of people disappeared and a low tide came upon everything . . . when the splendid arguments in the tea-shops came to a brief conclusion, and everyone agreed with everyone and fell silent.” Key to the novel’s meaningfulness is the interleaving of these layers: the domestic pours into the street, pointillism expands to collective experience.
For without this interleaving there’s a risk to “jotting down the irrelevances and digressions that make up lives, and the life of a city”: you might find yourself less a novelist than an auteur reporter, a subtle asociality tinting your well-turned dispatches. The Calcutta of A Strange and Sublime Address invites plenty of looking, listing, peering out of and into windows. But it’s looking done dreamily, as if enchanted, seeping from individual feeling to a half-fantasized collective life. Yet already with Chaudhuri’s second novel, Afternoon Raag (1993), the richness of collective imagination has thinned. Calcutta has been replaced by Oxford — where Chaudhuri, then a doctoral student preparing or evading a dissertation on D. H. Lawrence, completed his first two novels. Even if many familiar charms are on offer (montage, a languid plotlessness, pleasant paintings of student life, swept into frame by a view from the window), there’s nevertheless something sour in the air. Melancholy has set in, often to beautiful effect, but at its core Oxford is a world of isolation and tentative affiliations, tipping into a bitterness inflected by the racism of post-Thatcher Britain, the class tensions of university towns, and the taxing premise of a male graduate student hesitating between two women, only in part rescued by an end-of-novel turn in narration, allowing in the perspective of one of the women. Even Calcutta, glimpsed here in cameos, has lost some of its aura: “Nothing has changed for the last twenty years. . . . The air is awash with Marx and Trotsky; the airport, to which no international flight but Aeroflot and the Bangladesh Biman has been coming for years, is no gateway to fresh influences from abroad, but an interesting, if puzzling, building: and in Calcutta, nothing has happened after Marxism and modernism.” Sadness drifts from Oxford’s transient student life to Calcutta’s stagnation. And yet there is something stilly sublime about the novel’s world of tea and thin-walled dorms, Ealing comedies and foreign unreality, its Oxford “a temporal and enchanted territory that has no permanence in one’s life.”
Chaudhuri’s essays tend to operate on the level of the provocatively general.Tweet
This mood change — melancholy and belatedness entering the picture despite themselves, shading peculiarly into the enchantment of A Strange and Sublime Address — reaches its zenith in Chaudhuri’s third novel, which appears retrospectively as a nightcap on the early work. Freedom Song (1998) returns to Calcutta, and is set in 1993 (by contrast, A Strange and Sublime Address is set sometime in the early ’70s). The Left Front still presides over Bengal — “Here, in the deep green humid Gangetic delta in Bengal, among jackfruit trees, malaria, and bluebottle flies, was one of the last Socialist governments in the world” — but the alliance’s superannuation is what gives the novel its scaffold. Two families feature: the father of one has been plucked from retirement to rouse a chocolates company, once British-owned and now nationalized, from its current torpor; the father of the other owns an engineering parts factory, soon to be engulfed by liberalization. The son of the latter is a newish member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI[M]) whose parents struggle, as a result of his party membership, to arrange his marriage. For decades enjoying hegemony in Bengal, the CPI(M) faces a transformed present in which bourgeois fascination with Marxism seems lonely, baffling, innocent but laughable, a sign of giving up on something as grand as modernity or as banal as a career. Meanwhile, prejudicial talk swirls in the aftermath of the Babri Mosque’s demolition in Ayodhya at the hands of Hindu fundamentalists. Riots burst in the streets; two characters gossip over the Muslim birth rate and the ubiquity of the call to prayer; “a rather mournful looking red flag” flutters imperceptibly in a near breezeless sky. Amid this environment, the awkwardness of searching for a suitor provides the final touch: there remains charm and quiet observation and collective experience in this Calcutta, but only as halting elements, mediated by delusion, or melancholy, or social division.
Freedom Song punctuates Chaudhuri’s first cycle of novels — a cycle drifting, unidirectionally, toward the fragmentation and impoverishment of the daily life captured in its first novel. But such a characterization can be exaggerated. What abides equally across the novels attracted more attention upon publication: a form belatedly modernist and yet, as soon became apparent, alluringly fight-picking. The novels garnered prizes; were excerpted in the London Review of Books; were reviewed to no little praise. “Chaudhuri has already proved that he can write better than just about anyone of his generation, and in that respect his first two novels are unlikely to be improved upon,” wrote Jonathan Coe in his review of Afternoon Raag. Chaudhuri’s antinarrative miniaturism (as per Hilary Mantel), his interest in modest worldliness and the domestic life of a city, won a select but influential cast of admirers, huddled together against the backdrop of the 1990s postmodern resuscitation of narrative. But as Coe’s phrasing suggests (“in that respect”), critics were also left wanting, or just bemused. They would praise the work for one or two thousand words and then, at the review’s end, start peering around the corner, as if suspecting they might have been waiting in the wrong room. The novels were delightful, but slight; elegant, but chilly; arrestingly plotless, but finally still plotless. Chaudhuri’s position solidified. He was a virtuoso of a minor literature, absorbed in the autumnal practice of recording the quiet pleasures of the small and the passed-over and the modern. The world inside, and out, of the bourgeois apartment. A fading afternoon in a past Calcutta, outmoded by globalization.
The thing to face up to when writing about Chaudhuri is that he already writes about himself so well, and it was his critical work — Clearing a Space (2008), as his first major volume of essays had it — that began in the 1990s and early 2000s to charge discussion of his novels with a polemical current. Through the prism of his essays, Chaudhuri became less an autumnal figure than an oppositional one — or one, rather, for whom autumn and opposition entwined. Appearing mostly in the LRB and the Times Literary Supplement, his essays advanced an ambitious argument against the state of literature under globalization, arranged around two interwoven strands: first, the ascendance of narrative, its paradigm the baggy poly-phony of the post-Rushdiean Indian novel in English; and second, the parallel waning of the angular, the strange, the modernist, and the cosmopolitan, sidelined by the hype machines of an increasingly monopolized global publishing industry and by the new social order’s wider logic. The first strand was critique: against the global novel. The second, activism: on behalf of a marginalized internationalist literary current, vanished from postcolonial accounts of cultural history, and still alive, Chaudhuri argued, in quieted form, in the diverse landscape (poetry, criticism, short story, novella, memoir, sketch) of Indian vernacular writing.
The case rested on a tonal sympathy, redolent by the mid-’90s of a full-blown cultural logic, between the narrative power of globalization and the narrative power of the postmodern global novel — “what we used to call ‘magic realism,’ novels to do with journeys, novels to do with maps and the way cultures come together.” Globalization’s sublimation of oppositions (socialism versus capitalism, nation versus nation, labor versus capital, colony versus empire, high culture versus low culture) found a rhyming complement in the global novel’s hybrid high-low multiplicity and polyphony, its smooth enfolding of the world into the spinning textual wheels of story upon story. Literary abundance matched globalization’s “rhetoric of excess,” shunting inequality offstage. The rush of its so-called liquid flows allowed for “no ‘outside’ in the globalized world,” fitting the “relentless engulfing inclusiveness” of the global novel’s narrative propulsion. For Chaudhuri, the global novel’s embrace of narrative had a congratulatory air; narrative had become globalization’s prized ideological tool, an ideal formal instrument for compromise formation and the fusing of real opposition and intractable difference.
New at the time, the broad shape of the critique has since become more familiar. Yet Chaudhuri’s case remains distinct for its local application and sense of critical alternative. For what provoked the argument was less the postmodern global novel than a particular instance of it: the Indian novel in English. As if more distorted prophecy than critical diagnosis, Fredric Jameson’s endlessly litigated argument in “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism” — that the national allegory was the third world’s paradigmatic literary form — seemed to find no greater confirmation than the Anglophone Indian novels that followed the publication of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, “Rushdie both being,” in Chaudhuri’s characteristically generalizing words, “the godhead from which Indian writing in English has reportedly sprung, revivified, and, almost more importantly, a convenient shorthand for that writing.” Recipient of extravagant literary and publishing attention, the Indian novel in English acquired a ready-made character. Its pages offered teeming vastness; rich polyphony; an expression magically or classically realist; endless reserves of narrative energy; and equally deep reserves of confidence, “at once contemporaneously post-colonial and anciently, inescapably Indian.” Each quality carried mimetic significance, mirroring the nation’s bustling sensoria, diversity, spiritualism, and global rise; taken together, they amounted to a formula for the national allegory — a formula which in turn rose to commercial prominence.
A suspected complicity, to use a then voguish word, and a tonal sympathy more industry creation than any novelist’s doing: these were worrisome, and indicated what was elemental, and what was secondary, in the cultural process of globalization. But as striking in Chaudhuri’s account was what the buzz around Rushdie-style Indian writing obscured.
What would happen if almost all of Britain’s modern and ancient cultures were, for some reason, largely unavailable to the rest of the world, and the only means non-English people had of gauging, judging, and even celebrating the uniqueness of English literature — its achievements and barren phases, the tensions that have shaped and enriched it — were the works of Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Fay Weldon, Angela Carter and a few names chosen at random from the Granta “Best of Young British Novelists” roll-call? . . . We would have a situation that approximates the one we have now in relation to what is loosely called “Indian writing” (to which are appended, occasionally, in a seemingly arbitrary desire to be accurate, the words “in English”).
These were Chaudhuri’s opening words in his 2001 anthology The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, a six-hundred-page polemical compilation. Hidden under the looming shadows of The God of Small Things or A Suitable Boy, Chaudhuri argued, lay both a significant modern literary past and a contemporary array of diverse, elliptical writings, without which Indian literature could scarcely be imagined. The anthology intervened with both scope and elision; it ranged from Rabindranath Tagore to C. S. Lakshmi, Urdu to Kannada, while aiming for literary-partisan inclusions rather than what Chaudhuri saw as bureaucratic completeness, “the colonial explorer’s striving toward control of alien terrain through classification and sampling.” Swept together by Chaudhuri’s editorial vision, the contemporary poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s countercultural internationalism and the midcentury novelist R. K. Narayan’s evasive comedy of the everyday shone as lights in a now vanishing constellation of cosmopolitan modernism — emissaries from a generation or two before Chaudhuri’s, self-liberated from the pressures of national representation. As Borges said of Kafka, here was a writer creating his own precursors — “clearing a space,” in Chaudhuri’s gentler phrase.
The space cleared had to be freely international, rather than sleekly global or toweringly national; livingly modernist, rather than citational; foreign to the ambitions of power, rather than premised on subverting or appropriating them; and inevitably formed by India, rather than reduced to the sociological fate of being “about” it. “The important European novelist makes innovations in the form; the important Indian novelist writes about India” — this, Chaudhuri’s opening to an essay in his new collection, The Origins of Dislike (2018), limns well the sort of thinly conscious generalized bias his modernism had to work against.
For what became apparent to Chaudhuri as he looked back on an expanded field of literary engagements with modernity wasn’t the canonical hand-me-downs of Beckettian bleakness or Kafkaesque nightmare. It was instead an opposing, decidedly sunnier set of themes: a secular, at once spiritual and material physicality; estrangement rooted in a kind of realism; comedy; the transient; the unfinished; joy; affirmation. These counter-themes were what Chaudhuri’s novels had been up to all along: now they had historical company, and a fresh vantage with which, in however minor and oppositional a fashion, to continue speaking to the present.
And yet, questions remained: how worthy of the present could a recasted modernism be? And this particular variant — transposed by Chaudhuri to a theoretical register, and framed as joyful, affirming, enlivened by contingency — what exactly was it affirming, and what was excluded from its view?
Chaudhuri’s essays tend to operate on the level of the provocatively general. They make use of a certain essayistic privilege: to roam left-handedly, irresponsibly, ambitiously; to stop as if the doorbell rang; to suggest vast historical patterns without suffering the philological compulsion to lock yourself in a study and chart them. As a result, they’re quick, entertaining, and sometimes as blind as they are insightful. A recent instance, “Modernism and Mimesis,” an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, was published after The Origins of Dislike but continues its themes. The essay argues that modernism’s canonization came with a lingering provincial misrepresentation: that modernism, a cultural movement supposedly happening in the metropolitan centers of early to mid-20th-century Europe and involving a widespread fracturing and reconfiguring of representational forms across all the arts, allegorized through this formal fracturing the lived crisis of two world wars, the forward march of capital’s colonization of everyday life, and other related disasters conventionally conceived in terms of European history. For Chaudhuri this allegorizing, or “formal mimesis,” refuses to countenance three things. First, modernism’s profoundly antimimetic nature, making any grasp of its logic as “formal mimesis” an uncomprehending backdoor attempt to restore the classicism it vanquished. Second, modernism’s transhistorical extension throughout space and time, inviting “the African mask” to be considered as modernist as Picasso’s cubism. And third, modernism’s overriding sense of liberation and affirmation, thrilled at its toppling of hegemonic representational systems rather than despairing at the loss of the old certainties. The first two follow logically: once you free modernism from an allegorical model that binds it to a certain moment in Europe, it can travel unexpectedly across history and geography. The third returns it to a historical time and place, before broadening this particular modernist moment to a paradoxically universal one: modernism as an “unfinished and broken” language “with which to affirm strangeness.”
There’s much to admire here. Modernist history is indeed more geographically dispersed and unpredictable than traditional surveys allow, and it certainly was no monoculture of bleakness: the comedy in Beckett and Kafka, or the nervous optimism behind Woolf’s venturing that human character changed “on or about December 1910,” as Chaudhuri mentions, are useful tonics, even if they should mainly be administered to straw men. But the generality of the argument illuminates the more neglected half of the modernist dialectic, only to lose sight of its bleak other. Comedy and affirmation come in more to replace bleakness than trouble it. And as despair falls away, in comes the transhistorical. Yet on what grounds besides the peculiar condescension of posterity that academics call presentism can modernism be said to be transhistorical? “Formal mimesis” alone might make for dull historicist reading, but are its excesses reason enough to pretend modernism wasn’t an invention of modernity?
Related questions disturb the quiet pleasures of Chaudhuri’s novels. The critical elevation of affirmation over bleakness finds its purest novelistic expression in A Strange and Sublime Address, resigned in Afternoon Raag and Freedom Song to a kind of atmospheric willfulness. But across all three it coincides, perhaps not unexpectedly, with a restriction of social scope: portraits of the bourgeois in hours of leisure, the occasional domestic worker entering less as character than figure of observation. Across all of Chaudhuri’s work, the one exception to this rule is “The Man from Khurda District,” a piece from his lone story collection, Real Time (2002). The story breaks ground in three ways: it takes a domestic worker as its protagonist; it features the first semblance of plot in Chaudhuri’s fiction; it ends, bleakly, with its protagonist fired and searching for housing.
That there might be a class character to “affirming strangeness” wouldn’t be news to Chaudhuri. It would appear, rather, as a changing fact of history and part of literature’s ambivalence, which as a writer without much feeling for utopia he wouldn’t bother to qualify with “in class society.” “Fiction is always a morally ambivalent territory,” he has said, and it’s clear that he links this ambivalence to strangeness, an apparent Russian formalist legacy — estrangement as the secret to aesthetics — which Chaudhuri instead traces back to Tagore, rooting it in a realist engagement with the everyday. Either way, this understanding of the literary or the aesthetic as a type of strangeness, now codified as a mission statement in Chaudhuri’s edited volume Literary Activism (2017), by no means exhausts theories of literary value, as the long history of aesthetic theories prizing art’s ability to locate experience within the unfolding of social process makes clear.
“For a foreign reader, A Strange and Sublime Address is fascinating because it does not dramatize the legacy of Partition, or deal with the caste system in India, or use the novel to enrich our knowledge of large questions of identity and politics,” Colm Tóibín writes in his foreword to the book’s twenty-fifth anniversary edition. You might see the point, and how it fits with Chaudhuri’s wish to overturn the biases that frame European novelists as formal masters and Indian ones as national allegorists or perceptive critics. But there’s something crude in Tóibín’s judgment that seems inextricable from Chaudhuri’s work, a longing to free literature from the national and monumental that at its worst can seem like a convenient way to forget the conflicts of social reality — a reality that, as the disillusioning drift from A Strange and Sublime Address through Freedom Song shows, returns anyway to threaten the aesthetic values of a writer deeply sensitive to history, despite the occasional appearance to the contrary.
This contradiction — sensitivity to history back-to-back with its dismissal — finds expression across his criticism and novels in two vexed forms, both bearing on modernism: the renewed spirit of cosmopolitan modernism appears on the one hand as a potential countercurrent to the reign of the global novel, on the other a thing of the past to which globalization sealed its borders. The uncertainty scatters ironies across his work, none greater than his recasting of a cosmopolitan modernist lineage clouded by postmodern amnesia, only to discover the near impossibility of carrying its worldview into the present. His view of modernism — transhistorical or bound to modernity? — is capable of shifting from essay to essay, and at times, most notably in Calcutta, it’s been possible to glimpse in his writing a theory of sorts for modernism’s decline, striking for how well it contrasts with more totalizing explanations from theorists of a different worldview: Jameson, Perry Anderson, and Malcolm Bull. These Marxist accounts frame modernism as a fleeting interlude between a capitalist culture of classicism, in which an ascendant bourgeoisie still looked over its shoulder at the cultural authority of the aristocracy and at the self-organizing of the proletariat, and a more purely capitalist culture of commodities, in which the bourgeoisie has done away with its rivals and can therefore claim not to exist, just another figure in a crowded cinema waiting for the superhero movie. Modernism took from both, and thrived in the brief interplay between them, but once the culture industry emerged victorious — “postmodernity,” in Jameson’s language — the game was up. As Chaudhuri has argued, everything could become narrative — resolved, self-enclosed, enveloping rather than elliptical.
It’s one thing to chart a history; it’s another to situate it, or to imagine it as part of a world beyond literature’s internal revolutions.Tweet
Likewise rooting itself in a particular balance of class forces, Chaudhuri’s local explanation describes an urban allegory: modernity meant Calcutta, globalization what he still calls Bombay. The passing of the torch from one city to the other was brought about by the end of a midcentury nonaligned, Nehruvian moment: a moment in which modernism — headquartered in the tea shops and art-house cinemas of Calcutta, but streaming also into the regional tributaries of high-vernacular literatures — could work the gap between a Delhi-derived official national culture and Bombay’s rising culture industry, and in which, crucially for Chaudhuri, a significant, tariff-sheltered, heavily taxed middle class could enjoy a generalized balance of work and leisure, prolonging the lifespan of the bhadralok, a distinctively Bengali incarnation of the middle class aligned by Chaudhuri with modernism. That this middle-class modernist milieu was still alive in the early 1970s explains the collective feel of Chaudhuri’s affirmation of strangeness in A Strange and Sublime Address, its fading the thin sense of colwlectivity in the ’90s Calcutta of Freedom Song. And that his theory premises itself on the angular cultural values of a wide and modest, semiperi-pheral middle class, rather than the class tensions emphasized by Marxist theorists, perhaps provides the material backdrop to his embrace of affirmation over bleakness within modernism. But after this moment, West Bengal went socialist: the Left Front had a long, mixed, troubled tenure; industry fled; stagnation hit; and the bhadralok lost the sharpness of its cultural character, conceding either to the commitments of the fellow traveler or, as the winds of globalization inevitably blew through, the ambitions of the global aspirant. “Like certain genres and styles of writing, certain cities too become unviable at particular points in history. . . . To write a poem today sometimes feels like rehearsing a bygone moment of history. To live in Calcutta, to negotiate the maze of its lanes and alleys, almost feels the same. I could still tap the magic of its neighborhoods when I wrote my third novel, Freedom Song, in the mid-nineties; but, after that, I felt I couldn’t do so any longer.” These lines from Calcutta tell much of the story. As Calcutta stagnated, Bombay opened itself spectacularly to capital and grew synonymous with finance and slums, beacon of an altogether new cultural order.
Chaudhuri’s attachment to a middle-class cultural moment limits his novels’ social scope; but it also suggests a certain feeling for collective life, famously foreign to modernism. For, as his early novels make clear, Chaudhuri’s writing emerged out of a modernist world; the sense of shared imaginative space in the middle-class Calcutta of his childhood allowed Chaudhuri early on to lose patience with modernism’s asocial obsessions, replacing alienation with affirmation, atomized angst with a troubled but real impression of community. The effect in his novels — exclusion on the one hand, community on the other — is a foggy, uncertain representational politics, often caught bewilderingly between socialism and elitism.
But two things — politics, and the fading of Calcutta’s modernity — splintered the collective feel of Chaudhuri’s novels. As he elaborated in his 2003 essay collection on the rise of Hindutva, Small Orange Flags: On Living During a “State of Emergency,” his writing, particularly from Freedom Song on, became “a space in which the consciousness which reads poetry or remembers a line of poetry or listens to music or goes for a walk, is also the consciousness that is inflected and threatened and endangered by the political.” Social division lingered in novels still half-aspiring to enchantment.
In the years after Freedom Song, Chaudhuri’s novels appeared less frequently. Instead, his work dispersed: essays, columns in the Telegraph, an edited anthology, stories, poems, music, art, political writing, political activism on behalf of the modern architecture of the city the government now insists be called Kolkata, as well as the organizing of a series of “Literary Activism” symposia. The novels, when they did come, had changed. The sentences were flatter, pared down, less exquisite. “Clothes hung from clotheslines in the terrace, and undulated like many-colored waves, all at once, when a breeze blew from the direction of the railway lines” might give an indication of his 20th-century style; “Jayojit felt an unnatural hunger for the potato wafers they sold in the transit area,” his 21st.
In the latter vein, A New World (2000) describes a youngish, newly divorced economics professor at a suburban college in the States — “off the motorway, four large buildings, two cafeterias, God knew how many lecture theaters, and a parking lot as huge as a desert” — who takes his son for the summer to visit his parents in Calcutta. The novel stares into the daily rhythms of globalization and leaves you with the impression that it’s been defeated by the experience, as if the point is to linger over an impoverished everyday rather than estrange or transform it. There’s too much air-conditioning (“when Jayojit turned on the air-conditioner, nothing could be heard but its hum”), weight-gain anxiety, time spent in airports, bank visits and currency conversions, brand names and microwaved food, Statesman editorials about economic liberalization (the novel’s last sentence: “When the child became quiet after ten minutes, he looked at the cartoon with new eyes, made the sound of a laugh, and then decided to give the editorial a second chance”), bland bookshops, laptops, talk of Amartya Sen. There’s a touching honesty to the impulse, but it wouldn’t be repeated, at least not with the next two novels, which instead take refuge in the recent past: The Immortals (2009) in Bombay in the 1970s and ’80s, and Odysseus Abroad (2014) in London in the ’80s, both glancing ahead at a globalized horizon, but only obliquely. But it’s with his most recent novel, Friend of My Youth, that Chaudhuri makes a return: once again taking up the challenge of working globalization’s territory.
Only now that territory looks different. As early as 2007, Chaudhuri was not just criticizing globalization’s cultural symptoms but calling them outdated. And soon the observation was undeniable: the 2008 market crash reverberated across a globe that afterward broke out in scattered populist backlashes, less doing away with globalization than making it feel terminal. A key characteristic of globalization’s high period was the subordination of politics to the unchallenged reign of free-market economics; now the hierarchy wobbled, introducing a new chapter marked above all by uncertainty and obfuscation, rather than any program from which a dominant narrative could unspool. It’s perhaps no coincidence, then, that amid this fog a series of antinarrative art forms became ascendant. For a while it’d been hard to do anything but shrug in front of a Frank Gehry or Anish Kapoor. But the senescence of these globalized cultural paragons, once pulsing with heroic narrative optimism, gave way to a range of wandering, antispectacular, patient vogues: the plotlessness of “slow cinema”; an often quiet postconceptualism in art; a renewed interest in modernism, participatory activism, and subtle contextualism in architecture; and, in literature, the critical ascendance of an elusive yet promiscuously conceptualized form: autofiction, the novel from life, Proust!, the essayistic novel.
A gloss of Friend of My Youth reveals its accordance with today’s autofiction: a writer named Amit Chaudhuri, resident of Calcutta, returns to Bombay, the city he grew up in, to give a reading of a new novel called The Immortals. There’s a mark of contemporary influence here; never before has Chaudhuri been so direct about discarding the screens of fiction. But there’s just as obviously continuity: the same antipathy to traditional narrative, the same brevity, the same presence of an authorial stand-in that has long led critics to accuse his novels of being “from life.” This mix of continuity and contemporary influence led Chaudhuri, in “‘I Am Ramu,’” an essay from The Origins of Dislike, to trace an askance history of a certain autofictional strand. The decisive element for Chaudhuri is less autobiography or the fictionalization of lived experience than “the self-consciousness of the essay — its simultaneous uncovering of its subject . . . and its awareness of itself, at every moment, as a piece of writing.” Redolent of a long literary history, this essayistic development has more recently been a widespread, critically celebrated trend from the 1990s on, when, as Chaudhuri writes, there was a “breaking down of the demarcation between the invented narrative of fiction and the ruminative tone and content of the essay.” If Anglo histories usually trace the development back to W. G. Sebald’s translation into English in 1996, Chaudhuri instead suggests a less European beginning: V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival and Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy, both dating from 1987. In Kiarostami’s And Life Goes On, a filmmaker drives through villages in the aftermath of an earthquake, searching for a child actor from his previous film; in Through the Olive Trees, the film revolves in an almost stationary way around the making of And Life Goes On, while keeping its distance from both documentary and byzantine metafiction. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, however, provides the true touchstone for Friend of My Youth: in it, Naipaul writes a novel set in the English countryside about, among other things, writing a novel in the English countryside.
It’s one thing to chart a history; it’s another to situate it, or to imagine it as part of a world beyond literature’s internal revolutions. The Enigma of Arrival was written at the dawn of a globalized or postmodern era (“I was at the beginning of that great movement of peoples that was to take place in the second half of the twentieth century,” Naipaul writes); Friend of My Youth — set in 2011 — during its stumbling but still hegemonic present. Neither conjures up “postmodernism,” but postmodernity or globalization embeds itself in these novels in ways oblique and foundational enough to hint at a whole counterintuitive strategy of writing a postmodern novel, alive unexpectedly in this subcurrent of the essayistic novel. Both feel like ways of starting over, of writing within a historical confusion already obvious in high modernism — the inscrutability of modern life leading, as Woolf wrote, to “the smashing and the crashing” of modernist experimentation.
Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival finds its narrator in the English countryside, ill-at-home and by now unable to place himself fully anywhere — not in the now transformed Trinidad he grew up in, nor nerve-giving metropolitan England, nor even the countryside, where he imagines a tranquil “unchanging world” and yet keeps startling himself into recognizing the marks of development: fully modern rust and renovation, back-and-forth city and country migration, industry (agriculture, military, tourism). He begins slowly, nervously, a kind of half-therapeutic, self-doubting landscape writing: “The white lawn; the empty houses around it; the hedge to one side of the lawn, the gap in the hedge, a path; the forest beyond. . . . I saw what I saw very clearly. But I didn’t know what I was looking at.” The novel’s beauty lies in working within this disorientation by describing, with an almost paranoid sensitivity, the small life of a changing place and its rotating cast of people, attuned to their lives and world, but as if through a screen.
Friend of My Youth shares with Naipaul’s novel this tension between a sense of place and a sense of disorientation. Chaudhuri’s return to Bombay has a double valence: a return to the city he grew up in and never loved but now finds himself longing to visit, and an attempt to come to terms with a city representative of the globalization he wants to escape (“I didn’t want to go back to a time before globalization,” he writes in the novel; “I just wanted to get out”). Yet he realizes he might never really have known the city, only “a pretty limited number of roads; specific clusters of buildings.” As if afraid his sentences might go adrift, Chaudhuri writes in short, clipped lines, sticking to a small set of things: “the new flyovers; the disappearance of certain things which weren’t quite landmarks but which helped you orient yourself — furniture showrooms; fisherfolk’s settlements.” The city is looked over for its surprises, its echoes and transformations, its ability to hold meaning. There isn’t always much: the “least changeless of cities,” “history’s very antithesis,” a city of shops and sprawl, nouveau riche and refurbishment, yacht clubs and joggers. But there’s meaning in its marginalia: the feel of history in the parts of Colaba still beyond the reach of the heritage industry; the memories stored up in Little Gibbs Road; the sense of things vanishing but having not quite vanished; and, above all, Ramu.
Ramu is the eponymous friend of the narrator’s youth, the sole remaining connection in Bombay whose absence in the book’s first half (he’s in rehab for drug addiction) makes the narrator’s time in the city listless, or at least unmoored. “Ramu is where Bombay lives,” the narrator thinks, and the novel confirms it: amid an anonymous sea of service workers and professional contacts, it’s Ramu who grounds the novel, who takes it outside an autofictional world of book readings and panels and agent lunches and returns it to character and the curious study of place. Quiet, warm traces of comedy take over — Ramu’s excited stutter, his love of Gothic windows, his composed air of tragedy, his dream of becoming a tourist guide. And yet he stays a mystery, someone you feel you’re always seeing for the last time: “Behind the veil is Ramu.” As with Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, the novel becomes a way — without conventional narrative or fictional scaffolding, its writer adrift, disoriented, unaffiliated — to grasp onto whatever slippery holds of place and character still seem available. In this way it’s not so much Bombay that comes to allegorize globalization, the way Calcutta once could for modernity. Rather it’s a process built into the writing itself. The digressive beginnings, the spare inventories, the rooted and uncertain curiosity all attempt to allegorize the blocked experience of postmodern place, of living or returning somewhere and feeling as if you’re not in the presence of anything particular or universal but something duller and more mysterious, less stable and accessible than either.