The stage lights brighten as I await the start of the first program on the final day of the Kolkata Literature Fest: a discussion titled “The Written Word”. The panelists are the incredible Amit Chaudhuri, the equally amazing Adam Foulds, and Sujata Sen, as moderator. I am overawed by Mr Chaudhuri’s presence; as he sits onstage, looking out on the congregation, his gaze seems to pierce me even while it is not directed at me. I shake out of the spell, warning myself sternly not to imagine things like authors being something similar to basilisks, and the session begins.
Adam is asked about “the astonishing attention to detail” in his works; he points out that, for him, it is a very important part of grasping reality through fiction: it helps the reader experience an “immersion in the character’s world”; “the detail”, for him, is a way to get around the cliched expectations of how a particular situation is supposed to play out. In his book, “The Quickening Maze”, his protagonist is the English nature poet John Clare, a man whose imagination is “sparklingly alive and vivid”, and so he must experience the world in this way, taking in all the details at once. He contrasts Clare with Tennyson: while in Clare one has immensely “up-close details”, for Tennyson, an “incredibly short-sighted man”, every description very quickly fades into a misty, “monochrome” vastness.
I have begun to grasp the purport of this panel by now and I can’t decide if I’m going to faint because I’m so thrilled or just gasp and have a panic attack. The conversation, meanwhile, veers to Amit Chaudhuri’s work; he begins by mentioning how detail was made an indispensable part of the construction of metanarratives in modernism, by Virginia Woolf. In her essay, Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, the novelist Arnold Bennett would give a 19th century description of her hair, her dress, her social class, but Woolf goes much farther to evoke a character. Her writing gives details, and characters, “a different kind of weight” than, say, Mr Bennett. “One way of looking at detail is to dismantle the idea that a character is always at the centre of a story”, he says, and I’m not even exaggerating when I can almost see new literary landscapes, new ways of treading those are opening in front of me. Adam adds that it is more describing a consciousness than describing a character: it is a much larger realism that one is trying to catch here. And now I’m wondering, is it out of form to get on my knees and start scream-thanking the Almighty for allowing me to be present at this discussion?
The conversation turns to detail that is central to the creation of an image: Amit Chaudhuri mentions a little story where he once read, in an essay, about a writer’s favourite letters in the English Alphabet being “s” and “r”, because the posses such movement and beauty, and thinking, “Oh, what a shame, I’ll have to read this book now!” He goes on to speak about a quirk of writing that annoys me immensely: what can one do with the “joins”, the “and”s and “and then”s?! I know how they can weigh down a narrative, and not in a good way, and am delighted to hear Adam agreeing with me. And then, of course, I notice the irony of having about ten “and”s and “and then”s in the sentence right before this one, and facepalm.
Adam Foulds with Sujata Sen
Adam begins to read from his book: for a few minutes, we are transported to a world where minds and landscapes mix and merge seamlessly, inseparably. It is indeed a different kind of realism that can carry one to a different kind of reality within a few written words. Mr Chaudhuri continues the illusion: his writing echoes something I’d been thinking about the characters of Downton Abbey (do they encounter gastric troubles in their lives of finesse and dances?) very recently, and I can’t help but grin. The reading ends; my applause is resounding and heartfelt.
Poetry pops its head up: Adam talks about his grappling with the medium to express, in a “stripped-down, Classical” way, the experiences of his protagonist Tom in “The Broken World”. Amit Chaudhuri points out that in India, literary studies is social-studies-oriented rather than focused on the very language, its twists and turns and techniques, which is why Anglophone Indians often struggle to find a literary language to express their literature in. I’m stunned to find someone expressing a feeling I experienced last July; I realise the only reason I no longer think the same is a kind of Stockholm-syndrome like acceptance of the situation. I’m feeling a little sad that I might never find the confidence to express myself through literature either, and creative writing takes its place as part of the conversation on stage. Adam encourages one to deal with the “philosophical” side of writing: to think about the ideas of creating a work of art, filled with “luminosity” and make it into something people might want to read, He says that the benefits of sharing other people’s intelligence are many, while Amit points out the studying literature can never be a “subterfuge” to be a “published writer”. Creative writing and “theoretical” thinking about literature need not necessarily be incompatible with each other, he says. The Question and Answer session arrives.
I squeeze in a question (“Has Indian writing in English found its own place on the world stage, or does it still carry the baggage of its parent literary tradition?”) and Amit Chaudhuri himself answers. I can feel my insides melting, but I glean the essence of the words right before I have a blackout. The audience cheers wildly, the speakers take metaphorical bows and the session ends.
PS: I SPOKE WITH AMIT CHAUDHURI. AT LENGTH. (I really, really want to address him as Professor but I’m not sure if that is appropriate or not D:) More on that conversation soon!