The Denver Post
May 5, 2002
By Dylan Foley Special to The Denver Post
In 2000, the Indian novelist Amit Chaudhuri was awarded the Los Angeles Times Prize for "Freedom Road," his trilogy of novellas that told lush and sensual stories of life in modern India. Chaudhuri is back with a new collection of short stories called "Real Time: Stories and a Reminiscence" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 182 pages, $22).
Chaudhuri's stories explore the India after independence from the British in 1947 and chronicle the urbane middle class and their Westernized children. He shows the corporate culture of India, where the upwardly mobile are divorced from the small villages they came from and face a society undergoing radical changes.
The new stories move from the 1960s to the present. "The time frame is partly because I am going into my parents' early life, their old reminiscences about starting out in India after they came back from (studying in) England," said Chaudhuri from his home in Calcutta.
"They entered a completely different bourgeoisie life after they came back to an independent India. They lived a cosmopolitan and isolated life and were no longer speaking the Bengali language." What interests Chaudhuri is the changing India of the 1960s. "The main religion at the time was the building of industrial India."
Chaudhuri captures the vibrant life of the Indian middle class. From the sophisticated business executives and their sari-clad wives going to their 1960s cocktail parties to the young boys embracing the 1970s disco craze in anticipation of their first school dance, Chaudhuri shows a mirthful eye for catching the human spirit.
In "Four Days Before the Saturday Night Social," young Gautam ponders the terror of dancing with girls: "He could not see himself, as much as he would have liked, wantonly positioning himself a few inches away from a girl, and then with aplomb, shivering and shaking ecstatically before her."
Many of these stories take place in Calcutta. "I was raised in Bombay, but I was born in Calcutta," explained the 39-year-old Chaudhuri. "Calcutta is the cultural capital of India. The political consciousness that came to India first came to Bengal and Calcutta. (Gandhi's) Indian National Congress was born in Calcutta. The first great modern Indian literature was also born here in the Bengali language in the 1850s."
Chaudhuri's father was a Bengali executive at a British biscuit company, and his mother was a classical Indian singer. Chaudhuri was educated at University College London and Oxford, where he completed a Ph.D. on the poetry of D.H. Lawrence. He has published four previous works of fiction and is an accomplished classical singer.
Chaudhuri makes Calcutta come alive. He develops full-blooded characters with desires and often thwarted dreams. Many of the stories are told looking back on the past, with men viewing their youthful hopes.
One of Chaudhuri's most compelling stories is the title piece "Real Time," where a couple goes to a memorial for a woman who has committed suicide. "The story came partially from something I'd heard about a suicide," said Chaudhuri. "The family was a fairly well established, Westernized family in decline."
Chaudhuri turns an awkward memorial service into a way of looking at the fractured Bengali society: "I wondered what the ceremony would be like for a suicide, and what it would mean to a family like that and in the present history of the Bengali middle class. (This group) is not sure where it is. This particular culture is dispersed all over the world and has outlived its moment of definition.
"A shraddh ceremony in Hinduism, which is like a wake, is often quite a joyful situation where people eat and talk," Chaudhuri said. "In this case, there is a garrulousness of people trying not to talk about the person who has died. That was the tension that interested me."
For Chaudhuri, the goal of these stories is to focus on the new India. "I was trying to approach India as it is now and what it used to be, to explore those areas of experience, growing up in a secular, corporate society," he said. "In these stories, I became interested in describing the many facets of life thrown up over the last 30 years - the commercialized Indian existence, the one-day cricket matches or an average woman writing her memoirs."
Even with the popularity of young Indian writers in the United States, such as Vikram Seth with "A Suitable Boy" and Rohinton Mistry with "A Delicate Balance," Chaudhuri wants to focus on the neglected roots of Indian writing. In June, an anthology Chaudhuri edited called "The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature" will be published. Some of the anthology's writers are being translated into English for the first time. The book includes famous Indian writers like the 19th century poet Rabindranath Tagore and others who have received less Western attention, such as Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee.
"The anthology is from the 1850s to the present," he said. "I do have Tagore, as well as writers you have not heard of, in conjunction with Vikram Chandra and Salman Rushdie. (The anthology) throws up interrelationships (like) the encounters between the genteel middle-class sensibility and the small-town Indian life, and how that sensibility breaks down or is put under duress."
Chaudhuri admitted that putting together the anthology was partly a selfish pleasure. "As much as I admire the contemporary Indian writers," he said, "I know the place where my mind lives as a writer is not only composed of my contemporaries. A lot of this place is composed of my relationships to European writers and Indian writers from the past." The anthology exposes the influences on the modern writers.
"I feel that I am filling a gap, and "righting' a skewed idea of Indian literature," he said.