The writer Amit Chaudhuri, someone whose works I have long admired, recently gave a short interview to The White Review where he discussed his new work Calcutta: Two Years In The City. The interview, conducted by Anita Sethi, takes place, we are told…
…almost 5,000 miles away from Calcutta: we meet in central London one freezing cold day in February.
And yet she claims that despite the distance – in geography, experience and I would argue urban imaginations, Chuadhuri’s conversation allows them to be…
…imaginatively transported into the heat of Calcutta, the central character of the new book, which the author explores in all its complexities and contradictions. One can almost see, smell, taste and touch the life of the city’s streets and its inhabitants.
What follows is a fairly ordinary interview – probably commissioned as a result of Chaudhuri’s publisher’s efforts to get him exposure for his new work in the all-important market of the UK, where he discusses his thoughts of the Indian modern, literary influences and his reasons for writing the book.
What was really striking about Chaudhuri’s responses was that all his references – whether literary and others, were Western. There is no non-European here, let alone an India, an Asia or even something remotely related.
Now, before I am accused of being a provincial, let me explain further.
It wasn’t just the fact that each time Chaudhuri attempts to elaborate his arguments he refers to purely European / Western individuals and works, but that in a world today where we have recourse to knowledge greater and broader than merely European / Western, none of it seems to make an appearance in any of his discussions about life, modernity, literature, and imaginations as if there are no writers of an non-European imagination exploring urban experiences of a non-European nature. The way Chaudhuri describes it, there are no novels, essays, or poems outside the European corpus that help us understand the idea of the modern urban experience, leaving us with the impression that this experience can only be a variation on that seen, read, written and spoken about by the Western.
It is thia singular insistence on a Western / European bibliography that I found, particularly in a cosmopolitan writers such as Amit Chaudhuri, to be rather disappointing and surprising. Here is a learned writer, writing about an Indian city – its life, literature, culture, society, people, urban geography and human soul, and yet there is no India or even an Asia in his influences and references. Could one imagine writing a history of Paris using only Indian literary, architectural and cultural references? I suppose one could, but would one attempt this?
The problems begin early in the interview. The very first question – about defining the idea of modernity has Chaudhuri immediately referencing Walter Benjamin, Philip Larkin, Wordsworth and Tom Paulin! There is an immediate sense of a surrender of the idea of the modern to the European. Does this not then limit his imaginative eye, your human sensibility? By surrendering the idea of the modern to the West, is he then surprised that most people cannot find modernity in the East? Chaudhuri is clearly grappling with this problem when he points out that:
…you look at Vittorio De Sica’s film Bicycle Thieves and you’re looking at a Rome that is in a state of post-war trauma, with lots of poverty. Yet you also see how the city is alive and beautiful in the midst of that. He changes those ruined and deprived areas into a bricolage. But when outsiders look at Calcutta they don’t see that contradiction of modernity, that it’s both derelict and alive and has made both those things energize each other.
Of course they do not, because they do not posses a language or an imagination that would allow them to do so. And Chaudhuri is as guilty of this silence as ‘the outsider’. By continuing to offer references that remain solidly anchored in an European urban and imaginative experience, we should not be surprised at ‘the outsiders’ incomprehension of Calcutta’s beauty. Chaudhuri himself remains confused, though pointing out this obvious fact, without realizing that the answer lies in his hand. He argues that:
There is beauty for modernists in the dereliction of the industrial city but it’s important to record this history of response to Calcutta; because Calcutta is this so-called ‘third-world’ city it will not be thought of by outsiders in this way. So when you look at ugliness in a third-world city it becomes a third-world ugliness, an Indian chaos that you don’t connect with the chaos of post-impressionism, which is a European aesthetic.
If we continue to speak of the modern only through references to the West, we should not surprised that our imaginations cannot perceive the non-European urban environment and existence as ‘modern‘ in the same sense. In fact, the problem that Chaudhuri is struggling with comes from the idea of the modern that is embedded in his thinking. It isn’t modernity that he is talking about, but in fact, the European idea of modernity. Conflating the two is an easy position, but a simplistic one.
In fact, the constant association of the modern with industrial, corporate, consumerist, and capitalist is one of the reasons we cannot find a modernity in anything that looks and feels different from the metropolises of Europe – our definitions are so limited. For example, here is how Chaudhuri describes it:
…when outsiders look at Calcutta they don’t see that contradiction of modernity, that it’s both derelict and alive and has made both those things energize each other…This is true of Berlin too. You have a church that was bombed in the war and right next to it is a new church which is almost postmodern, built of glass. Each energizes the other and defines what modernity is. People refuse to see that modernity and its contradictions. That’s what Calcutta is, a modern city.
But is this what modernity is – the material, the concrete, the tactile? Isn’t there a different idea of modernity that can one that could be elaborated in a new set of ideals and values, while also offering a critique of the modern as we have known it in the West?
And is modernity merely the concrete, the urban, the physical and the material? Isn’t being modern as much about being a site, a society, a locality, and a public with ideas, ideals, values, morals and imaginations that reflect a change, an evolution towards the humane, the generous, the equal, the just and the beautiful? How many Western urban landscapes aspire to these ideals, and how many urban experiences deliver these to its inhabitants?
And what about the un-modern in the Western metropolis – the polarization, the inequality, the isolation of the individual to the exigencies of industry, the erasure of the public in the face of the profit, the corporatization of all things cultural, the erasure of the organic and its corralling into various forms of cages (galleries, zoos, indoor gardens, atrium etc.).
Could it be that we can’t fathom, despite Chaudhuri’s attempts to do so, Calcutta as modern because not only are our ideas of the modern so limited, and so Euro-centric, but our imagination of the modern is equally so? Could it not be that the reason we can see Rome as alive and beautiful, and Calcutta as decrepit and ruined, is because we are wearing the same eye-glasses to see it through? Could it be that by constantly holding up Western / European ideals, we are unable to discover the unique, and in fact, the very modern in Calcutta?
Chaudhuri does not seem to realize the violence he himself has done, and the answer that he himself has offered to this very question. Could it be that the massive disconnect from our own literary, poetic, and creative imaginations is why we cannot see ourselves as anything other than un-modern, deprived, decrepit and ruined? That borrowed languages, imaginations, and references continue to deny us any meaningful experience, and sense of beauty of our own lives?
Our finest poets were men of cities – from Ghalib to Wali were poets of the cities. In fact, our earliest allegiances were to cities and not to religions, or even ethnicities. Elsewhere Mahfouz’s Cairo dances on the page like a seductress, its inhabitants carving lives that garland it with beauty, intrigue and ideas of life unlike anything we have seen elsewhere. I could cite dozens of such examples where cities and a non-European imagination have come together to give us a sense of what is also modern about lives there. Urban life far precedes the emergence of the European modern and life isn’t just modern when it is industrial, but modern when it reflects ideas of life that resonant with our most humane, our most just and equal associations.
Why does this matter? After all, who cares what Amit Chaudhuri considers to be the appropriate influences and references to help elaborate and explain his ideas about Calcutta to the world. It is after all one man’s attempt to do something that many more will do in the future, and many have done in the past.
It matters for just one simple reason: that the stories we here in South Asia are writing today, particularly those in English – the ones that are read in the metropolises of the West, remain locked in the imaginations and sensibilities of a people other than ourselves, and are not even meant for the people of the very communities, societies, cities and geographies we are writing about. We are writing our stories for someone else, and never for ourselves. We are writing them using the creative geographies defined and described by someone else, rarely if ever, allowing our own local, vernacular, accessible, experiential heritage of imagination, exploration, exposition, description, feeling, and emotions to inform our works.
The brilliant Martinique writer Patrick Chamoiseau wrote about this erasure of the vernacular imagination in his beautiful, and funny, work called School Days. Describing the small boy’s first experience of school in then colonial French Martinique, Chamoiseau write:
It was the Teacher who talked. And now the little boy realized something obvious: the Teacher spoke French…for the kids, their natural mode of expression was Creole, except with…other grownups…A certain respectful distance was maintained through rituals of formality when speaking to them. And everything else for everyone else (pleasures, shouts, dreams, hatred, the life in life…) was Creole. This division of speech had never struck the little boy before. French was some object fetched when needed from a kind of shelf, outside, oneself, but which sounded natural in the mouth, close to Creole..But now, with the Teacher, speaking travelled far and wide along a single road. And this French road became strangely foreign…The Teachers images, examples, references did not spring from their native country anymore. The Teacher spoke French like the people on the radio or the sailors of the French line. And he deliberately spoke nothing else. French seemed to be the very element of his knowledge. And his language did not reach out to the children…His words floated above them with the magnificence of a ruby-throated hummingbird hovering in the breeze. (School Days, Page 47-48)
And so all these references to Wordsworth, Larkin, Benjamin by Chaudhuri float by as totems of a greater knowledge, as definers of how we should interpret and understand our experiences, even going so far as to offer us the phrases and words that we must use to describe them to others. Our experiences of our own lives, our own habitats, must be raised from the vernacular to the modern or the relevant with the help of European crutches.
All this matters because as we continue to refuse to find references, imaginations and possibilities from within the local, we continue to degrade and erasure these very imaginations. And what has been left of these local descriptions – the descriptions that we can find in literature (whether English or in any other local language) remains alien, cut off, and inapplicable – much like Chamoiseau’s realization of what happened to Creole which
…circulated easily, but in a dilapidated state. Degraded to contraband, it grew callous from its freight of insults, dirty words, hatreds, violence, and tales of catastrophe. Creole wasn’t used anymore to say nice things. Or loving things, either. It became the language of bad guys, thugs, and delinquent crazy-buggers. Vulgar Creole was the sign of crudeness and violence. The little boy’s linguistic equilibrium was turned topsy-turvy. Forever. (School Days, Page 65-66)
Chaudhuri’s easy references to Western models of thought – he refers to Woolf, Yeats and the Romantics later on in the interview, are of course being offered to reveal his breath of knowledge, his easy association with the finest of European (read: hegemonic) literary and creative thought. This affiliation, this association is of course critical for establishing the credibility of an Asian, and underlines the market differentials of political, and cultural power between the citizens of the West and citizens of the West but of non-Western origins. There are no references to any writers, architects, poets, or intellectuals from the rest of the world. I find it hard to believe that Chaudhuri does not know of them, or that he has not read them. I find it even hard to believe that someone of his breath of knowledge and brilliance, has not been influenced by them.
What I find fascinating is the fact that he did not even bother to mention them. And that he can get away with it.
Dipesh Chakrabarty, in his work Provincializing Europe: Post Colonial Thought and Historical Difference, points out that:
Sad though it is, one result of European colonial rule is that the intellectual traditions once unbroken and alive in Sanskrit or Persian or Arabic are now only matters of historical research for most – perhaps all – social scientists in the region. They treat these traditions as truly dead, as history…And yet European thinkers and their categories are never quite dead in the same way.
Could one could make the same argument for our literary heritage – that it is there, but dead and not worth a mention? Like the Creole of Chamoiseau, it is degraded, denuded and denied?
The woman interviewing Amit Chaudhuri confidently claims that during the conversation, which takes place thousands of miles away from Calcutta and in the modern European metropolis of London, helped her ...almost see, smell, taste and touch the life of the city’s streets and its inhabitants. But did it really? And would an inhabitant of Calcutta – someone living in that city, have felt the same had he heard Chaudhuri’s words? Was this a Calcutta written for the West, by a writer influenced by the literary and imaginative vision of the West, and blind to any idea of the modern other than that which Europe has laid out? Do we have any other eye to see our own habitations other than European?
As Chakrabarty argues:
The phenomenon of political modernity…is impossible to think anywhere in the world without invoking certain categories and concepts, the genealogies of which go deep into the intellectual…traditions of Europe…One simply cannot think of political modernity…without concepts that founds a climactic form in the course of the European Enlightenment…These concepts entail an unavoidable…secular and universal vision of the human.
And yet literature does not suffer from this unavoidable trap – the corpus of literary being too diverse to have ever been subsumed under a singular vision. And yet, it does.
So many of South Asia’s so-called new generation of literary celebrities, the ‘Pakistani’ and ‘Indian’ writers – all writing in English, most all writing with a prism that sees themselves and their lands through Western eyes, remain deeply embedded in a Western literary heritage and write for a largely Western literary readership. Their stories are not really even ‘Pakistani’ or ‘Indian’, but largely about a place called Pakistan and India. There is a difference and it lies in the experiences, lives and realities depicted. Few if any of the modern ‘great’s – unlike a Manto, or even a Quratullain Haider, know a life experienced by the vast majority of their fellow countrymen (I use this word – countrymen, loosely here).
The worlds shown to us by this ‘new’ generation sit comfortably in depictions and descriptions meant to familiarize and explain, to amuse and entertain, to educate and inform. But they rarely ever reveal the human, the compassionate, the flawed, the inherently beautiful that can exist in the most squalid, the most destitute, the most decrepit and the most vulnerable. They rarely take us into a place, into an imagination the likes of which we (the educated, elite, Western) have ever experienced, and are shocked to have to confront. Instead, we walk away comforted with works that skirt around the familiar, confirming our prejudices, our own sense of our better selves, while never attempting to tear down the very structures of ideas and thoughts that continue to blind and repress.
We no longer tell our own stories, with our own values, our own view of the world that sits around us. Perhaps it is fear, perhaps it is ignorance, but for certain it is laziness of engagement with what has come before. It is a laziness that reduces our imagination to the most easily found – the hegemonic literary heritage of the West received at the academies we study at, while all – the vernacular, the local else is merely added as decoration. And as a defense against precisely such paragraphs. Their works are massively promoted in the metropolises of the West, and eventually find their way into the regional markets where sure success is guaranteed to those who have conquered the heights of European markets. They are from South Asia, but can we call them South Asian merely because of an accident of birth?
And yet how are we to understand the categorization of an entire corpus of modern South Asian writers whose literary heritage – self-proclaimed and actual, is largely Western, and yet who continue to be labeled as ‘Indian’ or ‘Pakistani? If Mohsin Hamid’s list of ten of his favorite works includes only one work by a South Asian writer, and that too the predictable Hasan Saadat Manto, what does it tell us about what forms and defines him as a writer, and how he narrates, describes, and even experiences the world that he lives in? What facet of his, other than the accident of his birth, could allow us to refer to him as a ‘Pakistani’ writer? Or if Nadeem Aslam reminds us that he learned English, and perhaps even the structure and forms of the novel by carefully copying out Nabokov, Marquez, Morrison, Schulz, and McCarthy, where does that leave our idea and definition of a ‘Pakistani’ writer?
Which then brings me to the question of why these young writers – so talented, so creative, so well spoken, and so embedded in the Western literary canon, are not seen and appreciated as European or American writers when their principal influences, inspirations and aspirations remain Western? What more would we need to welcome them into the corpus of Western literature, rather than push them out into a sub-category – like the ‘Foreign Film’ category on Oscar night where the Americans reserve for themselves, despite the generally superior creative and story-telling quality of the ‘foreign’, the major glow of the spotlights.
These big writers of the West, cast aside into their ‘third-world’, and then asked to reveal that very world to us. Why and by what definition are they ‘Pakistani’ writers, or ‘Indian’ for that matter. Listening to them speak, one is shown their world, and even if they write from Pakistan or about Pakistan, it is a writing that is largely not off Pakistan (or South Asia if one was to cut past these modern geographies to something more definable). These talented young men who speak not of broad literary corpus of influences, but keep harking back to the same old college curriculum list of ‘great’ Western writers. They rarely if ever reveal a comparative and contrasting exploration of works from their many different cultural traditions. And yet they are not European writers, or claimed by Europe. They are ‘Pakistani’ writers, we are told, and then they are asked to speak about ‘Pakistani’. And they do.
Perhaps it is that the West (I hate using this phrase – the West, since I know it cannot be described in any detail but I think most readers know what it means) remains troubled by continuities – the realization that there is no West, no East, that there is nothing that is foreign. But its obsession with categories, with genres, remains. And one of the most insidious consequences of Western thought is its violent determination to define and separate life into genres and categories. The boundaries are hard and clear, and those who transcend them, violate their sanctity are put back in their place even if they do not belong. In fact, the persistence of this pattern of thought is revealed in Chaudhuri’s own words when later in the same interview he tries to explain this idea of fusion and reveals his adherence to distinct separation. Asked about how his work explores and violate boundaries, Chaudhuri argues that:
With the word fusion we think of the stable categories of East or West; but these break apart for me in a lived way. They break apart for me in the way that the presence of French windows in the Kalighat painting depicting Shiva make that painting break apart.“
But the window is still ‘French’ and the painting still ‘Kalighat’. The two remain apart, even when together. We have not really moved beyond the genres, towards continuities as Edward Said once argued. (See Said, Edward, Culture & Imperialism, Page 336). And it is these continuities that I so miss in the words, descriptions, justifications and explanations of our new generation of writers. These continuities of literary heritage – where the West is an inherent and important part, but not the only one. A continuity of thought, creativity, imagination and ideas, where we express – as South Asians, the full corpus of the influences that reside within and do it unapologetically and unashamedly.
It is clear that Amit Chaudhuri carries within him far more than the Yeats, the Wordsworth or the Benjamin, and yet he remains silent about them. He also remains unable to express his influences, or his ideas, in a way that dismantles the genres, breaks apart the categories – in his words the worlds remain apart, even when they stand right next to each other. It is this complexity, this bring together, that I feel we are so capable of – after all our lives and our intellectual and creative development reflect it – and yet we are unable to speak about it. Our new generation of Pakistani writers seem to have failed to understand the main lessons of the greats like Manto – that it is precisely the need to break down the fixed categories, the clear-cut genres, that define us as a people and as humans. That we should not fear revealing the complexities and continuities of literature, art, poetry, politics and thought that lie within us, and to refuse to accept the easy segmentation that is imposed on not just our works, but also ourselves. That we should refuse to be called ‘Pakistani’ or ‘Indian’ writers and insist on being called ‘writers’.
As I read Amit Chaudhuri’s interview I long for a more complicated voice, one that does not hide behind the safety of a list of Western literary greats, but brings forth a torrent of thought and influences that challenges the ordinary reader to question her very understanding of what is modern and that neither the West nor the East are real, but one and the same. A voice that is modern, because perhaps the only real definition of this word resides in this act of making continuous, to bring together, what we are told must remain apart.