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Amit Chaudhuri and the freedom of plotlessness

Amit Chaudhuri’s latest novel, Sojourn, is an exploration of belonging, home and displacement

The Brandenburg Gate is one of the most iconic landmarks of Berlin, the city where the unnamed protagonist, an academic, arrives as a visiting professor.
The Brandenburg Gate is one of the most iconic landmarks of Berlin, the city where the unnamed protagonist, an academic, arrives as a visiting professor. (iStockphoto)

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A line in Amit Chaudhuri’s new novel has the unnamed protagonist saying he “woke up to words and didn’t bother with the language”. Sojourn is only 136 pages long but it is thoughts like these that make its quality a toss-up between vague and complex. This also makes it both interesting and unsatisfying.

One gets the sense that the latter isn’t necessarily a bad word for Chaudhuri, who has been aware of this quality to his work since his 1991 debut novel, A Strange And Sublime Address. Sample this bit from it: “And yet the story would never be a satisfying one, because the writer...would be too caught up in jotting down the irrelevances and digressions that make up lives...rather than a good story— till the reader would shout ‘Come to the point!’—and there would be no point…”

But there is a point to his preoccupations—Sojourn, like most of his work, is an exploration of belonging and home, and, this time, it is specifically about the loss that the self experiences as a historical being. As times change, so do sociopolitical and economic realities. How does a person born into, or one who grows up in, one point of history understand or handle this change in another epoch?

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This underlying concern in his oeuvre is notable. In his 2017 novel, Friend Of My Youth, the protagonist says, “I’m undecided about the time we live in.” In Odysseus Abroad, his 2014 novel, a 20-something Bengali wanders around London with his uncle, thinking of the geographical and emotional nature of belonging. Sojourn too allows for such thematic concerns.

It could seem that Chaudhuri’s preoccupations are becoming repetitive. But while there are incremental improvements to thought, there is also a case to make for a meta-comment on the iterative nature of meaning-seeking, and life itself. There is no denying the poignancy in thought or the artfulness of sentences: Sojourn is most enjoyable and meaningful when read as a flâneuristic account of displacement, with vignette-like observations.

The unnamed protagonist, an academic, arrives in Berlin as a visiting professor and meets Faqrul, a Bangladeshi Muslim poet living in exile, and Birgit, a woman to whom he is attracted. He develops a comfortable, if linguistically incompatible, domesticity with a cleaning lady named Gerta and strikes a friendship of sorts with Geeta Roy, another Indian-origin academic, and her white husband.

Throughout, though, there is a sense of detachment. Like a person who has been displaced and exiled many times over—a lot of us are, whether emotionally, politically, socially or geographically, and, as Chaudhuri would specifically bemoan, even from our own histories—the protagonist tends to be okay with finding home, intimacy and belonging in fleeting moments in his present. For times when the anxiety of being unmoored coexists with an aversion to being defined (or worse, boxed), this is the best-case scenario. Edited excerpts from an interview with the author:

The first, most obvious thing to talk about is the plotlessness of your work.

It’s not that I aim not to have a plot but I find other things more interesting. I like plotlessness in that sense because it frees things up, it allows me to look at things which plot marginalises; and in the conventional sense, what is often marginalised by a plot or story is life. In stories that are directed by a plot, other things…get marginalised in pursuing the story of what happens with the protagonist.

You write that we “have an appetite for home as flies do for food”. It seems like home is a place we don’t ever fully have but also, as you write, “find unerringly”. Can you reconcile this ?

Home here connects to history and politics but not in the usual way that these relate to the novel or to the idea of home. One part of history and politics that we don’t talk about is what it means to live in a globalised world which has emerged from the dualities and options and range of experiences that a particular world—of a place of both socialism and capitalism—offered to us.

What I am looking at is a person who has been made homeless by having fallen off from that world, because that world ceased to exist. But by undertaking one’s daily life in Berlin, by taking trains, by walking streets, one feels that the separation between the post-globalised and pre-globalised world is wavering; that it even might be illusory; that you might at certain moments, in certain cities, and certain parts of the world, not just re-live, but, as it were, inhabit history again.

You might be in a state of slight confusion at that point but in a way that doesn’t disturb you—like the protagonist’s loss of memory, which causes no anxiety. He’s exploring his space, in which the fall of the Berlin Wall, the markers that separate the immediate past, the historical past and its politics from the present, are becoming irrelevant. Which is why he is in a state of exploration rather than anxiety.

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You say one can find or inhabit one’s formative histories in parts of any city. What is it about these moments that takes you back to a certain point of belonging?

It’s difficult for me to bring to my consciousness right now what is only part of a kind of semi-conscious experience or intimation. But I believe history can be accessed and experienced through these semi-conscious moments which open out into an epoch—and these can be quite ordinary moments. It could be that we have led multiple lives without knowing it, in separate narratives, not only in our history but in histories in different places, which are secretly joined.

The protagonist watches a German show he doesn’t understand “just as one might look out a window”. He seems to be looking at his own life, too, like this. Some might say this is dissociation and others, that it’s the wisest way to live. What does a character like this achieve in the context of everything you have said—and what of readers who do not share the history you are talking about?

I am interested in exploring what it means to be at ease with, and be illuminated by, what one doesn’t understand; to not be anxious about that and to almost take it as natural. That is happening, maybe not in a conventional sense (say, of understanding the language)…. I want to share this experience with the reader, where (they are) also content not to understand (for example, what Gerta is saying in) German. I wanted to do this for us to be comfortable with the idea of becoming familiar with something— knowing...doesn’t only come through the ways in which we think it does.

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The book notes that Faqrul, the poet in exile, has an enthusiasm for exaggeration. At the same time, “to access history in this way you had to access him”. Why would you want history in this way at all?

That’s the kind of question, or the realm of possibility, the novel is exploring: not history necessarily as exaggeration or untruth, but having access to it in new and fresh ways without even realising it. It is part of the unfolding of moments and their proximity to history that this novel is looking at.These are all happening at that point of time, which includes Faqrul, his tall tales, an experience of something, the loss of memory, and sense of intimacy. All of these are showing us that we have to then dispense with what we know already about how history comes to us…in order to understand the story of how we feel and experience something we ostensibly call foreign.

Sojourn, by Amit Chaudhuri, published by Penguin Random House India, 136 pages, Rs. 499. Available on pre-order, it’s out early September.

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