ELLE Book Club

Amit Chaudhuri talks books

Odysseus Abroad is his most ribald, tetchy, searching and ultimately enjoyable novel yet

The Sahitya Akademi winner, professor of contemporary literature and accomplished musician’s newest outing, Odysseus Abroad, is his most ribald, tetchy, searching and ultimately enjoyable novel yet. We caught up with the author to talk about writing, reading and Chetan Bhagat.

On his novels’ constant exploration of the world of men, especially drifters

“I have a few close male friends, but I have no sense of male bonding. Because they’re all of a certain kind and very different from me. All the men I’ve been drawn to in my life are drifters and are performing a life exactly opposite of mine. I have a very stable life; if I didn’t have that I wouldn’t be able to write novels or make music or teach. But many of my friends are unmoored from the constraints and parameters that I have. They’re often out of society and sometimes not of my class either. It’s a Quixote and Panza-like convergence — maybe it’s some sort of anomalous relationship we each have to society, and even our gender. These are the people I’d like to be with if I’m in hell.”

On always picking the mundane over trying to write the great Indian novel

“I’m against the great Indian novel. I’m against the concept of anything, which is called the great anything novel. What’s nice about the great American novel is that those who are deemed to have written it have written novels which send-up that idea — The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, and more recently, Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. After independence, the idea of India has become so ubiquitous, that writing in English has become part of this idea — like a branch of sociology or history. A novel had to address post colonialism, empire, history, partition, for it to have any significance. It’s important to reject that idea. Luckily, there is a much greater aesthetic space for literature here now than there was 15 years ago otherwise.”

On Kolkata, his long-time muse

“It’s the city where I first encountered modernity. Modernity, in the sense of an industrialised city that isn’t very old but still has that air of having accumulated history very, very fast. Like New York. Or Berlin. Therefore, the artificial air of the city almost seems like a part of nature. You see the walls and they’ve been pissed [on] a thousand times, they’ve mutated into some natural formation. All these divisions between the interior and exterior, public and private, within the modern city, are blurred. And you very often feel at home in the streets; the idea of sitting in a café and feeling at home, the idea of space being neither interior nor exterior — I discovered that first in Calcutta.” 

On teaching creative writing

“I like to just call it writing; ‘creative writing’ sounds managerial. I bring all of my thoughts — as a writer, a musician, a skeptic — to my teaching. I, myself, am not a product of creative writing pedagogy because, at the time, I was temperamentally closer to poetry and all the poets seemed to have studied literature. But that is not to say you don’t need sharp critiques of your work. My own writing was the better for Dan Jacobson, my tutor at University College, London.”

On Chetan Bhagat and his ‘democratisation’ of the English language

“He’s a very energetic storyteller whose readers are probably not English literature students, but people who work at a call centre and he’s giving them back to themselves. I think it’s important that those kinds of writers exist but literature also continues to exist. As for the democratisation of reading, it might be important, but it’s far less important than knowing how to read. In India, the instrumental way we look at language — as a tool of advancement and not much else — means we have a generation of educated people who don’t know how to read carefully or know any language well. You meet very talented, bright people who write in English, but not well, and if you ask why they don’t write in their mother tongue, they say they need to brush up on it. India has missed out on knowledge for its own sake. It’s why our higher education is in shambles.” 

On his writing ritual

“My ritual has to do with rhythms of exhaustion. I write when I feel like writing. It’s not a corporate job; I don’t push myself. That said, I’m always thinking of writing, I’m always researching, in that sense. I refute the present day banal model of research in relation to novels that Indians have, as if a novel is a piece of fact that has to be shored up and legitimised by research. Research is a continuous process. Just because you’re writing a historical novel, doesn’t mean you’re absolved of thinking. The only question is: what do I do to constantly be able to surprise myself and explore? And then it goes from there.”

Odysseus Abroad (Penguin Books India) is out now