About Amit Chaudhuri
‘What a headache Amit Chaudhuri must be for his publishers’: see below for Guardian editorial: ‘In praise of … Amit Chaudhuri’, editorial in the Guardian, Thursday July 31 2008 In praise of … Amit Chaudhuri
“The best living writer of the English sentence."
– Aditya Chakrabortty on A Good Read, BBC Radio 4
“His novels are the most internal, psychological, delicately written, introspective of all the contemporary Indian novelists. He’s a great prose stylist; he writes the novels that Virginia Woolf would have written had she grown up in India."
– Wendy Doniger
“What I think of the work of this man is that we hear a lot now [of], and we have modules here on, postcolonial literature; and we live, in a sense – as we’ve seen with the recent referendum vote – [in a time] where identity politics seems to be on the rise, and taking a certain kind of form in our culture. And I think that what Amit’s work does is to really bust a lot of those paradigms. This is not work that comfortably sits in the ‘postcolonial thing’ or anything like that. What I think his work represents – and he’s a very fine novelist indeed and an extremely fine essayist and thinker about literature – what his work exemplifies is somebody who views the canon as everything; that there isn’t a form of canonical literature that makes you cleave to one culture or another. There’s a marvellous fragment by Borges called ‘Kafka and his Precursors’, and I think Amit is a writer like that – Amit is a writer who emerges with such force and power in his thought about ‘here’ and ‘there’, about the ‘other’ and what ‘identity’ is, that he creates an affinity between other writers that you weren’t aware of having existed before. So he’s a kind of primus inter pares."
– Will self at the Hillingdon Literary Festival, 2016
Amit Chaudhuri was born in Calcutta in 1962 and grew up in Bombay. He was a student at the Cathedral and John Connon School, Bombay, took his first degree in English from University College London, and wrote his doctoral dissertation on D H Lawrence’s poetry at Balliol College, Oxford. He is married to Rosinka Chaudhuri, and they have one daughter, Aruna. His father, Nages Chandra Chaudhuri, was the first Indian CEO of Britannia Industries, and his mother, Bijoya Chaudhuri, was one of the greatest exponents of Tagore songs of her generation.
He is the author of seven novels, the latest of which is Friend of My Youth. His first major work of non-fiction, Calcutta: Two Years in the City, was published in 2013. His second work of non-fiction, Finding the Raga, is a critical meditation on North Indian classical music and his discovery of, and relationship with, this tradition. His first book of critical essays, the influential Clearing a Space, was published in 2008. His second book of essays, Telling Tales, was published in the UK and India in August 2013. His third book of essays, The Origins of Dislike, in which he again explores the intersection between criticism and memory, and his understanding of literary and cultural traditions, was published in 2019.
Jonathan Coe in the London Review of Books has said that ‘Chaudhuri has already proved that he can write better than just about anybody of his generation’, the Guardian called him ‘one of his generation’s best writers’, the Village Voice said he was ‘one of the most talented and versatile writers of his generation’, and, according to the Boston Globe, ‘In the gloriously crowded world of modern Indian fiction, Amit Chaudhuri stands out as a master craftsman who, with exquisite wit and grace, can depict a rapidly changing India in a single life and an entire life in a single detail.’ The critic Eileen Battersby said in the Irish Times: ‘Even in the context of contemporary Indian writing in English, much of which is outstanding, Chaudhuri is the best’. In the Guardian, Neel Mukherjee observed: ‘Chaudhuri has been pushing away at form, trying to make something new of the novel’.
The critic James Wood has commented on Chaudhuri’s ‘radiantly exact’ prose (the Guardian) and pointed out that ‘Chaudhuri has made the best case for his aesthetic preferences in his own measured, subtle, light-footed fiction’ (New Yorker, 2015).In his introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of Afternoon Raag, Wood said: ‘Decades before “autofiction” would become (at least in the Anglo-American realm) the favoured, modish escape from the strictures of traditional realism, and decades before Karl Ove Knausgaard was using his own life for an exhaustive examination of the mundane, Chaudhuri was quietly practising his idiosyncratic version of “a refutation of the spectacular.”’
Among the prizes he has won for his fiction are the Commonwealth Literature Prize, the Betty Trask award, the Encore Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, and the Indian government’s Sahitya Akademi Award. In 2012, he was awarded the West Bengal government’s Rabindra Puraskar for his book On Tagore. Also in 2012, he was awarded the inaugural Infosys Prize in the Humanities for outstanding contribution to Literary Studies.
His first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, is included in Colm Toibin and Carmen Callil’s The Modern Library: The Two Hundred Best Novels of the Last Fifty Years. It was published in a special 25th anniversary edition in 2016 by Penguin Random House India with a foreword by Colm Toibin. His second novel, Afternoon Raag, was on Anne Enright’s list of 10 Best Short Novels in the Guardian. Its 25th anniversary edition was published in 2019 with a new introduction by James Wood. He has been Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia from 2014, and is now also Professor of Creative Writing at Ashoka University.
Chaudhuri is an influential editor: of the Picador/ Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature(2002); of Memory’s Gold: Writings on Calcutta (2008); and Literary Activism: Perspectives (2017).
He has three books of poetry, St Cyril Road and other poems (2005), Sweet Shop (2018), and Ramanujan (2021).
Chaudhuri is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, an Honorary Fellow of the Modern Language Association of America, and an honorary fellow of Balliol College, Oxford. He was Annual Visiting Fellow at University College, London in 2019, and an inaugural fellow at the Columbia Institute of Ideas and Imagination, 2018-19. Earlier, he was Creative Arts Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford, 1992-95, and Samuel Fischer Guest Professor in Berlin in 2005-6.
He was a judge of the Man Booker International Prize in 2009. In 2008, a Guardian editorial about him appeared in the newspaper’s ‘In Praise of…’ series, the first time an Indian writer was so honoured. In its editorial, the Guardian called him ‘a publisher’s nightmare’ for his readiness to now and again abandon fiction and work across genres.
Contribution to Criticism
Amit Chaudhuri is one of the most influential critics of his generation. His monograph, D H Lawrence and ‘Difference’, was called a ‘classic’ by Tom Paulin in his preface to the book, and a ‘path-breaking work’ by Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books. His book of critical essays, Clearing a Space, was called the ‘best work of criticism by an Indian’ by Caravan magazine, India’s leading journal of the ideas. In 2013, he became the first person to be awarded the Infosys Prize for outstanding contribution to the humanities in Literary Studies, from a jury comprising Amartya Sen, the philosopher AkeelBilgrami (Columbia University), the critic Homi Bhabha (Harvard), the South Asia scholar Sheldon Pollock (Columbia), former Indian chief justice Leila Seth, and the legal thinker Upendra Baxi (Warwick).
In his congratulatory address, Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winner and jury chair of the first Infosys Prize for the Humanities, said: ‘He is of course a remarkable intellectual with a great record of literary writing showing a level of sensibility as well as a kind of quiet humanity which is quite rare. It really is quite extraordinary that someone could have had that kind of range that Amit Chaudhuri has in terms of his work and it could be so consistently of the highest quality.’ Chaudhuri is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Fellow of the English Association, and was a judge of the Man Booker International Prize.
Forms of Activism
Calcutta Architectural Legacies
Amit Chaudhuri has been engaged in two forms of activism. The first has to do with Calcutta’s architectural inheritance and the importance of buildings outside the ‘heritage’ list. Chaudhuri’s writings and work on this matter challenge, in fact, the notion of heritage. He and other like-minded people have come together as a group, Calcutta Architectural Legacies, whose website can be seen here: cal-legacies.com
Chaudhuri’s ideas, and the aims of his campaign, are stated in this article:
From 2014, Chaudhuri has organised a series of annual symposiums in India and other parts of the world to explore the literary in the present-day world, and create a space for discussion that is distinct from either the literary festival or the academic conference, a space that the cultural studies and literary commentator Simon During called a necessary ‘quasi-academic space’, and the philosopher Simon Glendinning named ‘a space for misfits’. The manifesto for ‘literary activism’ can be read here, at literaryactivism.com, edited by Chaudhuri: