(Published on January 31 2014 in Time Out Delhi)
Amitabha Bagchi’s latest novel, This Place, introduces Jeevan Sharma, an ordinary guy who leads a solitary life as an immigrant in an American city facing an uncertain, unpredictable time. Baltimore is in throes of a crisis – the civic authorities have ordered a demolition of the residential block where Jeevan lives, to become a part of the campus of John Hopkins University; Bagchi’s alma mater. The neighbourhood residents, who until now had largely led an uninterrupted life in the comfortable company of each other, face sudden eviction. In an email interview, Bagchi, the author of Above Average and The Householder (both set in Delhi) and an assistant professor at IIT Delhi, told Time Out, how living in Baltimore left a lasting impression on him.
Cities play an integral part in your novels, almost like characters. How important are they to you?
Cities have always been very important in my writing, but there has been an evolution over the course of the three books I have written. When I began writing, I saw the city as a companion, as a friend for a young man who was inclined to feel friendless and lonely even when surrounded by people. Certain parts of the city worked for me like Proust’s Madeleine, pushing me to write, and sometimes unleashing a number of emotions that would then have to be managed and transmuted into writing. But with the passage of time, and my own passage into a different stage of life, I have now begun to see the city as a condition of life, something almost as powerful as class or gender or caste. Just like these categories, the city makes certain ways of being possible and certain others impossible. Women, for example, know this very well: what you can do in public or even inside your house in Delhi is very different from what you can do in New York. There are many fine-grained constraints that being the resident of a particular city places on you. In my last two books, I was not so much interested in drawing attention to what the city does, or does not allow its inhabitants to be. I was more interested in using the constraints the city imposes as part of the discipline of my writing.
The idea of writing a book in Baltimore had been with me almost since the time I left that city. I moved there when I was about to turn 22 and had just turned 28 when I moved away: six very formative years of my life. I had never lived away from Delhi before that and had certainly not encountered another culture in such an abrupt manner. When I think about it, I feel that it was not that Baltimore itself transformed me; maybe if I had been somewhere else in those years I would still have changed a lot. But there was something about being in a city as derelict and as charming as Baltimore, as working class and unpretentious as Baltimore that turned my thinking down a road that it perhaps would not have gone if I had stayed in Delhi or if I had moved to New York or London.
Your second question is difficult to answer because I hadn’t really fully thought about what Baltimore had meant to me before I sat down to write this book. I had some idea of what it had felt like.
It was in the process of writing that I began to discover what Baltimore has meant to me. Writing a novel is very different from giving an interview. Sometimes, you can write a whole novel without necessarily knowing why you are writing it in a particular way. But then interviewers ask you direct questions and you have to introspect – a process which is not always comfortable or easy.
At the book release in Delhi, you spoke of “a sense of displacement” you felt during the ’90s that transmutes in the novel. Can you elaborate?
The 1990s were a time of upheaval not just for me, having to move from Delhi, my home of twenty-one years, to another country altogether, but also in more difficult ways for many people in India. I am specifically talking about the displacements that took place in the Narmada Valley. Medha Patkar and the Narmada Bachao Andolan with Arundhati Roy’s support brought the plight of the displaced people to the attention of people like me who sat safe in their urban cocoons. It was, as I have said, a formative time for me and I read whatever I could about the Narmada project and the movement that opposed it. That moment passed in our country’s history, but it remained buried within me somewhere and emerged when I began to think of the novel set in Baltimore. When I first thought of using the theme of gentrification and dislocation for a novel set in Baltimore, I was not actually aware of whether any such thing had happened there. I mean, I knew there were small projects here and there that were changing the face of the city, but I didn’t know of any large-scale project. It was after I had this idea that I began searching and found that urban renewal had not spared Baltimore, and that row house demolition on a large-scale in east Baltimore had become a contentious issue in the first years of this century. By displacing, as it were, my study of displacement to Baltimore from India, I felt I would be able to take a more human view and formulate a more reasoned response, without being ambushed by the politics of class and caste that make these discussions so shrill in India. At the same time, I felt I would be writing about something that was deeply relevant to a contemporary American audience.
What are your views on the crop of campus-lit writers that have emerged since the publication of Above Average?
It would be hubristic of me to claim that this crop was seeded by Above Average. It actually sprang from Chetan Bhagat’s work, which was published earlier. I don’t really have a view on this writing. It is proliferating in different registers, taking on different themes, which can only be a good thing. Sometimes I feel that these writers are in a bit of a hurry, that they don’t want to undergo the long apprenticeship that is needed to develop your craft and your art. But that is their choice.
Does teaching help in the way one writes?
I think it does. Writers often don’t understand that half of their conception is still in their head and has not reached the page. Being a teacher teaches you that clarity is a virtue, and that even obfuscation must be done with a purpose, not by accident. It helps the craft of writing in that sense, I feel.