‘India’s liberal class lacks the courage to speak against oneself’

Amit Chaudhuri talks to The Indian Express about Bombay, intolerance and how his latest book, Friend of My Youth, explores the city through changing times.

Written by Srijana Mitra Das | Updated: May 27, 2017 2:50:53 pm
Amit Chaudhuri, Amit Chaudhuri new book, Friend of My Youth, Friend of My Youth review, Amit Chaudhuri new book, india news “Instead of ideas, a kind of morality reigns in India. Our points of reference are ‘moral’ — a crude, Victorian kind of moralism, about what you should and shouldn’t do.”

Friend of My Youth

Amit Chaudhuri

Penguin Random House

120 pages

Rs 499

Your book is about explorations. Does an age of intolerance, limiting discoveries, worry you?

Intolerance is real and dangerous. But unless we have clarity, including about what the law and the Constitution allow, rather than simply having the right sympathies, we are going to be encroached upon, more and more. That is not a remote possibility now. It is happening. To counter it, we need more than nice-sounding words. We need bluntness and clarity.

However, clarity will come when the people who represent it also have intellectual generosity and openness — which they don’t. The liberal middle class might cherish freedom, but I don’t think there is enough openness in this class. Not to its Other (it’s too easy, the othering which goes on) but within itself.

I don’t feel the educated, secular middle class in India is as free a space as it should be — a space which subjects itself to constant scrutiny. To be that requires this class to be brave and generous. But it lacks courage. It should have the courage to speak against oneself — and the courage to respect somebody who speaks against oneself. It doesn’t do that.

Amit Chaudhuri, Amit Chaudhuri new book, Friend of My Youth, Friend of My Youth review, Amit Chaudhuri new book, india news

Instead of ideas, a kind of morality reigns in India. Our points of reference are ‘moral’ — a crude, Victorian kind of moralism, about what you should and shouldn’t do. Even criticism is an exercise in this moralism. “You should have done that.” “You shouldn’t have done this.” People become Victorian governessess or rabid and violent with morality. Rarely do you find a convergence between people because of ideas. In India, friendships are because of shared anecdotes, similar class backgrounds. You don’t step out of shared interests, into a realm where there could be a commonality of ideas — or a common dissatisfaction with the way things are.

Only when that happens, you have the renewals which are necessary in an intellectual class. But it’s quite ossified here. The moral high ground is the most densely populated place in India — everybody inhabits it. We define ourselves in terms of shoulds and shouldn’ts, rather than a restiveness with certain positions, a seeking out of other positions or of others who may have different ideas but a similar restiveness.

What binds the two friends together in your book?

Well, in school, they shared an unhappiness with the system, represented by sports, a form of nationalism, really. Then, there’s a bemusement with how things are. You know, in India, there is a term — “dear friend”. You find this often in the acknowledgements for a book. All the “dear friends” are entrenched people. So and so is a dear friend. Another well-known person is a dear friend. You end up thinking, this person doesn’t have a single friend I’ve never heard of! But, as friends, you connect at a very different level.

In your book, parents, and parenthood, also shape this friendship.

On one level, the meetings between the two friends have to do with how they both have ageing parents. But Ramu is not a father. The narrator is. The narrator is also a son, looking at his father’s life, and how he was formed by the city and the life his parents gave him.

Despite traversing the city’s times, the book doesn’t mention Bombay’s politics.

I don’t think an imaginative work should refer to things like a report should. I don’t subscribe to politics with a big ‘P’. I’ve been political in many ways, not just with a big ‘P’, but also how I’ve looked at the novel, fusion, the postcolonial. One of the first things I wrote about was the post-Babri riots, for the London Review of Books. Then I wrote about the rise of the Shiv Sena as a kind of deep disturbance.

In this book, there are subterranean references. Everything is touched by the idea of transformation, in terms of wonder, the desire to be in a different time and space, and destruction — not only of one’s own past but also of a way of life. That way of life was destroyed before 26/11.

The destruction of the Taj Hotel is a metaphor for that. Within the Taj, there’s a flicker of consciousness; a character is a Muslim, ‘Husain’ means money, art — and this dreadful transformation. Once, the two friends remember the girls they used to like. One was called Zohra Bandukwala. She married a Hindu man. Bombay then made it possible. Bombay now makes you unable to ignore these things.

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