Rajat Chaudhuri: Mathematics and literature are twins

Rajat ChaudhuriRajat Chaudhuri is the author of two works of fiction — Hotel Calcutta and Amber Dusk. A past Fellow of the Sangam House International Writers Residency, Chaudhuri’s fiction has appeared in Eclectica, Underground Voices, Notes from the Underground, The Statesman, L’Allure des Mots and other snakepits of the international literary underground. He is also a critic and has reviewed fiction for Sahitya Akademi’s (India’s National academy of Letters) Indian Literature journal, The Asian Review of Books, Outlook, The Telegraph and elsewhere. One of his short stories was the winning entry of the Wordweavers Fiction Contest, 2011. Before turning to writing full-time, Chaudhuri has been a consumer rights activist, an economic and political affairs officer with a Japanese Mission and a climate change advocate at the United Nations, New York.

Chaudhuri is currently (2013) writer-in-residence at the Toji Cultural Foundation (South Korea) from where he answered our questions.

Can stories save a hotel? How did the idea of Hotel Calcutta come to you?

For the purpose of mathematics we can assume a weightless elephant sliding down a frictionless hill. Mathematics and literature are twins. No they are brothers separated at birth, Bollywood style.

Reviel Netz has an excellent book discussing the parallels between mathematics and literature. It is called Ludic Proof: Greek Mathematics and the Alexandrian Aesthetic.

The setting came to me while guzzling expensive beer at the Fairlawn hotel in Calcutta which is housed in a two hundred year old building at the heart of the city’s entertainment district. Two other Calcutta hotels – the Astor and the Great Eastern have also influenced the setting.

The image of the beer garden at Fairlawn was stamped in my mind and that is how it all started. My stories usually take off when I have a persistent image, an image that easily metamorphoses into a vision. I have a hobbyist’s interest in Tantric Buddhism, the kind you find in Tibet and some areas of the Himalayas in India. Before writing this book I had been reading Alexandra David Néel’s Magic and Mystery in Tibet where there is a lot of talk about telepathy, psychic feats, and the lung-gom-pa lamas (the`flying’ monks) and that is perhaps from where the monk turned up in Scene 1.

Beyond that, I think the element of magic is strong in my storytelling. Without magic it is difficult to take on the powerful of the world – in this case the land sharks who wanted to demolish the hotel and build a shopping mall. The demolition of heritage structures and the selling-off of public spaces is an important issue of our times (think of the Taksim square demonstrations in protest against the building of a shopping centre and the military academy at Gezi Park in Istanbul).

In Calcutta, where we have this rich blend of neo-classical, Islamic and art deco style architecture, we are seeing this dangerous trend of pulling down old buildings and replacing these with urban monstrosities that are kitsch architecture at their best. Instead of trying to conserve, restore and re-inhabit these buildings by creating a space for culture or imagining new and benign uses for these spaces, what we see is a mushrooming of hyper-stores and malls replacing these grand old structures. We are suffering from this hunger to grow at all costs and if the realtors win this round, the old city will soon vanish and the residents will have to move into abandoned subway tunnels or disappear in the suburbs. All these thoughts went into the conceptualisation of Hotel Calcutta.

Hotel Calcutta-bookcoverHow long did it take you to write the novel? Did you do any specific research for it?

It took me between two and half to three years.

Yes I am always doing some research. I am an eclectic reader and take notes. I meet people, I ask questions and have dark rum with strangers at old Calcutta hangouts. I did research the colonial-era hotels a bit and for the stories my travels helped. As you know, the stories in the book are not all set in Calcutta. There are stories set in Delhi, Amsterdam, in New York in a sleepy southern Indian village and so on. This reflects the fact that stories, just like the hotel guests who are the storytellers, can come from all sorts of places. There are chess players in this book, there are detectives, there are people affected by paraphilias, there are poets and geneticists. I have met some of these people, I have played chess with a friend who taught me the gambits and the openings with fancy names.

Did you always want to be a writer?

No, no. I didn’t want to be anything much but I couldn’t find anything better. On particularly bad days I have `Stuck in the Middle with You’ looping on my iPod. But still there is something about this stuff we do. You know Orwell had this worked out in great detail in his essay `Why I write?’ Sometimes I agree with his reasoning, sometimes I have some of my own. One of those would be being able to converse at length with the dead. Another – shoot a Makarov from the hip without batting an eyelid.

You are the founder of the civil-society group, Southern Initiatives. Tell us a little about it. Also, please tell us if this kind of work (human rights, consumer rights) affects your writing.

Yes, it looked pretty sexy at that point of time. It’s a very small organisation and we do projects we like. Much of it is advocacy and a bit of awareness and research work. We usually take on those projects that have environment linkages because we feel the ecological problem is the most serious problem that humanity faces at this point. In spite of a few sabre rattling despots here and there, there doesn’t seem much of a possibility in our times of nuclear tipped missiles (the deterrence principle seems to have worked) being launched but climate change can finish us off very fast.

As you mentioned, activism is indeed a thief of my time. I often take long breaks like I am doing now. I don’t know when and if I will go back. There are others who do their bit when they can. I don’t enjoy the balancing act. Too many boats confuse me. Once in a while however, there is symbiosis happening. An experience learned through activism may enrich a story and so on.

Your first two books (Amber Dusk and Hotel Calcutta) are set in Kolkata. How important is a story’s setting for you?

Thanks for asking this. Both my books are set in Calcutta though Amber Dusk had a few chapters in Paris and Hotel Calcutta has stories from elsewhere too. I have always lived in Calcutta never staying away for more than a few months. Calcutta, as you know, is a very atmospheric city with many contrasts and every second person you come across has a story to tell. There is good conversation here and really interesting people – the kind who have not been rendered faceless clones of each other by the global consumer culture.

Yes, setting is quite important and creating  a convincing setting is not easy. Besides the setting an attention to plot is also necessary but this does not mean one has to work it all out right at the beginning. The story will reveal itself as you write. You need not wrap it all up and it’s sometimes good to have a few of those juggling balls up in the air. That way a shaggy dog kind of story does appeal to me.  What matters however is how entertaining a juggler you are. You are not allowed to drop a ball because the reader will not fail to notice it. Because of the legacy of realist fiction one needs to concentrate on starting off with the `hard real’ and that’s where setting plays an important role in my fiction. From there, depending on what drives your story, you can slip into the absurd, the surreal or the magical. Otherwise one would be writing fairy tales of the old school. Which again, is not such a bad idea.

Currently, you are a writer-in-residence in Korea. How is the experience of writing in an alien place? How is it different from, say, sitting in a room in Kolkata and writing?

Toji4The woods versus trees problem comes into play here. When I am sitting in Calcutta writing about Calcutta then I tend to miss out the big picture and concentrate too much on the `trees’. That way my residency at Sangam House near Bangalore was very useful as it helped me to write the frame story about this Calcutta hotel from a distance. This distancing is sometimes necessary if you are writing literary fiction and not Lonely Planet travel guides.

At the Toji residency in Korea, where I have been invited by Arts Council Korea and InKo Centre, I am writing both about Korea and India. Korea is a new country for me. I have never been here before. So there is not much of the `trees’ here anyway that can slow down my narrative in bogs of overdone description. I am looking at Korea as a foreigner who has just arrived and my story is likewise about some such character.

Then of course there is the quiet life that a residency offers and this Korean residency is surely among the best in the world on that count. We do get to meet other writers, have a drink sometimes but that is about that. Even if you want to run away from your story you don’t have many options. There are mountains all around us and a little village but no big city or town. The nearest city is about 40 minutes to one hour. So you write, write, write!

How do you choose a theme for a book? Or it is the other way round (a theme chooses you)?

As I mentioned before, it usually starts off with an image. The image might be very concrete to start with or it could be dreamlike. Once that is there the theme usually makes an appearance pretty soon. Sometimes there are false starts, this usually happens with short stories. I write a bit and know it’s all crap. So I dump that file and start afresh.

It is a pity that most publishers these days are looking to publish the next blockbuster. Was it difficult for you to get published?

I believe good books will find their place someday even if their authors may not be around.

It has not been easy getting published. But I was very lucky to find a good literary agent down the road – Urmila Dasgupta of Purple Folio. As long as she doesn’t divorce me, I feel I am in safe hands. I can concentrate on the writing.

What is the hardest part of being a writer?

For someone like me who chucked his day job to write, I think the most difficult part is to convince those around you that it is well worth going down with this ship. On the creative side, novel writing can sometimes become quite an arduous task. Those endless paragraphs of fill-in description, you know, putting in those trees, the stick people in the background, the storefront with its name blurred and then choosing the right tone and colour to paint it all.  Also for editing and revising you need to be cold blooded and you have to have what Hemingway called a good `shit detector’.

Who are the authors who have inspired you over the years?

Naturally there has been many. Aldous Huxley to begin with. Reading him I realised that the novel is not only about pretty prose, it is rather a hotbed of ideas. I have enjoyed reading the Americans and a few Russians.  Bulgakov for one is a great favourite as is John Kennedy Toole. It’ s a pity that neither of these masters saw their best work in print during their lifetime. There is a lot that I learned from the French, especially Flaubert, Balzac and Zola. I enjoy reading Kundera, I am in love with Vonnegut’s style. I read a lot of Herman Hesse at one point of time and I still swear by Cervantes. Then of course there is Kafka, Poe, Pynchon, Italo Calvino, Naipaul, Ghosh, Amit Chaudhuri, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami, Chandler and so many others. As you can see it’s a very eclectic mix. Then there are the Bengali-language authors who I adore, right from Tagore and Bankimchandra to Bibhutibhusan, Satinath Bhaduri, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay and Nabarun Bhattacharya. Bengali literature has had an important influence on my writing and I do write a bit in Bengali too. My first work of fiction written in Bengali will be out later this year.

Your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?

When I had just finished writing my first novel I had asked Amitav Ghosh for advice. He had replied with a long email which I have preserved. There were many tips there and he had mentioned a few good websites which had useful resources for writers. Let me also take this opportunity to congratulate you for `Kitaab’ which is a great platform and a wonderful resource for Asian writers.

My favourite line would be – `Manuscripts don’t burn’ (from Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.)

What is your advice to writers struggling to get a break?

This is risky because I don’t have insurance. Reading is very important I suppose. Five years of concentrated reading before writing a single word. Avoid the trash –you have to develop a shit detector for that too.