Calcutta’s Via Negativa

Simon During

Amit Chaudhuri is, as is perhaps not widely enough recognized, the author of five remarkable novels, as well as a collection of short stories, a book of poetry, a work of academic literary criticism, and a volume of critical reviews and essays. (He is also a musician and composer of some note.) At one time he was what they call in India an NRI (Non-Resident Indian), but these days he is, like so many others, a returned NRI. A Bengali, he spent his childhood in Bombay, visiting Calcutta only on holidays. He left for London as an undergraduate to study literature, and completed a PhD at Oxford on D. H. Lawrence’s poetry. He now lives mainly in Calcutta (he rejects the name “Kolkata” as a repudiation of the city’s history), commuting for a semester each year to Norwich, where he teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

So, Calcutta: Two Years in the City is not a travel book. Chaudhuri lives in Calcutta. But it is not about his hometown either: he doesn’t come from the city and tells us more than once that he doesn’t feel at ease there. Nor does the book record a state of exile: he explicitly rejects the romanticization of that concept which we now mainly associate with generations that knew neither Skype nor cheap international travel. Nor is it an exposé of the city’s poverty of the kind with which we have become only too familiar. Chaudhuri’s city is not Mother Theresa’s. Nor, of course, does it belong to that popular orientalism which sets out to represent metropolitan India for foreign readers as a plenum of chaotic vitality and strangeness.

Chaudhuri once compared his return to Calcutta (in 1999) to the German theatre director Heiner Müller’s decision to remain in the GDR in the seventies. It too, he noted, could be thought of as committing to “an osmosis between disrepair and civility, breakdown and order, the colonial and the local” in which writers become “settlers.” But in the end this book has little truck with that kind of universalizing postcolonialism, or for that matter with the proposition that relations between the civil and the noncivil have stalled in the city. It is true that, in moving to Calcutta, Chaudhuri chose to live in a difficult and frustrating metropolis which is not confidently enamored of itself. But he also chose to live in a city whose past is too layered, whose present is too unsettled, and whose future is too opaque for a literary intellectual such as himself to command it. Which means, from his own perspective, he took a chance on what we might call a via negativa. And that’s all the more apparent since this book was written at that especially indeterminate moment in West Bengal’s recent history that preceded the state election in 2011. As everyone then sensed, that election would end 34 years of Communist rule, opening the way to Mamata Banerjee’s populist leadership. Which could lead anywhere.

Indeed, as you turn the book’s pages it is easy to wonder exactly what its point is, though I suspect few readers will find themselves giving up on its coherence and interest. On one level, Calcutta: Two Years in the City is just a collection of essays (at least one previously published) which do little more than describe everyday life in the city as Chaudhuri experiences it. There are pieces on the arrival of Italian restaurants and Christmas trees in Calcutta (the latter he thinks are as genuine there as anywhere else in the world); one on the difficulties of keeping servants; another on his friendship with an aging highborn couple who, as they used to say, are “coming down” in the world.

The book records Chaudhuri’s efforts to experience life in
the city through the filters and drives of a particular
literary sensibility.

But it is also soon apparent that the book is making real claims to conceptual originality. That’s because it records Chaudhuri’s efforts to experience life in the city through the filters and drives of a particular literary sensibility. Chaudhuri engages literature not merely as a profession, not at all as an expression of a “creativity,” but as a practice of life, by which I mean that he perceives and organizes his life so that his experiences provide matter for literary writing exactly of this book’s kind. On this basis, he goes on to explore what categories like the aesthetic and the literary mean when they are taken as practices of life in contemporary Calcutta by someone who is, as I say, neither at home there, nor in exile, nor simply “cosmopolitan,” but rather obedient to those chances and flows through which Bengal’s history meets its current conditions of life.

Even a formulation like this remains too simple. Chaudhuri returned to Calcutta at least in part out of a sense of filial duty as the only child of aging parents who had themselves returned to the city only after retirement and whom he needed to attend to as their health declined. So his return to Calcutta was not, after all, simply chosen. Certainly it did not express a preference over Bombay or Delhi or, for that matter, over Berlin, London, or New York as a place to live the literary life. He inherited responsibilities there.

So it becomes clear that Chaudhuri’s literary sensibility is ignited as a practice of life when the duty of a bourgeois son—combined with memories of childhood Calcutta holidays—can illuminate and be illuminated by the structures and flows that make up Calcutta’s history. This duty also weighs on his continually frustrated intellectual intuitions of what those structures and flows might mean and where they might be headed, intuitions that are largely based in institutionalized understandings via English tertiary education in the literary humanities.

In Chaudhuri’s Calcutta, this synthetic literary ethic has three especially important qualities. First, the “personal” is always defined by and inhabited in relation to other people rather than through the nurture of an interiorized personality. Here the personal is a shifting position within communal and conversational associations and exchanges. So Chaudhuri records his experiences in and of Calcutta alongside and in dialogue with others. He does not introspect.

This involves limits. After all, Chaudhuri, as a polite bourgeois man, socializes with his own kind, and the intensity of the decorum which rules his social relations is, if anything, excessive. The expression of sexual longings and of aggrieved aggression are, for instance, both out of the question, let alone the expression of fiercer compulsions: self-destruction, madness, vice …. There is a sense that not admitting the West’s at least literary tolerance of incivility constrains Chaudhuri’s literary ethic.

Then, too, partly because Chaudhuri’s family connections and friendships take him only so far, he ends up using standard ethnographic and interviewing techniques to uncover what Calcutta is and means. When that happens—as it does increasingly as the book progresses—his literary apprehension of Calcutta lapses into eccentric reportage. Eccentric because Chaudhuri’s attempts to accost strangers are more interesting for the tones and setting in which they happen—for their sociability— than for any information or insight his interviewees yield. To take one quite formal case: when he interviews Nirupam Sen, a powerful Communist Party politician, the discussion proceeds as if between acquaintances and social equals. Sen acquiesces in Chaudhuri’s perceptions of Bengali’s economic and cultural decline, apparently frankly. But nothing of substance is learned. What is learned is that Chaudhuri, who feels little good will towards the Communist Party, is nonetheless able to enjoy a conversation with those who run it inside the conventions that order intelligent chat between acquaintances, and which (as we know) mark his “personal” space out more generally.

The book as a whole doesn’t make ethico-political judgments about, say, India’s misogyny, popular violence, and oceans of poverty, even though Chaudhuri is intensely aware of the last, at least.

The implications of this encounter reveal themselves gradually. It becomes a moment when we brush against what may be most confronting about the book. For Chaudhuri’s polite if oblique chat with Sen contains no room to discuss social justice, even though that has been the Communist Party’s main platform. This is important because the book as a whole doesn’t make ethico-political judgments about, say, India’s misogyny, popular violence, and oceans of poverty, even though Chaudhuri is intensely aware of the last, at least. It doesn’t acknowledge liberal-progressive shame. Thus, for instance, Chaudhuri is unembarrassed about how servants are employed at a pittance, even though he deals at length with how his parents negotiate the endless problem of retaining them when they are so badly paid. It is as if the exploitation involved were no concern of his. Indeed, he does not empathize with Calcutta’s poor either, although he does perform spontaneous acts of charity which lead him into new entanglements of embarrassed sociability. In fact it begins to look as if empathetic encounters between the rich and the poor might be dependent on that engaged affirmation with social justice which Chaudhurhi foregoes.

Why this moral nonchalance? One reason: from where Chaudhuri sits, the affirmation of social justice seems to put the autonomy of the literary at risk. His capacity to experience the world in a precisely literary fashion hangs on resisting the temptation to tribunalize, politically or otherwise. It depends on submitting to experiential flows and determinations rather than imposing on them through exercises of political will or moral reason. And this is easy in Calcutta for reasons the book unfolds.

The resistance to making judgments that appeal to universals like justice has shaped a number of Asian cultures, including Hindu ones. In the West, this resistance translates, somewhat clumsily, as conservatism: take Michael Oakeshott’s quasi-metaphysical defense of such resistance on the neo-Kantian grounds that different spheres of experience are autonomous, so that to bring one to bear on another is to commit an “irrelevance” (i.e., a category mistake). But it seems to me that Chaudhuri’s unobtrusive example indicates that political judgment may be in retreat from literary practice more widely. After all, this is a book which is as much aimed at the Western reader as it is the subcontinental one. So it indicates (or reminds us) that even for those who live in the developed world, one of literature’s most promising contemporary forms renounces politics and political judgment. That, of course, is all the easier because politics these days is making so little headway and sense, pretty much everywhere.

Second, for Chaudhuri, Calcutta is a modern city just because it is in decline. For him, “modern” means not the entry of the new but rather a holding on to the old. Modernity happens when the past survives—in rituals, objects, institutions—but is no longer functional nor coherent. When it is fragmented, but has not acquired the glamour of the ruin. Calcutta is an extraordinarily modern city, then, not because it lives at the edge of an ever-changing contemporaneity but because it is so crammed with old things. Modernity, topsy-turvily, happens in the shock of the old.

This sense of Calcutta’s modernity emerges out of a particular though quite conventional understanding of twentieth-century Bengali history, although one taken in this case, I suspect, from Nirad Chaudhuri’s anti-Congress Party historiography. In the 19th century, at the height of the Raj, but invisibly to European eyes, Calcutta became the agent of Hindu enlightenment as well as home to a unique literary culture, only to fall from political, cultural, and economic prominence in the postcolonial period. For Amit Chaudhuri, the death knell sounded for members of Calcutta’s educated Hindu upper-castes—the bhadralok gentry—during the period of the Naxalite (Maoist) rebellions after 1967; they were swallowed up by history once and for all in 1977 when the Communist Party formed government as the dominant member of a Left Alliance, and stayed in power for those 34 years.

From then on, young educated Bengalis like Chaudhuri, inheritors of the old bhadralok ethos—exemplified by Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Buddhadeva Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Sunil Gangopadhyay, and Shakti Chattopadhyay, among others— left Calcutta en masse for Bombay or Delhi or abroad in pursuit of, inter alia, money, security, cosmopolitan cultural flows, freedom, and fame. So the city’s failure to keep up with what Chaudhuri I think rightly calls “globalization” is, paradoxically, the reason why it is not only such a modern city, so prone to shocks of the old, but one in which educated classes are so rarely at ease.

The third characteristic feature of Calcutta’s literary ethos, as Chaudhuri presents himself living it, follows from this: The various elements of his life—personal memories, satisfactions and responsibilities, historical flows and heritages, and their intellectual apprehension—never quite click, with the result, as I say, that no epiphany or closure, no satisfied intellectual apprehension, no secure moral/political judgment is possible for him.

As we have seen, what remains these days is something else: everyday life, thought of as a zone of immanence in drift as well as a rebuke to those moral judgments which do no favors for the literary life. Indeed, it becomes clear that that turn is also possible because in Hindu cultures neither the supernatural nor the literary ever had a clear relation to the transcendent. Literature in particular was never a vehicle for spiritual hunger, but rather a social practice, indifferent to redemption and tribunalizing alike. That is one reason why, for Chaudhuri, Calcutta promises a mundane literary via negativa with no truck with either progressivism, moralism, or questions concerning Being. That life resonates with a buried, layered cultural past, but also with international capitalism’s current “end of history” tendencies and flows.

Calcutta’s literary ethos differs from the more or less antinomian and disaffected English modernists in that it has found a home where it
is not interrupted by post-
enlightenment flashes of, or invitations to, transcendence.

This literary ethos is embraced and developed in Chaudhuri’s fictions, perhaps most of all in Freedom’s Song (1995). But it is also possible to read his oeuvre as working through theories that he first developed in his PhD thesis, where he argued, somewhat counterintuitively, that D. H. Lawrence wrote his poems inside the bhadralok tradition precisely in that he too resisted the temptation to treat ordinariness as “redemptive.” Drawing on Derrida (as was the wont in the eighties when the dissertation was written), Chaudhuri claims that Lawrence’s poems were intertextual, conversational, and, in that sense, communal. And, as such, they did not recognize, for instance, even the difference between the “masterpiece” and “the ephemeral material object.” This prompts us to see how Chaudhuri’s own writing tries to accommodate and combine patterns and forms developed, on the one hand, in Bengali and Hindi fiction and verse, and, on the other, by Anglophone modernists, not so much Lawrence as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. (Chaudhuri tells us that he was drawn to the women in his own family because they reminded him of characters out of Woolf and Mansfield.) But—and this is the point—Calcutta’s literary ethos differs from the more or less antinomian and disaffected English modernists in that it has found a home—Calcutta—where (or for this reason) it is not interrupted by post-enlightenment flashes of, or invitations to, transcendence.

That Chaudhuri’s literary sensibility is a Bengali modulation of an English modernist one is signaled in Calcutta’s first chapter. There he describes himself buying an old window. In 2007, he chanced on a demolished house in South Calcutta. Its French windows, a common feature of colonial-style Calcutta buildings, were lined up on the pavement. They attracted his attention because of the broken history to which they belonged. Probably introduced by the French in the late 17th century, French windows date back in Calcutta to the old India destroyed by Britain’s victory over France in the Seven Years War. Painted green, opened by slats called kharkhari, they defined the old city’s “eccentric visual field” in which the bhadralok class adapted European forms to its own ends, this time to share, but at the same time not to share, the new metropolitan public spaces with the “common man” (Chaudhuri’s locution) and their forms of communality and supernaturalism. But these days the old buildings are being destroyed, and those that replace them don’t have French windows. Glass is changing its meaning and usage. As Raghubir Singh’s photographs of Bombay skyscrapers make clear, it is instead becoming the opaque material of commercial, international hypermodernity.

So Chaudhuri decides to buy one of the French windows stacked on the pavement, even though he has no idea what he will do with it when he brings it home. Among the drifts and repetitions of his everyday life, this is a moment of decision, and at first it seems as if it might lead to an illumination of some kind. After all, in literature, windows are often not just windows. They are a spiritual medium which have, from Percy Shelley on, exposed the transcendent, present or absent. Theirs can be “sun-comprehending glass/And beyond it the deep blue air,” as Philip Larkin puts it in “High Windows.” But the prospect of illumination fades during Chaudhuri’s drawn out negotiations to buy this particular window. After at last having paid an exorbitant amount for it, Chaudhuri puts it into storage. However, after a year it is returned to him, and it is then that Chaudhuri decides he doesn’t want to use it as a window at all. He doesn’t want it to open out on anything. Instead he finds an unused space inside his apartment “in shadow and obscured by an inner door” where he has it installed by a carpenter. No visitor will notice it there. It will look out onto nothing.

This is one of the very few allegorical moments in the book or indeed in Chaudhuri’s oeuvre. As a trace of the Raj, the window represents not just an obsolete bhadralok regime of visibility but also an important component of bhadralok culture more generally; thence, of course, it also represents Chaudhuri’s personal reluctance to wholly let that culture go. At the same time, at least from the point of view of the Western literary intellectual (which Chaudhuri and his readers also are), it represents other things too. In buying it at some cost only to conceal it, in a single gesture he acts out his rejection both of the persona of the disengaged, knowing, judging spectator and of the search for ontological meaning and unity.

That rejection allows him to take on the venture which he records here: the transformation of everyday life into literature not through a “transfiguration of the commonplace” (to cite Muriel Spark’s dangerous phrase in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) but through ordinariness’s precise and attentive service—submission to the mundane. And yet, of course, the window still occupies its peculiar position in his apartment, a reminder, I guess, of the larger peculiarities of living the literary life in Calcutta from the situation in which Chaudhuri found himself when he returned to the city to fulfill a duty which was nonetheless also an exemplary choice of the literary life in a postpolitical, postspiritual world.