In 2014, the novelist Amit Chaudhuri launched a project called Literary Activism, beginning with a Symposium held in Calcutta. This movement, unique in the history of Indian letters in some respect, has tried to slowly reorient the conversation around literature toward its purported object, the “literary”’.

What exactly does the literary stand for? What distinguishes it from other modalities of thought? These are some of the questions that the subsequent symposia have tried to elaborate upon and grapple with. There is also a website,, which has published a series of essays, poems, and fiction drawn from the various contributors at the symposia.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra has in some sense been a lifelong insurgent in the world of Indian poetry. His early years as an Indian poet writing in English were spent trying to find platforms that would take this form of writing seriously. Failing this he went on to create his own “little magazines” and founded the pioneering Clearing House publications along with the poets Arun Kolatkar, Gieve Patel, and Adil Jussawalla. This year, Literary Activism, in collaboration with Westland and Ashoka University has launched a new imprint, beginning with the publication of Mehrotra’s first collection of poems in 25 years, Book of Rahim and Other Poems, and Chaudhuri’s long essay On Being Indian.

In a conversation with Scroll, Chaudhuri and Mehrotra talked about literature and activism, what it means to be truly “secular”, and how the literature has evolved and remained the same with time. Excerpts from the conversation:

There is for me a sort of strangeness inherent in the project of literary activism, which I think in a way mirrors the strangeness of the literary. On the other hand it also involves a series of very concrete interventions, such as your advocacy for Arvind to be named Professor of Poetry at Oxford, the eight symposia that you have held with artists and writers from all over, and also a website. Could you tell us a little bit about this new imprint and how it extends the scope of those interventions?
Amit Chaudhuri (AC): The idea of doing the imprint must have been there at the back of my mind as a possibility for years. I had discussed it with Arvind as well, the idea of, if not publishing a book, then a journal at least. The reason for wanting such a journal was that some of us, by the 2010s, had begun to miss, acutely, publications that possessed a genuine eclecticism and a degree of idiosyncrasy – I mean journals both in India and outside it. The new literary discourse that had emerged over the 1990s in English-speaking India was almost without exception banal, and sometimes insulting to the intelligence, and we were being exposed to this unbearable discourse daily.

I had also discussed the journal with friends outside India, like Peter McDonald at Oxford, and with Geoff Dyer (the English writer). These were all people who said they’d be happy to be on board. All of us had other things to do: we agreed we couldn’t put together more than one issue annually. But there was the question of how it should be done. By 2014, the idea of the journal had been put to rest, but the University of East Anglia, where I was teaching then, supported my idea for starting a series of annual symposia in India for a free exchange of ideas between writers, filmmakers, artists, academics, publishers, and others – ideas that found no place or had no expression in the mainstream or within academia. In 2018, Ashoka University (I still didn’t teach there then) became a partner and began to contribute towards the costs of the symposia. Once Ashoka became a more or less reliable partner, a kind of stability came into existence, and one was able to gradually think about other things.

The first “other thing” that did happen in 2020 was the website. was also enabled by the partnership with Ashoka University. I have to say here that the costs of the symposia and website are quite modest, and that one can do things in the way one wants to and make an intervention in the cultural sphere on a limited budget. The reason for creating the website was to have a space in which papers from the symposia could be uploaded and accessed by readers. Oxford University Press and UEA’s Boiler House Press had brought out the first set of papers in 2017, and that book, Literary Activism: A Symposium, had got considerable attention, But I had a sense that mainstream publishers were becoming more and more conservative about what they published and that it would be difficult to do a repeat of that first collection of papers with a publisher. So I thought, let’s just have a website where I can start uploading these papers and have them easily accessible to readers.

They are terrific pieces of writing.
AC: Thank you. We have had a really good response to the website, which also has a Magazine section where we publish things unrelated to the symposia, but related to the project of Literary Activism. We began to publish Arvind in the Magazine section, including his poems, some of which are in the new book. The section on Lahore, for instance, was first published on the website. Arvind will be able to tell you about this better, but as he was finalising his new book of poems, he said to me, “Why don’t you guys publish it”; and that, for me, was an offer difficult to resist. I thought – with renewed seriousness, after a long time – that we could possibly enter the realm of publishing and bring out a couple of books a year. Arvind’s prompt, his offer, was definitely something that made me look a little more closely into actually making an imprint happen, which could then publish works like Arvind’s books, other kinds of books, but also some of the essays that come annually out of the symposium. So the only thing that remained after that was to tie up with a publisher.

Although I did consider the possibility of making it a completely independent publishing house. But that would have taken time, and I had little experience in the matter – so I began to explore tie-ups with mainstream publishers, where the Centre for the Creative and the Critical (newly set up at Ashoka University) would be funding the books on some level, but a publisher’s experience and skills at distribution and other things would help. Westland was the one publisher – and by Westland, I mean Karthika – who came back immediately and said that she would try and make this happen.

Publishing does seem like a logical corollary of the project of Literary Activism. Arvind after all is a veteran of small presses and independent publishing houses, going back to his beginnings as a poet. It is interesting that it was Westland and Karthika that you ended up collaborating with, because I remember when Westland closed it was seen by a lot of people as an almost deliberate act of cultural vandalism. Was that on your mind when you tied up with Karthika, because keeping this publishing house going is a form of literary activism too?
AC: That was not quite uppermost on our minds, because I knew that Westland had made a fresh start, and Karthika had made a fresh start, so in a sense, there was continuity between the old Westland, whose reputation included an openness to the literary. I did explore possibilities with a couple of other publishers, but Karthika was the most prompt, and it was her promptness that made it work.

So she is at least a kind of fellow traveller on this project.
AC: Definitely, her being there at the inception is very important. One has played a very hands-on role not only in deciding the imprint’s vision but in determining its production values and aesthetic, and she has allowed for that. What it will look like, what the jacket will look like, what font we’ll use – she gave me the freedom to decide on all these. We worked on these aspects of the books with Westland’s excellent art director, Saurabh Garge. Karthika agreed to my contextualising statements being included in the press releases: it was important that the press release not be generic hype. Tiny changes were incorporated to make the PR more bearable: for instance, replacing some muzak for a publicity video with the opening bars of John Coltrane’s “My Favourite Things”. Westland was good-humoured about these requests – or “cool”, as teenagers say. Of course, and the Centre for the Creative and the Critical have been sending out their own announcements too.

Arvind, does your experience working with Clearing House, or running Ezra-Fakir editions on your own, feed into this new project, which is of course happening in a very different literary and cultural context to the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (AKM): For me, it’s like returning to damn you [damn you: a magazine of the arts was a pioneering little magazine started by AK Mehrotra, Amit Rai, and Alok Rai when they were students at Allahabad]. The difference is that Literary Activism/Westland will do many more copies than we or, later, Ezra Fakir did, but you get the same feeling of having a hand in making the book. If you don’t want half a dozen endorsements, you won’t have them, and if you don’t want a long bio note, which these days reads like a horoscope that tells your past and your future, you can have a one-line bio instead. You have no author photographs, looking invitingly at you from the backflap. No trade publisher would have agreed to this.

The other thing is that a series like Literary Activism ensures editorial continuity. I did three books with Penguin, with two editors. The books were important to me, and two of the books I would not have done unless the editor had suggested them. But it becomes difficult, especially for a poet, to survive in the shifting universe of publishing. So when I told Amit, were you to start an imprint I would be happy to give you this book, it is not something I would have said to any publisher because no publisher would’ve been interested. Which is another thing about Indian publishing, no one really asks you, “Are you writing something?”

AC: Unless you are a novelist or a non-fiction writer who writes about India.

AKM: By and large, poets publish with small presses, and there are still too few of them.

AC: Even those books that were produced by small presses, whether in Calcutta or in New York, now constitute a legacy as physical objects. Ginsberg’s Howl, or Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara all came out as tiny books, and the same with so many Bengali books which still survive as objects of wonder.

AKM: And in Bombay, there was Clearing House, but also Newground and Praxis. The design was the first thing you noticed about these books.

Well, now copies of some of those little magazines that you started or were published in, like Ezra or Vrischik, are at University libraries and archives in the West. It’s interesting that of the first two books in this imprint, one is a subtly argued essay, and the other is a poetry collection containing translations, adaptations, and family histories. These forms are at a remove from the novel, which, as you write Amit, is the most imminently marketable form of Indian writing, especially in English. I was wondering if you could reflect a little on your relation to the market since you seem to be operating at an angle to it, rather than directly engaging with it.
AC: This project, literary activism, which began with the first symposium in December 2014, was an argument against not only the market, but the market’s appropriation of value. It didn’t do this overtly in terms of market value – when it came to books and artwork, it spoke of them almost vehemently in terms of artistic, literary value, which it had already equated unobtrusively with market value, without that equation ever being made overt. That is, no literary publisher in the era of the free market, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, says, “We’re going to publish a bestseller written by X next month”; they say: “We’re going to be publishing a great work of art, a masterpiece”. Rest assured, no publisher will publish a “masterpiece” that they feel will sell five copies – by “great book”, they mean a “very commercially viable book”.

What comes to us as value, then, is a language adopted by the market which, however, never openly declares itself as a language of commerce. It helped, of course, that the language of literary valuation or enquiry had been largely discarded by literature departments in academia; no tussle needed to take place between the market and literary studies – publishers could pick up the husk of that language and reinvigorate it commercially.

With literary activism, we were trying to create a position that was resistant not only to the market but also to this internalisation of market value as artistic value. That was one thing we were trying to resist, and the other one was academia, and especially – as I have pointed out – the literary departments’ tacit and unquestioning compliance with the status quo. There was a time maybe when they would teach books from 100 or 200 years ago because that’s what fusty old English departments used to do. Then we came to a time when they were teaching mainly contemporaries if they taught literature at all, but those contemporaries would belong to a constellation that was already put in place by the market– as in the night sky, only certain points of light are visible: which contemporaries you read, what you see displayed on bookshelves or windows in bookshops, these are determined by booksellers, distributors, and publishers: the market, in other words. Those authors whose books were thus visible would then be obediently adopted by academia as texts to teach, especially if they fitted the large rubrics that have governed literary pedagogy in the last three decades (the nation-state, postcoloniality etc.).

This came at the expense of the particularities of literary thought – particularities that manifest themselves through the choice of words in a sentence or a poem. And I am not talking here about style or polish, I am talking about what makes literary thought distinctive, and different from other forms of thought. We wanted to resist a landscape in which literary language was being emptied of its particularity of meaning and its multiplicity of register. That’s how literary activism came into being in the first place, at an angle to robust, bullish market-driven projects that comprised our environment (and continue to do so).

So in this sense literary activism as a project very much belongs to this time – the post-globalisation, post-Cold War, post-deregulation era we live in. It’s not like other projects that have occurred before, even though it has similarities with them, to do with small presses, creating audiences etc. – the fact is, we have never experienced a time like this before.

People like Arvind had a problem in the 1970s being writers and poets because they were not taken seriously for writing in English. They were not taken seriously because people claimed to have an idea of high literary value, and a poet writing in English did not fit in with that idea of high literary value. Right now we live in an age when high literary value is anathema. It only exists, with a kind of performative insistence, in press releases and blurbs. While in reality, it doesn’t exist at all. It’s against these complexities of thought and language that literary activism is posited.

AKM: For a poet the market doesn’t operate in quite the same way. For us, it’s a marketless economy. When I asked Karthika how many copies we were going to print, she said 2,000. I said please don’t print more than 400, and we finally agreed to do 1,000 copies. In Portugal, I am told the average print run for a book of poems is 300 copies. I was reading an interview with Tony Frazer who runs Shearsman in which he says that with digital printing he might sometimes do as few as 50 copies of a book of poems, and print more if there’s a demand.

AC: Just to intervene over here, two things, the changes that came about with globalisation and the kind of complete supremacy of the free market, those changes meant that literary publishing houses also metamorphosed into something else. Their earlier model was as follows: “We have some books that sell – whether those are cookbooks or dictionaries, or bestsellers – which we will promote robustly as products; and we have some books that may not sell, which we publish because we admire them or because of their prestige, which consist not just of poetry, but of the literary novel as well, not to mention the short story and essay. But we believe in these books, and we will put them out, we will sell them, and we will keep them in print, using some of the profits we make by selling our cookbooks or dictionaries.” That model went out of the window with deregulation.

When that model went away, a lot of publishing houses, Oxford University Press, for instance, closed their poetry lists. Now we have a very pernicious model for a particular culture that continues to use the word literary but has changed its meaning without informing us about this change. That is the kind of place where we came to find ourselves, and along with various things that went out with the pre-deregulation world also went the dignity of failure. That consisted of saying that perhaps we don’t sell very much, but we produce some really interesting stuff. Perhaps there are only ten of us saying this, but it’s really interesting. We are misfits, but this means something. There will be some people around these ten, who think maybe there is something interesting about what they are saying. But right now, and I feel bad to say this, I don’t think even the excellent publisher of Shearsman Books is playing the role of misfit and failure, because he is simply not noticed. While in the earlier scenario, it was very difficult to ignore the value of the failed projects. It is important to bring these histories back and bring some of these meanings into play again. And it is very difficult to do so.

You have described why the publishing industry has changed. Projects such as yours or Arvind’s found a place in that earlier model, or ecosystem, precisely by virtue of being out of place. That out of placeness had some role in that broader ecosystem. Why do you think academia on the other hand doesn’t make a place for this literary form of thinking, for literature as a modality of knowledge?
AKM: Well it depends on which academia we are talking about. There is Indian academia which is oblivious to most things. I am despairing of Indian universities, having taught in one all my life. There the courses haven’t changed in maybe a hundred years, where the English syllabus still ends with Dylan Thomas. So none of what goes on in the rest of the world really matters. Now I am referring to a provincial university like Allahabad, but I don’t think it’s any different in universities in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, or Gujarat.

AC: And it is the more elite institutions here, too, which decide the correct way of thinking about a particular subject, since these other universities, from their point of view, don’t seem to matter. My impression over the last three decades is that the universities that set the tone in India and decide how academics read and talk about literature are located in the metropolis, and especially in Delhi. Delhi in the age of globalisation and free market India elected itself to being the primary city for higher education especially in the humanities. That in itself constitutes a particular trajectory and the creation of a new class. This new class is deeply connected to the way we think about things and especially literature and its place in the world.

So I am not talking about what is happening today in a department of Bengali in Calcutta, although I would guess that, compared to 50 years ago, the department of Bengali probably gets no funding at all and has no students. But the department of Bengali – just to give you a sense of the range of the vernacular intellectual landscape, even today – may well be, in comparison to its English-language counterpart, more interested in poetry on the one hand and Maurice Blanchot on the other: the literary and theoretical; the creative and the critical.

One might find those two coexisting there. While in the Anglophone departments there is not just a dominance of theory, but a very particular idea of theory. It’s a zone without poetics. The Indian postcolonial elite is the one class for which poetics does not come into play.

To what would you attribute this to? Amit evokes an older tradition of English literary criticism, primarily Mathew Arnold, which talks about how the space of the religious was replaced by culture and more specifically poetics. Do you think this discomfiture with poetics has to do with the secular ethos of this particular class that emerges from elite universities? I say this because you have a very interesting critique of the secular itself or at least the Western enlightenment idea of secularism.
AC: The idea of the secular which we have now doesn’t take poetics into account. Poetics is nothing if not secular, literature is nothing if not secular, and cinema is secular. By any narrow Western understanding of religion, the pursuit and creation of these do not qualify as religious activities. But when we speak of the secular in India these days, none of this – poetry, literature, cinema – comes into play, as you know. When we Indians talk about secularism we are talking about the nation-state, about the Constitution, but we are not talking about particular forms of experience which include the experience of the world and also the experience of aesthetics.

When discussing the secular, we don’t talk about the houses we live in, for instance. We are not a culture that talks about the interiors of houses, or about the significance of space. So I suppose we are in a culture created by post-independence custodians of the nation who are guarding the secular but only know it as a narrow definition. They could not possibly be interested in the ambivalent field of the literary constituting a fundamental part of our experience of the secular because these custodians can only grasp what’s well-defined and are at odds with what’s ambiguous and indirect (as poetry can be).

In India the emergence of the modern literary field was always uncitizenly, and sceptical of nationalism. It wasn’t just Tagore who was sceptical, the entirety of the literary play had no space for thinking about the nation in the way that citizen-custodians want us to. I think literature in Indian academia now is largely in the control of citizen-custodians, who are themselves threatened by the rise of an extreme right that has no place for them, and which feels nothing but hostility for modernity.

We want literary activism to be an uncitizenly activity. We want to critique the liberals because it’s very necessary for the liberal ethos to be richer, more variegated and conflicted, for it to survive and withstand this radical reductionism that is coming from the right. The liberal ethos cannot perpetuate itself through consensus, as it has been doing. However, the custodian elite does not self-critique and will suppress any source of self-critique, which is partly what has made it vulnerable to the right. When it comes to literature, I think the custodian elite see it as fundamentally irresponsible unless it appeals to something on their list of citizenly concerns. Otherwise, they have no time for it.

Since we are talking about being uncitizenly or of unruly figures, and also the convergence of the sacred and poetics, I wanted to ask Arvind about his translations of Kabir (Songs of Kabir, 2011) which Amit makes very astute use of in his essay On Being Indian. What emerges from these verses is a deeply irreverent and subversive thinker, who challenges both worldly and religious authority. What place do you think a figure like Kabir has in our present-day context, where he would be shunned by the religious right for lampooning traditional icons of piety, and by liberals for his religious underpinnings?
AKM: I think all societies need to be disrupted from time to time, they need a little shaking up. Kabir and the bhakti poets were one such disruption. Another disruption, which seems like one now though it may not have been that at the time, was the Prakrit anthology Gathasaptasati. Middle-class Hindu women fast on Karva Chauth. I remember my mother and grandmother doing it. But if you look at the Gathasaptasati, whose poems date from the 2nd century BCE, you have a poem in which a mother is telling her daughter that she will have to sleep with her husband if she cannot find another man in the village. In another poem, the mother is consoling her daughter that marriage doesn’t mean an end to her having lovers. The village you’re going to, she says, will have the same canefields, it will have the same Godavari, and there will be go-betweens. Now what’s your problem?

Arun (Kolatkar) was reading these poems from the Joglekar edition and translating them for me as he read them. I had to translate them in order to know them better. This is how The Absent Traveller came about. Kabir was different. His was what you may call organised disruption. It was spread over a few hundred years, and it has not ended. He was a great hater of humanity. He despised the lot, particularly idol worship and the caste system.

AC: And you have also wondered somewhere if the people who sing his songs actually listen to his lyrics?

AKM: After listening to his words, you have to shut your ears because you can’t bear to hear what he’s said. For instance, he says in one song,

If you say you’re a Brahmin
Born of a mother who’s a Brahmin,
Was there a special canal
Through which you were born?

And if you say you’re a Turk
And your mother’s  a Turk,
Why weren’t you circumcised
Before birth?

Turk is Kabir’s word for Muslim. It’s difficult to sing these songs and feel blissful about what you’re singing. I am sure the same happens with Tukaram. Writing in English was once a disruptive act. In 1964-65 English was supposed to be banished from the country. The slogan then was Angrezi hatao! In Bombay, people would ask why I was writing in a language that had no future, at least in India. There were no magazines where we could publish our poems. This is why we started damn you, partly to say Damn you, we will continue to write in English. And what was the tradition available to us in the mid-1960s? It was Sarojini Naidu and Sri Aurobindo. The British literary tradition, whatever we knew of it, was of not much use either.

Then the Beats came along: Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso. If Ginsberg could say “America go fuck yourself with your atom bomb”, why couldn’t we? Kabir and the Beats belong to that long tradition of disruption. And perhaps so does Literary Activism. “Fuck storytelling” is what Amit wanted to call one of the Literary Activism symposia. Similarly, the small press is a disruption. That’s how Clearing House was started. We (Arun Kolatkar, Gieve Patel, Adil Jussawalla, and Mehrotra) had book-length manuscripts but didn’t know how to bring them out. R Parthasarathy was sitting at Oxford University Press, pretending he was the TS Eliot of Jaisingh Road. One could have waited to receive an inland letter from him. Around the same time we decided to start our own publishing co-op. For me, this series feels like a return to the old ways. You design your own book, and then go out and sell it yourself, though we don’t do that now, or do it differently.

AC: As with Kabir being sung by people who are not really registering what he is saying, over here too we are hoping for a degree of incomprehension from our supporters. Although there must be pockets of enlightened support too. We cannot completely hope that this project can sustain itself through people who are supporting it without absolutely knowing what it is up to. But it is always useful if you manage to find some propagators who aren’t fully aware of your purpose.

I wanted to change track a little and ask Arvind about a talk he gave on Vinod Kumar Shukla at one of the Literary Activism symposia. In that lecture you situate Shukla’s writing in “moments that flicker and vanish”, a little bit like “The Butterfly” from Kolatkar’s Jejuri. Could you reflect on the importance of those moments, which are really non-events, or things that barely register as events?
AKM: We live our lives in non-events. We don’t live our lives from Independence Day to Independence Day. Shukla picks non-events to write about. Accumulated, they make a Shukla book. He writes about a woman who has gone to pray in a temple. The moment she comes out, not finding her husband where she expected to find him, she panics, quite forgetting her gods. “Inside the temple is the idol / left behind with the idol inside” is how the poem ends. In one of his stories, there’s a man lying on the grass, looking at the sky. There are kites flying above. He thinks the kites might mistake him for a corpse and swoop down on him. He immediately gets up and starts walking. These non-events are what you’ll remember of your life when you look back. For him to register them, and to hold on to them for long enough to put them on paper, is what struck me about his work.

In fact, you refer to those moments as ones that are “constantly inscribed and erased” from our consciousness. Amit, it is interesting to me that Pankaj Mishra, in his introduction to one of your novels, writes that “the text, entrancingly repetitive, seems to be constantly effacing and rewriting itself”. Would you be able to comment on this convergence a little?
AKM: We come back to Kolatkar’s “Butterfly”, which “opens before it closes/ and closes before it o/ where is it?”. So it’s not just us, there are others. We live in that moment of “o/ where is it?”.

AC: I don’t think I started out with an awareness that I was drawn to what people call “non-event”. I suppose I had a different idea of what an “event” was; this must be true of the other writers we’re discussing in this context. When I published my first novel A Strange and Sublime Address, one of the reviewers, John Lanchester, said something like, “How does he pull this off, it’s mesmerising, absolutely nothing happens”. This came as news to me. When I read that review, I thought: Okay, he’s saying absolutely nothing happens in A Strange and Sublime Address. As far as I am concerned, there is a great deal happening in it from sentence to sentence. I am very easily bored; it takes much more than the plot to keep me interested – I have to encounter the language and form themselves as an event in order to keep reading a particular work.

John Lanchester said what he did to praise the book, and to draw attention to what he saw as one of its unusual qualities, but this category of “nothing happening” is something I first became aware of at that time. I had just not been aware that the idea of the non-event, of “nothing happening”, is defined so strictly, and in a particular way, as is what it means for something to happen. As I’ve just said, I had thought there was a lot happening in that book from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. I continue to think that I am only interested in this kind of constant movement – involving the creation of an ongoing strangeness, a state of alteration. But this constant movement may not tie up with what people traditionally think of as an “event”.

AKM: [Picking up a copy of a recent issue of NYRB]: Here is an ad for Soujourn with a quote from the Wall Street Journal, “There is little action and only muted suspense yet in each case the habitually sedate pace becomes oddly hypnotic”.

Amit, your essay On Being Indian, is, on the other hand, about quite a large and significant event, the anti-CAA protests. For me, it is one of the most sustained and profound reflections on that transformative moment that I have read so far. What was the process with which you began to come to grips with it?
AC: This is difficult to answer. There was a lead-up to the writing of the essay, and then there was the actual event itself, comprising a series of events such as Shaheen Bagh, Park Circus, and the huge protest rallies and processions that emerged at that point. There was a realisation that these were different from similar protests in the past and that they were also being seen somewhat differently. One of the things that led up to it, as I say in that essay, was this idea that we cannot entirely identify rationality or the idea of the rational with either objectivity or science or the European Enlightenment. A great deal of rationality originates in what we call religion. Religion has been a kind of fabric which has renewed itself and constantly re-examined its own language through rational means.

By rationality, I mean a particular kind of life-giving reasoning that we undertake on behalf of truth and meaning. Faith seems to be no more useful in distinguishing spiritual truth from untruth than it would be in distinguishing empirical fact from error. Logic and reasoning are required as much for the purposes of the first as they are for the second. Years ago, these thoughts to do with rationality began to come to me when I found myself watching the Dalai Lama on Doordarshan, purely by chance while changing channels. Although I have no animosity towards the Dalai Lama, I never took him seriously. Partly because I couldn’t quite take any of the celebrities around him seriously; partly, I suppose, it was his cheerfulness and air of optimism. I caught him that evening at a moment when he was discussing praman. The word means proof, and he was talking about praman being essential to the destiny that he believed knowledge and rationality have, of always, in the end, vanquishing irrationality and ignorance. It was a very moving statement, giving a new meaning to a term with largely judicial associations: proof, or praman.

We now live, of course, in an age, politically and otherwise, of irrationality, of a kind of insanity. We cannot just appeal to our liberal selves or even our better human selves or even some humanity in religion to argue against this upsurge of the irrational. However, there are very interesting angularities in religious thinking – in Bhakti and Sufism, certainly, but going back to Buddhism and the Gita – that are part of a general inheritance of critique in our country; largely unacknowledged now, though I think it may have come into play during the anti-CAA protests. The target of the radical critique of the saint-thinker-poets has always been bogus religion or religiosity; which, at any given point in time, is 98 per cent of religion.

These were precisely the kind of resources that were being mobilised in these protests by ordinary citizens, by what you call organic intellectuals. Both of you have a long engagement with the intellectual heritage of the Indian sub-continent. Why are these traditions, lineages, artistic forbears important to you and why is it important to reclaim them from those who have now became the custodians of what is Indian culture or Indian civilisation?
AKM: I think the armed custodians of Indian culture are a recent phenomenon. They were not around in the 1960s. So one is not reclaiming something from someone to save it for oneself or for someone else. This stuff had always been around and I chanced upon it. It’s not that I went looking for the Gathasaptasati. I heard Arun read a few verses and still remember the first one. All it contained was a gesture. A man opens the palm of his hand, and the woman who is pouring the water reduces it to a trickle. The time is summer, when you have gharras kept by the roadside for thirsty travellers. The man and the woman are attracted to each other, but none of this is said in the poem. All we see is the opening of a hand, and the thinning of a trickle that was thin to begin with. These moments constitute what I think of as tradition. It’s not about reclaiming a Hindu tradition or an Indian tradition. I was trying to reclaim, learn from, a way of looking, a way of being in the world. For me, the poems of the Gathasaptasati and Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” are, as we say in Hindi, “real cousins”.

I have one final question, and this is something that has intrigued me a great deal. Would you care to perhaps reflect on your collaboration with each other, this literary partnership for which I can’t think of a parallel anywhere, at least in this generation?
AKM: It’s chance that led to collaboration. The first time I heard of Amit was in Delhi, where I saw a paperback of A Strange and Sublime Address, and also maybe Afternoon Raga, at a pavement bookshop outside Gaylord’s. I think I read a few paragraphs, or half a page. I must have read something. This would be in 1994-95. OUP had asked me to do the Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English, which ultimately came out from Permanent Black. Anyway, I was at the time searching for contributors to write the essays. Chaudhuri is Bengali, I must’ve thought to myself, maybe he has something to do with Tagore. I don’t know how I got hold of his address, probably from Rukun Advani, and the first letters we wrote each other were in long hand and sent by post. That is how it started.

Then in 1996, I was in Cambridge for a conference that the British Council had organised. Amit and Rinka (Rosinka Chaudhuri, a literary scholar, and Amit’s wife) came from Oxford and that’s how we met for the first time. We sat on the lawns of Churchill College and talked, while the conference went on inside. It was a long bus journey, they told me, which I hadn’t realised since I thought of Oxford and Cambridge were twin cities, next to each other, as they were in my colonial imagination. Rinka had worked on Toru Dutt and she contributed the essay on the Dutt family for the Illustrated History.

AC: I had encountered Arvind’s poetry in R Parthasarathy’s anthology, and I also possessed some of those Clearing House books that Arvind and some of his friends produced. Thacker’s in Bombay used to have copies of those books, and I noticed Arvind’s work then. There was something about the tone and the ambitions of his poetry that I was drawn to as a teenager; the sense of affinity may also have had to do with an enthusiasm I shared with him at the time for the movement called Surrealism. In those days, Surrealism meant for me the juxtaposition of unlikes in a way that’s different from simile or metaphor. I had tuned my teenage antennae to picking up on this activity wherever I thought it occurred, and Arvind’s poetry and Kolatkar’s Marathi poems in Dilip Chitre’s anthology swam gradually into my domain. This is probably 1978-79 I’m referring to. Then, in 1980, Jayanta Mahapatra published Arvind’s long essay “The Emperor Has No Clothes” in Chandrabhaga, and, by some coincidence, Jayanta – since he was a kind man – also published five of my poems in the same issue.

I was 18 at the time and those poems were juvenilia, but their appearance in that journal meant a lot to me. I would encounter Arvind’s poetry again in 1987 when I was at Oxford, in an issue of Encounter which I dipped into when I went briefly into a newsagent’s on High Street while waiting for the coach to London: again, I was struck by the tone. I thought there was something different going on here. When The Oxford Book of Twelve Modern Indian Poets, an anthology edited by Arvind, came out in 1995, Tarun Tejpal in his India Today review quoted quite a bit from Arvind’s headnotes, and I noticed how engaging and efficaciously economical his critical voice was. I later reviewed that book at my own request alongside another book that the TLS had asked me to review, an anthology of Indian poetry edited by Vinay Dharwadkar. Around that time Arvind wrote to me, asking if I would write the chapter on Tagore to the Illustrated History he was editing, and a few months later we met when he visited England.

I don’t know how it happened, but we began to talk to each other on the telephone after that quite frequently. I found it increasingly difficult to communicate to anybody the things I was thinking about over that period of time, over the 1990s – to do with literature, as well as the bewildering literary milieu we found ourselves in that decade. There was almost no one then – there was my wife of course, and a couple of friends – but very few other people, and among writers it felt sometimes that there was absolutely no one. So I began to chat with Arvind quite frequently, and we would talk and think a little bit about why we were where we were in our relationship to what was going on in the new India.

Wonderful. I guess a great thing to come out of this collaboration is this new imprint, with your essay Amit, On Being Indian, and Arvind’s first book of poems in 25 years, A Book of Rahim and other poems
AC: Just one thing I want to add, and I should have said it earlier when you asked me about academia. One of the other things that made me think of starting the symposium was a conversation I had over the phone with Laetitia (The French scholar Laetitia Zecchini who has written a monograph of Arun Kolatkar and translated Kala Ghoda Poems into French). She told me one day maybe 15 years ago: “Amit, this particular kind of establishment is not going to go away, they are so strong, and as long as they are there all we will be asked to read, study, or teach will be…” and she rattled of the names of some very establishment books, mainly novels, from the Indian English scenario. She said, “There will be no Kolatkar in this landscape or any work that diverges from its concerns –and it’s going to go on like this.”

I, of course, knew this reality first-hand, but I had also been hoping that the dispensation would change as younger people emerged. I had noticed that students were far freer in their way of thinking than the narrowed-down academic contexts they often found themselves in, contexts which consisted, among other things, of pursuing, say, the legacy of Saidian Orientalism. But these younger people would then take up jobs become part of the same establishment, and replicate the same proprieties. So it did become a worry as to when is this going to end.

I remember that reading Clearing a Space as a student was absolutely transformative for me and changed how I thought about literature. And I think at the same time Arvind’s book on Kolatkar (Collected Poems in English) also came out, and I remember rushing and reading these together. It did make me think very differently and deeply about what Indian literature or literatures could actually be and what studying them could mean, and what directions they could lead you in. I think it’s just been a process of discovery and surprise at every step since then. So I will always be very grateful to the two of you for this.

Nachiket Joshi is a Research Author at Monk Prayogshala.