NEHA KIRPAL interviews CHANDRAHAS CHOUDHURY
Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and columnist based in New Delhi. His first novel Arzee the Dwarf was shortlisted for the Commonwealth First Book Prize and chosen by World Literature Today as one of “60 Essential English-Language Works of Modern Indian Literature.” Choudhury is also the editor of India: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.
Released by Simon & Schuster this year, Clouds is Choudhury’s second novel. While fictional, the book weaves in topical themes of religion, democracy, and politics in India.
Via email, Neha Kirpal recently spoke with Choudhury about the people and places that influenced Clouds’ narrative and characters, his obsession with clouds, and a recent mango trail he undertook across the subcontinent.
Neha Kirpal (NK): While your first novel Arzee the Dwarf was written entirely in Bombay, your latest book Clouds was written mostly on the road over a span of eight years. Where did you write it? Were you working on it continuously?
Chandrahas Choudhury (CC): Yes, I was working on Clouds continuously between 2009 and 2017. But I also had much more journalistic work than I did while I was writing Arzee the Dwarf—a weekly column for Bloomberg View, and also work as the Fiction & Poetry editor of The Caravan, amounting to about 80 pieces of writing a year and a deadline every five days, not to mention editing work and lectures at universities. Somehow the years just rolled by without me noticing it and 2009 became 2010, 2010 turned into 2011, and so on until 2015 which is when I finished work on the book.
Clouds was written in Bombay, Delhi, Bhubaneswar, Iowa, Shanghai, upstate New York, Copenhagen, and Hoechon village in South Korea. Even the final edits were done when I was on a lecture tour last October and I revised the book in several places. The only time I gave the text a rest was in 2016, when I began work on something new while waiting on submissions of the manuscript.
When working out of so many (admittedly stimulating) places, it’s important to keep some continuity and discipline, and my usual practice everywhere was, and still is, to find the nearest café every morning and sit down to work for three hours.
NK: You write that a writer is “no more than a humble boatman on life’s river, developing a narrative vision and worldly philosophy from the people who give him something of themselves and become clouds that are always drifting in his sky.” How have the writing residencies and institutions you’ve attended as you’ve traveled, or the people you met in them, influenced Cloud’s narrative?
CC: Perhaps not exactly the narrative (about which I had quite a clear vision from 2010 onwards), but of course the notes and tunes of my own life. I like being in the company of other writers and there’s so much I’ve picked up about work and life over this decade from other people in the trade from around the world.
There is no direct, simple relationship between writing and life. All the places I’ve been to and people I’ve met are part of who I am today and what I write. But yes, in the dedications page of the book there is the name of the great novelist in Hebrew, Ofir Touche Gafla, whom I met on my first-ever residency in Iowa City in 2010. He is a foundational figure in my adult life and perhaps the person I most love spending time with in this world. We try to get together once every year to walk around a city and talk novels, films, art, life, memory, for a week.
Separately, at a very difficult time in my life in the fall of 2013, I spent six very peaceful weeks at Ledig House, upstate New York, where after years of being unable to make a breakthrough on the Rabi side of the book, I suddenly hunkered down and wrote out several chapters of that story.
NK: How much is the book’s main protagonist, Dr Farhad Billimoria, inspired by you in real life?
CC: This kind of approach to art has exhausted itself. Why not turn the question around for once, and see if it sheds any light on the process of creation? As soon as you invent a protagonist with whom you live for several years, the character influences your life and thought as much as you write him or her. I think that if anything, my own perspective may have become more Farhadian over this decade, especially in the realms of making silly puns and making jokes about myself.
But something we had in common at the beginning of the journey, and which I transferred from myself into him, was a sudden sense of freedom and pleasure in the world, and what that feeling does to your language and your mind—it makes it bubble, hum, throw off sparks and become a source of pleasure in its own right. Also, perhaps [we had in common] a love of the energy and possibilities of American rather than British English (which in the book also becomes a metaphor for Farhad’s resistance to India, and a source of complete contrast to the language of characters as widely disparate as Hemlata and Rabi). Arzee the Dwarf, my first novel, has a much more ornate, “English” style.
While we’re on Farhad, here’s a video of Naseeruddin Shah reading the opening section of Farhad’s story at the Bombay launch of Clouds. As you can see, Naseer can become Farhad too! Human personality is endlessly plastic, but we forget this, which is one very good reason to write and read novels.
NK: In Clouds, you have invented various words and phrases associated with ‘clouds’—“Cloud Mountain”, “Cloudmaker”, “Cloudmother”, “Cloudbrothers”, “Cloudlight”, “Cloudymaker”, “Cloud Messenger”, “mood-clouds”, “cloudygrace”, “cloud museum”, “cloud tribe”, “cloud machine”, “birthday clouds”, “the philosophy of clouds”, “the science of clouds”, and so forth. Quoting another phrase from the book, do you “love clouds, dream clouds, worship clouds”? Tell our readers more about your obsession with them.
CC: Thanks for noticing all of these compounds and neologisms—I hadn’t realized there were so many. I tell the story of my obsession with clouds in an essay I wrote recently called “Lost In The Clouds”. In it I write, “Could the theme of clouds be related to the nature of human thought itself, which, too, drifts slowly and mysteriously in an exuberant and ceaseless superabundance in the skies of the mind?”
I’ve always felt that clouds are one of the great riches of the world, and equally available to everybody, rich and poor. We might fight unstintingly for control of the resources of this planet, but so far at least nobody has been able to deny someone else the spectacle of clouds—unless of course we destroy our planet through climate change, which is one of the themes of the book. And to an artist, the superabundance of cloud forms in the skies suggests that artistic creation, too, has infinite possibilities for formal invention, shading, and layering.
When it came to inventing a god for the displaced Odia people of the novel, I thought of inventing a god called Cloudmaker, a god of freedom and pleasure and transience. This was also because I didn’t want the story to be merely a documentary, or earthly, record of mining politics and resistance movements in India. I wanted readers to personally experience the religious ecstasy that would be lost if Cloudmaker dies. In July, I made another little experiment with cloud stories by setting up a cloud-crowdsourcing contest with my publisher, Simon & Schuster. You can see the results of it by going onto Twitter and typing in the hashtag #Cloudmaker.
NK: The book is almost like two novels in one, with two parallel stories running simultaneously. The two stories, while unrelated, serve to draw a contrast between a rural, traditional India and one that is modern, urban and cosmopolitan at the same time. Was that your intention? If so, what did you hope to illustrate by showing these contrasting realities?
CC: I don’t think that having two separate cloud stories make it “like two novels in one”. As my life expanded in my thirties, so, I found, did my sense of novelistic structure and possibility. I began to wonder: Why did Clouds have to be a story with a single, conventional narrative line? Could one cloud story be focused on love and sex and the private life of human beings, the other about religion and politics and the unfolding shape of Indian history? Within the broad frame of realism, was there room for another kind of storytelling, of a plummet into the world of myth and religious ecstasy? Could I give readers a sense of the cosmopolitan and regional imagination in India—and the power and limitations of each kind of perception—in the same book, so that they could take away meanings from the story that the characters themselves couldn’t?
Briefly, each age of history demands changes from the aesthetic forms, such as the novel, or painting, or music that respond to it. Clouds is my attempt to trace the various kinds of thinking at work in India today, and to do new things with the Indian novel whose baton I inherit, without throwing ALL these elements into ONE big khichdi of a “great Indian novel” kind of story, which would have spoiled the effect.
I wrote a lot of the Farhad story first, then the first half of the Rabi story before writing the second half of both sides together, one chapter a month on one side and then one chapter on the other.
NK: In the chapter where Farhad, his love interest Zahra and her uncle are driving to Udvada, they discuss their pro-and anti- views on the present Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. How does their debate map onto current political divisions with regard to Prime Minister Narendra Modi? What did you hope to achieve by illuminating these divisions?
CC: I’m hoping that readers will be able to intuit that. But the rhetorical aspects of politics interest me a great deal because of what they have in common with writing and communication. And very little about the political aspect of the scene is invented. Modi’s words are based on a speech actually given by Modi in 2011 on the occasion at Udvada that the characters are driving to. And at the time I felt it illuminated many things about his personality and his politics (including of course, his oratorical skill) and also show up the defects that have slowly become visible since 2014.
And as one half of Clouds is about contemporary India seen through a Parsi gaze, it made narrative sense to bring in the most powerful man in today’s India at the point where his path intersected with that of the Parsi community and he was called upon to meditate on the history of the Zoroastrians in India.
NK: According to you, the book is about two Indian landscapes and mindscapes that are closest to your heart: Bombay and Odisha. Ironically, your two main protagonists, though forging their own paths in Bombay, yearn for other places. What do these places symbolize in contemporary India? What is your personal relationship with Bombay and Bhubaneswar—the former being the city where your literary career was kick-started, and the other your hometown?
CC: Bhubaneswar is a more late-arriving presence in my life, from the growing awareness as I exited my twenties that it was not enough just to be an English-and-Hindi and Odia-speaking Indian if Odia was to be only the third-most important entity on that list, and many of the real narrative and emotional riches available to me lay hidden in the life and landscape of the state from which my parents come.
I’d say my life today is a dialogue between the three cities to which I have an allegiance: Delhi, Bombay and Bhubaneswar. But as regards the yearnings of my protagonists for other places, it’s because Bombay is often such a narrow and stifling place.
NK: There’s a whole chapter in the book dedicated to a reading of one of Amitav Ghosh’s books River of Smoke. Why this book of Ghosh’s, in particular? Has he been influential for you as a writer?
CC: Is there any Indian novelist today who hasn’t gained pleasure or profit from Ghosh’s work? But you’ll remember that Clouds is a book one of whose themes is the place of books themselves in human life as agents of rethinking or change, and so Ghosh’s book is part of this layer. I chose it partly because it has some Parsi material in it, and also because I could set up a scene in which Farhad feels jealous of him.
River of Smoke is also my favorite book in the Ibis trilogy, partly because of the beauty and emotion of the Chinese sections. I think the trilogy itself is a kind of gold standard of the Indian novel for its linguistic exuberance, narrative zest, and light-footedness and sagacity on the idea of history and how it unfolds. I often quote from it in a lecture I give called “The Indian Novel as an Agent of History”.
NK: What happens next for Dr Billimoria? Are you contemplating a sequel about his life in San Francisco?
CC: A good question. Actually, I am! It’d be great to carry the story forward after living with him for so many years. Even Farhad knows there are more Farhads left in him yet. He told me as much only yesterday.
NK: Which are your personal favorite lines or extracts from the book?
CC: From the philosophy of the Cloud people: “Man’s best self hangs above him, like a cloud.”
From Farhad: “San Francisco was the capital of clouds (as Bombay was the capital of clods)”
NK: You recently wrote for The Wall Street Journal about the great variety of mangoes throughout India. What is your enduring memory of the recent mango trip you took across the provinces of this country? Do you think that India’s love for mangoes unites its different ethnicities, regions and religions, or is that only a cliché?
CC: No, I don’t think that that would be a promising line of argument. I’d say that rather than being a point of unification, India’s mangoes are an example of India’s diversity… and therefore, a metaphor of the pleasures of human diversity. My best memory from the 16–day trip was the discovery of so many Indian mangoes I’d never previously eaten.
And there are more still to be discovered. Now that is a meaning to take away from mangoes about the riches of our country.
Chandrahas Choudhury’s book Clouds was released by Simon & Schuster India in January this year.
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer living and working in New Delhi.
Headshot credit: Victoria Burrows