Author Amit Chaudhuri: I feel a new sense of intimacy in Mumbai
Amit Chaudhuri is known to create vibrant cityscapes in his works, which include The Strange and Sublime Address and Odysseus Abroad. In his latest book, Friend of my Youth, Chaudhuri uses Mumbai as the backdrop and maps the memory of a friend and the city he grew up in. Excerpts from an interview:
You grew up in Mumbai, and now you are based in Kolkata. So, whenever you return to Mumbai now, do you feel like an insider or an outsider?
When I was living in Mumbai, I felt like an outsider for some reason. I used to feel alienated from the corporate Mumbai in which I was growing up. Back then, economic deregulation hadn’t happened. You had a dignified lifestyle, but the privileges were illusory, because they would go after the person retired. Nevertheless, it was a cut off existence and therefore, I was unhappy.
Now, I feel that I am discovering Mumbai very belatedly. I am discovering my own attachment to the city. Mumbai is a city that has been transformed by globalisation. I feel a great sense of wonder when I return to it because I no longer have a home in the city. I’m condemned to always staying in a hotel. I feel a sense of intimacy and displacement in Mumbai.
How has Mumbai changed?
Globalisation and free market have transformed the city from being a place that had demarcations between where the educated middle class lived and where the people of Bollywood resided or the native Maharashtrians lived. Now, there’s a demarcation between the rich and the poor. There’s an area called South Mumbai, which can only be afforded by people who are really rich. This wasn’t the case when I was growing up. There wasn’t South Mumbai and large sections of the middle class lived there. The other kind of demarcations, such as Bollywood being separated from the middle class or politicians, have also gone.
There’s a new energy that exists because of the far flung places that have been brought together by the expansion of the city. It’s a city that has passed through a lot of change in terms of demographics.
You talk about the “business” of being a writer in your latest book. Did you always want to be a writer?
When I was younger, my situation was very similar to that of Rudyard Kipling. He would speak Hindi, since he spent a lot of time with his house help. In my case, my parents decided to talk to me in Bangla. So, I only spoke Bangla and Hindi. And, by the time I was admitted to Cathedral school, I didn’t know any English. The headmistress of the school told my mother to give me comic and Ladybird books to read. I picked up English from these books and began to write stories almost immediately.
The fact that I didn’t know this language at the age of five, but then suddenly knew it, might be responsible for my excitement in writing in English. I began to like writing very early on. I was interested in writing poetry more than prose. I also wanted to become a commander-in-chief in the army and a chauffeur among others things.
You’ve written extensively about Kolkata in your books. Are you optimistic about its future?
I feel a degree of pessimism about India and the world’s future because of the skewed way in which we value things. After free market, globalisation has established that it’s the only form of existence on the planet. It depends on whether a new generation emerges, which wants to look at our history and education in a more challenging way.
Which city do you feel the most attached to?
Kolkata has not been overrun by the powerful. It has not been globalised the way other cities have. I think one of the good things about Kolkata was its resistance to religious fundamentalism. But, we’ve to see how long that lasts. I feel appalled and attached, and at the same time I admire the city. I feel attached to Mumbai in an ambivalent way. I like Oxford (UK) and I greatly admire Berlin (Germany).