Q&A with Amit Chaudhuri, author of Odysseus Abroad
The British Indian author discusses the layers of meaning in his latest novel
Indian-English author and academic Amit Chaudhuri, who won the top Indian literary honour, the Sahitya Akademi Award, in 2002 for his novel A New World , is back with another multi-layered work, Odysseus Abroad. He talks to James Kidd about Homer and James Joyce.
Odysseus Abroad feels personal, if not downright autobiographical. Ananda, a clever young man with aspirations to be a poet, travels from India to London and studies English at university. Is that the case?
The idea of using this material - what my life was like as an undergraduate, what it meant to meet with my uncle once or twice a week - was always there. I never had any impulse for fictionalising it. That only happened when a particular convergence happened with Homer's Odyssey somewhere between 2002 and 2012. I began writing it as a memoir, but realised it was not going to work. Then I remembered the noisy neighbours who had made my life a misery as a student. I thought, these are the "suitors" [who besiege Odysseus' wife, Penelope, for her hand in marriage].
You grew up in Mumbai. What was your relationship with England?
I had been visiting London and England since 1973. The fact that light is beautiful was something I didn't recognise until I came to England. More than learning anything at university in London, I learned about language through the weather. I also learned about my love of light and love of life through London. To know more than one language, more than one way of life, does help to educate you. I see travelling and living in some ways synonymous as, in the deepest sense of the word, educational. Not because you go and see the famous monuments or art galleries. Life turns out to be an education because it teaches you that everything you had read is not true. That process must have begun for me in London.
Your parents were from Bengal. How did Bengali culture form you?
It was a complicated inheritance - through education, the culture I grew up in. That would be both Western high and popular culture, but as a Bengali, I was also inheriting the modernist culture of Bengal. On some level, I was an outsider to both. With Bengali culture, I had no ownership because I grew up in Mumbai. I didn't learn Bengali in school. But I was deeply interested in what had happened in Calcutta and Bengal to produce (Rabindranath) Tagore and Satyajit Ray, but also my parents, my uncle and myself.
Central to the novel is the character known as Rangamama. Was he inspired by a real person?
He is based on a maternal uncle who had been living in London for many years. He was my father's best friend in Sylhet. My parents brought him to England because they felt he had sabotaged his career and was working as a used-car salesman in Shillong. When I came here as a student in the early 1980s, he was almost my only human contact. He worked for the biggest shipping company in Britain, but he lived like a tramp.
Did he have a specific role in inspiring ?
In 2001, I bought a painting by the famous Indian painter F.N. Souza, who lived in semi-obscurity in New York. I was drawn to this charcoal sketch of a man. It cost 55,000 rupees [HK$6,800]. My uncle who was living in Calcutta visited me and wanted to see it. He said: "You might as well have paid me 55,000 rupees for farting." I said: "But the figure looks like you." It was actually a self-portrait, and Souza is a lot like my uncle - passionate, eccentric, lives by himself, has sabotaged his career in many ways. Souza named the sketch Ulysses. For the first time, I thought "Could my uncle be Odysseus?" The idea of translating Odysseus into a Bengali man in London came to me via James Joyce.
What happened to your uncle? The novel portrays him as a kind of anti-Odysseus, with little thought of returning home.
In 1991 when I got married, I persuaded him to come to Calcutta to attend the wedding. He gave in. He had always protested that he didn't want to meet his relatives again and felt no homesickness for India. Once he went back to India, he didn't want to leave, he was so much in love with the country.
Ananda, your alter ego, is desperate to be a poet, and be taken seriously as a poet. Was this your own experience?
I think poetry continues to be my first love as a reader. Poetry is a form of addiction. Discovering German poet Gunter Eich, I feel far more excited by that than anything I might encounter on the Booker Prize shortlist, with very good reason. What poetry can achieve by throwing things off-kilter and causing excitement is very difficult for a novel to do, except paragraph by paragraph. My impulses have always been to achieve that kind of excitement.
The novel traces you discovering your capacity for close observation of everyday existence.
It was the street - what you see from a room, the window, a balcony, intermediate spaces you inhabit when you are looking out and are not completely noticed. This is not something Ananda realises he is truly attached to. He realises we don't need to talk about grand actions.