I first came across Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address as a dishevelled collection of photocopied sheets at the home of a much-loved informal teacher of mine in north Calcutta. There was no Indian edition of the book as far as I remember at that time: the “pirated” version was doing the rounds in certain circles of the city.
I was in high school, writing short stories that would later appear from Writers’ Workshop. P Lal, the poet-publisher of Writers’ Workshop and my professor at St Xavier’s, was just beginning to infect me with the excitement of the language debate that was the ethical and aesthetic quandary of the Indian writer writing in English. Very much in search of a language, indeed, a tradition of English writing about milieus most alive to me, I found A Strange and Sublime Address a revelation and a guide to all kinds of possible trails.
After a couple of years, I wrote a letter to the author. A hand-written letter, delivered by hand to his Sunny Park home – there was no email back then. Shortly afterward, we met there. That meeting, energised by my encounter with A Strange and Sublime Address and Afternoon Raag, set in motion what would soon become a lifelong friendship. Amitda’s idiosyncratic, somewhat contrarian position in relation to modernity and its strange progeny, postcolonial literature, opened up intellectual possibilities for me that invigorated me through my critical and scholarly interventions, leading up to my writing of Prose of the World, where I wrote at length about A Strange and Sublime Address.
More recently, the satisfaction of “belonging” to a rich and sensitive tradition of English writing about Calcutta reached a moment of self-realisation with the appearance of my novel, The Firebird, also the story of a boy’s relationship with the city and the morally polarizing art form that lies at its anxious heart – theatre. Calcutta, it seems, has been a strange and sublime address for both Amitda and I. Sandeep’s story is for me one of its most momentous articulations. I’m so happy that I met it when I did.
I remember much of our conversation around the novel that we had in 1995, when we met for the first time. One of the things you spoke about was the apprehension you had, while writing this novel in the 1980s, about how a book as this would be received in a landscape which was still very much situated in a post-Midnight’s Children atmosphere: energised by bustling national narratives, informed by a vision of Indian history as “a fancy-dress party or the Mardi Gras, full of chatter, music, sex, tomfoolery, free drinks and rock and roll” (your words from The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature). How do you feel about that unlikely historical context of the novel today, in the longer trajectory of time commemorated by this new edition?
When I began to write A Strange and Sublime Address in 1986, just after graduating from University College London, during the year I took out before going to Oxford as a graduate student, I wasn’t that aware of Midnight’s Children at all. After all, it was just five years since its publication, and things take time to sink in – at least in my consciousness. For a would-be novelist, I wasn’t even that interested in the novel.
Admittedly, Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, which I think I read in 1985, opened my eyes to the fact that I myself was not a rejecter but an embracer of life. But shorter forms – as with Katherine Mansfield’s stories – always deeply interested me. And I recall also being galvanised by Paul Muldoon’s The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, which came out in 1986, in which I rediscovered Louis MacNiece, and read Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney properly for the first time. These readings in Mansfield and contemporary Irish poetry, even in Lawrence, were important, because what I was uncovering in them was not Ireland or New Zealand or Nottinghamshire, but a provincial modernity which always engaged and delighted me, and which, as a child, I’d encountered in neighbourhoods in Calcutta, and Silchar and Shillong. That became the background to my writing of the first novel.
Of course, I was conscious that I was disconnected from the Latin American boom, that I was an oddity in that I was taking pleasure in Elizabeth Bishop and Heaney rather than Garcia Marquez. I didn’t bother about that too much, since my delight in my own discoveries was too powerful. I suppose I was also hostile, early on, to “India” as subject-matter. “India” was mainly coming to us then in waves of Raj narratives, like The Jewel in the Crown. I think Rushdie found those abhorrent too, and was pretty sharp about them.
A Strange and Sublime Address was shaped by the memory of being a visitor to Calcutta during school summer vacations. Much of its wonder and fascination, as well as its confusions, were rooted in a boy’s relationship with a milieu that is familiar but not quite, one in which he is rooted ancestrally but to which, for all intents and purposes, he is a stranger. Since 1999, you’ve made Calcutta your home, and have even written a book about two of your more recent years living in the city. How has it been moving from visitor to resident? Do you ever feel like a “native” – whatever that really means?
I think I believed that I lived in Calcutta though I somehow happened to be growing up in Bombay. I took my presence in Bombay to be accidental – I was never sure what I was doing there. My real childhood was happening in Calcutta. Which is why the book may be about being on the outside, but it’s also about subscribing entirely to something you’ve imagined, and to be unable to distinguish between invention, metaphor, and reality – my perennial problem.
Living in Calcutta – as I have been from 1999, after a conscious decision to move here – is to realise you’re a stranger here. It’s a very insular city. Not having gone to school or college means not to have recourse to the anecdotal vocabulary by which insiders recognise each other here, and claim to have known each other since they were children even if they actually didn’t. And the Calcutta that was shaped by outsiders – Chhotomama in A Strange and Sublime Address is from Sylhet – seems long gone.
On a related note, A Strange and Sublime Address captures Calcutta in the late 1960s, when the great epoch of modernity that had defined the city from the Bengal Renaissance to the first couple of exuberant post-independence decades was already in decline. How does Sandeep’s Calcutta compare with the city today?
Yes, the late 1960s and early 1970s. The city left a vivid imprint on me between the ages of five and twelve – its politics, its children’s stories and plays, its food and weather and its strange adult world all flowed into each other in a way that must probably happen in great cities. It’s something that will affect both the child and the visitor. For instance, even Naipaul, arriving in the city in 1963 without access to either the Bengali language or Bengali culture, says of “the city of tram-burners” that “Here, unexpectedly and for the first time in India, one was in the midst of the big city, the recognisable metropolis, with street names – Elgin, Allenby, Park, Lindsay – that seemed oddly at variance with the brisk crowds…”
Today, Calcutta/Kolkata is closer to what one imagines it was like in the early nineteenth century – a city of touts and dalals, of something very like the scurrilous bat tala (under the banyan tree) press, of kechha or salacious gossip. But that early nineteenth-century city had a particular excitement and some compelling figures, and was fostering a powerful irreverence, and its great cultural moment was to come. Now the city believes its moment has passed. I personally think cities whose moment appears to have passed need to – if they have the cultural resources – reinvent themselves within the terms of their new marginality. I think Berlin did this, and I hear that, lately, Detroit has. Calcutta doesn’t know what to do with its marginality. It would be a braver and more interesting city if it did.
An excerpt from the novel
Saraswati was sleeping on the terrace, a small, huddled figure. The sun was high and scorching, and it was uncomfortably hot, as it always is between rains. Next to her there was a potted tulsi plant, and next to that, two chilli plants. The chilli blossoms were like little lavender stars; the chillies grew from their centre, fierce pointed clots of purple, each a tiny phallus. Sandeep shooed away two crows that were hopping around the plants with a sly and tactful curiosity; they flew to the terrace of the neighbouring house, and from there to the next house, and then to the next. At each house, they paused like burglars and darted around guiltily, as if they were perpetually on the verge of breaking some law, perpetual trespassers in God’s world. Then, quite suddenly, in a fit of candour, they hoarsely declared “Ka! Ka!” in the reverie of the afternoon. No one woke.
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, leaving lane after lane like gullies in the sand and house after house like sandcastles upon an empty beach, when the splendid arguments in the tea-shops came to a brief conclusion, and everyone agreed with everyone and fell silent.
Clothes hung from clotheslines in the terrace, and undulated like many-coloured waves, all at once, when a breeze blew from the direction of the railway lines. They were happy, cheerful flags that signified life in a house. There were trousers, shirts, petticoats, blouses, and magnificent lengths of saris, each with a different and striking motif, each a small waterfall of life and colour, unravelled to dry. Sandeep had often seen Saraswati unfolding these sinuous boa-constrictors of cloth (how wrinkled they looked, then, bad-tempered and wrinkled, and how rejuvenated they would look tomorrow, when they were ironed and given their customary face-lift), beating them against the air with a single electric movement to rid them of the last drops of water, then clipping them, her arms wide-apart, as if outstretched in a deep and satisfying yawn.
A mist of drowsiness hung over the lanes. In the still houses, families had eaten their lunch of rice, dal and fish and fallen asleep. Afternoon was a time of digestion, a time of fullness and contentment, full bellies and closed eyes. In all the shadowy houses of Calcutta at this moment, the gastric juices were solemnly at work. There was not a movement in the corridors, no noise; yet if you put an ear against the belly of one of these sleepers, you would probably hear a rich gurgling sound.
Not everyone was asleep. People who had had a meal less substantial dotted the lane perfunctorily. Sometimes, a girl came to a terrace, ostensibly to hang, let us say, a sari on a clothesline; at the same time, a young man appeared on the terrace three houses away, apparently to inspect a water-tank. They glanced at each other, then fumbled with their work, then glanced at each other, then fumbled, then glanced – such shy, piercing glances exchanged in the heat of the afternoon! How straight and undeflected the man’s glance travelled, how swift and disguised the woman’s answering glance! What rhythm the moment possessed!
Near a derelict tea-shop, a rickshawalla lay slouched in the shade of his rickshaw. Idly, he clapped his hands in the air. After a moment, Sandeep realised he was killing mosquitoes.Clap…clap…clap…clap…Four mosquitoes. Clap…clap…Two more mosquitoes. One was reminded of the joke in which a man whose neck was aching stopped for a minute on the street and turned his head up to ease the pain. People who had been walking past noticed him, and thought that he was watching something terribly interesting and important in the sky. One by one, they stopped beside him and stared up with deep attention. Meanwhile, the first man, feeling somewhat better, continued his journey, leaving everyone else still gazing thoughtfully at the sky. This is what must have happened to Calcutta in the afternoon; the first man had casually walked away; the rest of Calcutta was still staring at that fascinating, non-existent point in the emptiness, waiting for the revelation.
Excerpted from the 25th anniversary edition of A Strange and Sublime Address, Amit Chaudhuri, with a new foreword by Colm Tóibín, Penguin.