Sunday, August 31, 2008

Spaced Out

This appeared in today's The Sunday Express


“The literary essay,” wrote American essayist Arthur Krystal, “though it may begin by addressing books, always ends up being about the interaction of society and culture.” An observation that’s exemplified yet again by Amit Chaudhuri’s pieces in Clearing A Space, comprising articles earlier published in The London Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement, among other places.

A common thread running through many of the essays here is Chaudhuri’s concern with tracing an alternative version of Indian writing, one that steers a course between the idea of India as a mystical, exotic land and the postcolonial, polyphonic torrents of Salman Rushdie and those who followed him. This is the space that Chaudhuri tries to clear, one that exists in “the elisions that direct the binaries (East, West; high; low, native; foreign, fantasy; reality, elite; democratic)”.

To chart this, Chaudhuri attempts to define a separate Indian modernity through the actions of its literate middle class over the years, particularly that of the Bengal Renaissance; to reevaluate Indian writing in the vernacular; and to look at the texts of those who pre-date the “boom” in Indian-English writing. Thus, there are essays that offer perspectives on writers such as Nirad Chaudhuri, R.K. Narayan, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Jibananda Das and, of course, arch Bengali humanist Rabindranath Tagore.

In expressing unease with triumphalist narratives of India’s rise, and glib theories of what Indians ought to be writing about, Chaudhuri favours delicacy, nuance and the minutiae of the everyday – which, of course, are the qualities that distinguish his own novels and stories. These are reminders that the house of fiction, with its foundations in India or elsewhere, ought to contain many rooms, and not just one great hall for the majority.

It ought to be pointed out though that many of the essays, thought-provoking though they may be, are couched in concepts borrowed from poststructural and postcolonial studies which make them heavy going for the lay person. (Never mind the irony of using postcolonial tools to dismantle postcolonial conceits.) These are offset by a few others that offer autobiographical vignettes, such as his move to Bombay with his parents when he was a child, his life in Oxford and his return to Calcutta. (Readers of Chaudhuri’s earlier work will find themselves on familiar ground.) Also of note is a piece on the stasis of what’s called fusion music as well as some astute observations on the commonalities and differences between Bollywood and Hollywood.

Despite the insights on offer, one can’t help but sense a feeling of datedness about the collection. The earliest of these essays was written 14 years ago, and when it comes to Indian writing in English, much has changed. Yes, Midnight’s Children did cast a gigantic – and well-deserved – shadow, but those that came after Rushdie have by now have emerged into their own light, with Vikram Chandra and Amitav Ghosh being merely two examples.

However, the triumphalism referred to earlier clearly is on the ascendant, not just in the discourse of fiction but in every other sphere, be it economic performance or Olympic medals. It’s in this context, then, that Clearing A Space is a necessary reminder of the worth of alternative ways of seeing and relating.

No comments: