Amit Chaudhuri: Redefining what it means to be a modern Indian

Salil Tripathi meets the novelist, critic and singer has redefined
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As he walks across Leicester Square, Amit Chaudhuri looks as if he has stepped from one of his novels: the well-educated, soft-spoken embodiment of the Indian middle class. His coat is dark, his hair cut neatly, the sharp eyes behind his glasses observing everything, missing nothing. He hums a tune as he sits down. His concert the previous night, at the Vortex, has gone very well. Chaudhuri looks an unlikely leader of a band; he is the quintessential writer, after all.

But he shakes his head: "I was writing my first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, when I was also writing critical papers on Lawrence and Derrida. I am not one of those happy to do just one kind of thing as a matter of routine. I can't be only writing. If I were to try to do that, it would lead to drying up. I have to escape from one form of art to another."

Writer, critic and singer, Chaudhuri is a master at details, adding just the right amount to illuminate a day. In his novel Freedom Song, the Hindu wife wakes up to the muezzin's call, slightly annoyed when she finds the children awake because of the sound, saying that "They are going too far. It isn't really Indian, they sound like Bedouins." In her choice of the word "they", Chaudhuri reveals the gap that runs through India. Freedom Song appeared when Hindu-Muslim relations were at their most fragile since India's independence in 1947. Unlike Arundhati Roy, who might respond by writing a polemical tract, or Salman Rushdie, who would fight the fundamentalists with satire, Chaudhuri does not linger on overt politics. He glances in passing, referring to it obliquely.

Chaudhuri is a prolific man of letters. But he is also a talented musician, trained in Indian classical singing, and is in London this week for the release of his CD, This is Not Fusion. As its title suggests, this project is not to be confused with new-age music blending two traditions.

He has always made space for music. Tagore's songs hum through the bathroom in A Strange and Sublime Address; the mother delicately plays Raag Todi on the harmonium in Afternoon Raag; in the story "White Lies", the master teaches his pupil. Afternoon Raag is dedicated to the late Govind Prasad Jaipurwale, from whom Chaudhuri learnt classical singing.

Trained in a tradition known as Kunwar Shyam gharana, and influenced by rock, Chaudhuri uniquely expresses the metropolitan sensibility of a modern Indian. To former Granta editor Ian Jack, "The big surprise to me is that such a finely-boned Bengali should have such a big rock-and-roller's voice." Chaudhuri's music results from half-remembered tunes, blended in memory, merged at the margins. It is based on the idea that the transition from one musical tradition to another is often a melody. He discovers hints of raag Gurjari Todi in Eric Clapton's "Layla", and as he listens to Auld Lang Syne, he is driven to Pahari tunes through raag Bhopali. In syncopated jazz and the pentatonic scale of Western music, Chaudhuri hears long-buried echoes of raags. "It is as if those pieces were separated at birth," he says.

Chaudhuri grew up in Bombay, India's most cosmopolitan city, surrounded by the sounds of The Beatles, Jethro Tull and Eric Clapton. But he is also part of the Bengali intellectual class, whose heroes include the film-maker Satyajit Ray and the poet-musician Rabindranath Tagore. His mother, Bijoya, is an accomplished singer of Tagore's music. Theirs was a prosperous home, at peace with itself.

The idea of the Indian middle class conjures images of upwardly-mobile professionals. But what engrosses him is "the inward character of the middle class and its inner struggles," he says. His fiction focuses on the drama within homes. These are outwardly contented families with a chauffeur-driven car and a retinue of cooks and maids. In Real Time, we meet one executive buying art without understanding why; another's wife tries to learn singing; and a man awkward about expressing grief at the home of a relative, where a daughter-in-law has taken her life.

Early next spring, Chaudhuri will publish Clearing A Space, a collection of his essays from journals such as the London Review of Books and the TLS. He says that "I am trying to clear the space for a discussion of Indian culture in the context of modernity, as distinct from the post-colonial discourse. This is not a post-colonial response to the Empire, but a 150-year story of self-division and creative tension."

Chaudhuri's interest lies in the 1860s, where he sees the origins of Indian secular, modernist traditions. "That period showed how traditions which are communal transform our secular culture, giving material for the modern artist to rework," he argues. Referring to India's best-known painter and one of his nationalist enemies, he says that this tradition "allows [MF] Husain to do his art, and this is something Bajrang Dal won't understand ". The Hindu right unleashed a campaign of lawsuits and vandalism because Husain paints Hindu deities in the nude. The artist has been forced to live outside India, in Dubai and London, as a result.

"The free speech argument will only take you so far," says Chaudhuri. "You need to extend the argument to the autonomy of cultural space. If we look at India's erotic sculptures and say 'This is us', as if it were a constant lineage, we would be ignoring the disruptions." He adds that "We cannot say that that the 13th-century tradition is still continuing. In India, if we draw too neat a line, as if we are automatic inheritors of that past, it would be wrong. By doing it we end up with versions of nationalism, some of which are unpleasant."

Chaudhuri is upset about the way that nationalist "Hindutva" militants appropriate India's cultural space. In a recent essay, he challenged Hindutva activists for their narrow definitions of Hinduism. And in a story called "An Infatuation", Lord Rama and his brother Lakshmana don't appear as divine figures, but as macho ruffians who disfigure a demon because she has the temerity to fall in love with Rama.

This political dimension is a more recent phase in Chaudhuri's writing, he acknowledges. While the first two parts of his recent collection St Cyril Road and Other Poems are personal, the third has poems about Baghdad, Gaza and Kashmir, although seen at an angle. Meanwhile, a struggle within the self describes his next novel, Journey Raag, due in early 2009.

It will synthesise Chaudhuri's love for music, the theme of the romantic artist, and his metropolitan identity. The novel is set in the Bombay of 1980s, about a family like his. There is a music teacher and an adolescent boy who is serious about music, and sees in it a quest for purity and a way to reject his family's worldliness. "The boy doesn't renounce the world, " Chaudhuri says. "His rebellion is different. He grows his hair long, and does not attend his parents' parties... He becomes attracted to classical music through his music teacher, but he cannot understand why the teacher wants material success."

Chaudhuri adds that "The teacher can't understand why the boy is not content with what he has. He can't understand the boy's idea of rebellion... and then there is the tension between a romantic conception of the artist and bourgeois values."

This romanticisation, Chaudhuri says, is part of his own adolescence. He makes an odd rebel, but that's exactly the point. His rebelliousness lies in not doing the expected; in leaving gaps for us to imagine what's missing. That moment in-between is also the essence of his writing.

Chaudhuri has come a long way from the time I saw him first on the parapet of my college in Bombay, where he sat strumming guitar, his hair long, his jeans faded, his kurta torn. The poems, the music, the the awards, were some distance away. If he was a rebel, he was a polite one. But then Chaudhuri is Bengali. To understand the passion within, think of what the painter Nandalal Bose told his student, Satyajit Ray, in the 1940s. Speaking of Fujiyama, Bose told his students that the mountain was the essence of oriental art: calm without, fire within.

Amit Chaudhuri performs 'This is not Fusion' at the Troubadour, London SW5, on Sunday 14 October: 020-7370 1434

Biography: Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri was born in Calcutta in 1962 and grew up in Bombay. In 1983 he came to Britain to read English at UCL. He returned to Bombay and his novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, appeared in 1991. In 1987 he went to Balliol College, Oxford, and wrote a doctorate on DH Lawrence. His later award-winning novels include Afternoon Raag (1993), Freedom Song (1998) and A New World (2000). In 1991 he married Rosinka Khastgir; a daughter, Aruna, was born in 1998. After an English fellowship at Cambridge, he returned to India but from this year is a professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia. In 2002, he published a collection of stories, Real Time. He is also a classical singer and this week releases a CD, This is not Fusion. His group has performed in Britain, Germany, France, Belgium and India.