CLEARING A SPACE Amit Chaudhuri
“The literary essay,” wrote American essayist Arthur Krystal, “though it may begin by addressing books, always ends up being about the interaction of society and culture.” An observation that’s exemplified yet again by Amit Chaudhuri’s pieces in Clearing A Space, comprising articles earlier published in The London Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement, among other places.
A common thread running through many of the essays here is Chaudhuri’s concern with tracing an alternative version of Indian writing, one that steers a course between the idea of
To chart this, Chaudhuri attempts to define a separate Indian modernity through the actions of its literate middle class over the years, particularly that of the Bengal Renaissance; to reevaluate Indian writing in the vernacular; and to look at the texts of those who pre-date the “boom” in Indian-English writing. Thus, there are essays that offer perspectives on writers such as Nirad Chaudhuri, R.K. Narayan, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Jibananda Das and, of course, arch Bengali humanist Rabindranath Tagore.
In expressing unease with triumphalist narratives of
It ought to be pointed out though that many of the essays, thought-provoking though they may be, are couched in concepts borrowed from poststructural and postcolonial studies which make them heavy going for the lay person. (Never mind the irony of using postcolonial tools to dismantle postcolonial conceits.) These are offset by a few others that offer autobiographical vignettes, such as his move to
Despite the insights on offer, one can’t help but sense a feeling of datedness about the collection. The earliest of these essays was written 14 years ago, and when it comes to Indian writing in English, much has changed. Yes, Midnight’s Children did cast a gigantic – and well-deserved – shadow, but those that came after Rushdie have by now have emerged into their own light, with Vikram Chandra and Amitav Ghosh being merely two examples.
However, the triumphalism referred to earlier clearly is on the ascendant, not just in the discourse of fiction but in every other sphere, be it economic performance or Olympic medals. It’s in this context, then, that Clearing A Space is a necessary reminder of the worth of alternative ways of seeing and relating.