Suggest India by ellipsis rather than by an overwrought all-inclusiveness: Such is, in a nutshell, the aesthetic preference of British-Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri, whose new novel, Odysseus Abroad has received an excellent review in the New Yorker and has been hailed as a more evocative representation of India than the Salman Rushdie oeuvre by the esteemed James Wood.
Wood likes Chaudhuri’s quiet style that stands out in contrast to the noisy one made famous by Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize winning novel on the inception of political India, Midnight’s Children (1981).
Wood is an Europeanist and from his writing on Chaudhuri, it seems that style-wise Chaudhuri is an Europeanist as well.
I haven’t read anything by Amit Chaudhuri, but had at one time in my reading career, gorged on Salman Rushdie. Indeed as Wood suggests via media Chaudhuri, the International success of Midnight’s Children established a notion that all “fictional writing about Indian life should be noisy, magical, hybrid, multivocally ‘exotic’–as busy as India itself.”
Yet, the “multivocality” of Indian culture has been suggested in a quieter and smaller scale by a rich vernacular tradition of Bengali writing well before Rushdie.
The idea of the implicit over the explicit in writing appeals to me. I wish more writers writing on India would follow in the footsteps of Chaudhuri instead of in the glamorous but enervating shadow of Salman Rushdie.
Here is a sample of Chaudhury’s quiet style, from A Strange and Sublime Address, a novella published in 1991:
A house in Calcutta must be swept and scrubbed at least twice a day. Once, in the morning, Saraswati polished the floor with a moist rag, and Mamima religiously dusted the tables and chairs. The dust rose in the air in breathless clouds and seemed to evaporate and disappear. But by evening it would condense, like moisture, and resettle on the surfaces of things. A little before sunset, a woman named Chhaya came to clean the house a second time, smiling at the boys as they waited impatiently for her to finish. She had a serious cultured face with a serious smile, the face of a kindly and understanding teacher; it was hard to believe she lived across the railway lines, in the clump of huts called the basti,from which whiffs of excrement rose on windy days.
The smallness of the domestic scene is an integral part of Indian reality, but writers like Rushdie haven’t really had the time to focus on this part of Indian reality. For the likes of Rushdie the “hybridity” of India is of essence. However, as Chaudhuri notes in a critical essay on the Indian novel, “Indian hybridity need not be flagged in bright colors, and in busy polylingual prose with a scattering of untranslated Indian words and phrases and odd sentence construction.”
It’s no surprise that these two divergent schools of Indian writing in English has two radically opposed Indian aesthetics: While Salman Rushdie has included the raucous (yet ultimately shallow and conventional) hybridity of Bollywood, Chaudhuri (and V.S. Naipaul and the other Chaudhuri–Nirad) are influenced by Satyajit Ray, the classic Indian Europeanist and documentarian of India’s Proustian details.
Amit Chaudhuri is a fan of both Naipaul and Nirad Chaudhuri, whom he credits with writing elegant, formal English, indistinguishable from native formal English. The hybridity of this vision is unlike the hybridity of Salman Rushdie’s vision. It’s one of sensibility and context.