Friend of My Youth (2017)
- 'I think of Ramu. The Ramu I know and the Ramu I'm writing about have become indistinguishable. The same's true of the Bombay I'm recounting from experience and the Bombay I'm assembling through words. This is often how novels begin for me. There's a convergence. I live. Then something prompts me to write. The writing is not about life. It is a form of living. The two happen simultaneously.
- It's a well-known fact that no novel is taken seriously in India until a good deal of research has gone into it. This stay in the Taj will be my research. Going down the stairs will be research. So will looking out at the sea.
- There must be other leaps in life - as momentous as the "mirror stage" - that Lacan didn't mention. Some are universal; others, culturally particular. To understand that your parents are human (and not an element of the natural world), that they're separate from you, that they were children once, that they were born and came into the world, is another leap. It's as if you hadn't seen who they were earlier - just as, before you were ten months old, you didn't know it was you in the mirror. This happens when you're sixteen or seventeen. Not long after - maybe a year - you find out your parents will die. It's not as if you haven't encountered death already. But, before now, your precocious mind can't accommodate your parents' death except as an academic nicety - to be dismissed gently as too literary and sentimental. After that day, your parents' dying suddenly becomes simple. It grows clear that you're alone and always have been, though certain convergences start to look miraculous - for instance, between your father, mother, and yourself. Though your parents don't die immediately - what you've had is a realisation, not a premonition - you'll carry around this knowledge for their remaining decades or years. You won't think, looking at them, "You're going to die". It'll be an unspoken fact of existence. Nothing about them will surprise you anymore.
- I lie back. They've "refurbished" the room. I loathe the word, its blunt sound (as if someone with a cold were trying to say "furnished"), and don't say it without irony.
- The eye covers distances in a second. It lusts for freedom. Looking out, I often wanted to be free - not of home, but of the city. The eye (if it's gazing upon something it's unhappy with, as I was) might see nothing. Looking up is different. I have the freedom I then wanted.
- Frame after aluminium frame had replaced the casements. The gesture by which you push a window open was now unnecessary. ... It was as if a part of us that was air and breeze had been denied entry.
- I ... take a selfie with him; two, to be safe. My lips are parted, as if I'm poking a dead thing to see if it'll come to life; it's the phone I'm attempting to keep at a distance. He's smiling faintly, as if amuse by some exotic piece of wildlife.
- I'm undecided about the time we live in. This ongoing passage to oblivion. The disappearance of things you took for granted. Then there's the renaissance of things you never knew of, or presumed you'd never see again.
- Only drunks stare at statues .... I never liked the statues keeping vigil, primarily because they were too close to life.
- Mahadev Govind Ranade. Leaving aside his air of self-importance, he looks marginally foreign, as all statues do.
- This is what's beautiful about staying in a club or hotel: you're invisible, as is your neighbour.
- He has a traditional shopper's DNA, an eye for freshness and appearance, and a consistent sense of a home to go back to.
- History is always lying before you, unnoticed: till you suddenly see it, as we do now.
- I love churches in Bombay...they make me think of shadow. Of footfall on stone. In England, churches preside over their habitat till they're gratuitous.
- Each view has a history. You sense you're where others have been.
- At the conclusion of Hollywood disaster movies and epics, time moves backward, piecing together like a jigsaw the elements that had come apart. The Titanic resumes its journey; Russell Crowe is reunited with his murdered wife and son. It's not a happy ending; it's a convention created for the purposes of an impossible sense of uplift at the end of death and tragedy: the happy beginning. Technology makes Hades unnecessary.
- Some books I buy for their title, others for brevity. I love short books - the way you know from the first page that it's going to end.
- I treat vegetarianism as a phase that might any second end without warning.
- ... "shagging" - a quasi-comical activity, like belching or farting, except it was more taboo and more necessary than these.
- Photographers are the new Brahmins: we have no volition when they rule us.
- An hour's a symbolic duration.
- Fantasists aren't natural readers. They grow restive easily.
Odysseus Abroad (2014)
- The dull pulse-like beat started at eleven o’clock at night. It was a new kind of music called ‘rap’. It baffled Ananda even more than disco. He had puzzled and puzzled over why people would want to listen and even move their bodies to an angry, insistent onrush of words – words that rhymed, apparently, but had no echo or afterlife. It was as if they were an extension of the body: never had words sounded so alarmingly physical, and pure physicality lacks empathy, it’s machine-like.
- History was what had happened; class was something you read about in a book.
- Class was what formed you, but didn’t travel to other cultures – it became invisible abroad. In foreign places, you were singled out by religion and race, but not class, which was more indecipherable than any other mother tongue. He’d learnt that not only were light, language, and weather contingent – class was too.
- The Roman Catholic portrait at the reception of the Indian YMCA displayed the generic Christ, the timorous, blonde-haired, blue-eyed face upturned to the heavens, a lost middle-class student searching for guidance in an inhospitable world.
Calcutta: Two Years in The City (2013)
- ‘Calcutta has still not recovered from history: people mourn the past, and abhor it deeply.’
- ‘Afternoon’s the most dreamless and introspective time of day, a sort of midnight of the daytime ...’
- ‘... I sensed that Park Street is, essentially (even for the destitute), a place of brief acquaintances and meetings no one has too much time for anyone else, you yourself are part of a web of motivations that are fading and resurrecting – and you must be on the move constantly to be in the street’s ebb and flow of traffic.’
- ‘This is a little parable about cities and genres; how, while some of them lose their imaginative centrality, others take their place.’
- ‘Its (the Left’s) intensity derives from the fact that it’s a family largely composed of, in a manner of speaking, orphans of bhadralok history (for we hardly hear of the mothers and fathers of party members), brought together not by accident but by idealism and its cousin, ideology. Bonds of orphanhood and kinship are particularly charged (as Kipling showed us in The Jungle Book) when they are self-created, and each party member is probably a bit of everything – mother, father, sibling, friend – to every other member.’
- ‘All foreign food is doomed to be consumed in India not so much by Indians as by a voracious Indian sensibility, which demands infinite versions of Indian food, and is unmoved by difference.’
- ‘Shaped by student life in England, my wife and I are aghast at this frenetic sociability before the new weeks begins, this almost philistine uncaringness for the idea of Monday morning.’
- (Tagore is) 'making a statement of fact, just as the remembered lines from a child’s primer (jal pare/pata nare’; rain falls/the leaf trembles) that first drew Tagore to poetry state a fact. Here, Tagore seems to be telling us that no afflatus or elaboration is necessary, because the world is at its most compelling as it is.’
- ‘The intention (of the puja pandals) is not so much to entertain as to disorient and astonish; to tap into the Bengali’s appetite for the bizarre, the uncanny.’
- ‘The myth of the Pujas is a simple one – full of rural sweetness. ... The Pujas are, in part, an ever-returning homage to that magical sense of being rescued, so indispensable to children.’
- ‘... the Bengali was the Marwari of the early nineteenth century.’
- ‘Writers don’t so much write about their own lives as create them, Barthes said; it’s an oddly modern idea. Bengalis, similarly, had to make their own history. They did it in houses, tenements, and in neighbourhoods connected by stifling alleys that are no wider than a small room ... And this is why I feel, even now, that the most revealing places in Calcutta are not the museums or the great monuments ... but the houses and lanes in which people live.’
- ‘... the world’s cheapest small car, Tata’s Nano, worth only $1500. This toy-like ill-fated vehicle, whose destiny it was to look as if it had been prematurely brought into the world, more foetus than car, and whose birth was near abortive and then indefinitely delayed, this car, when it finally took to the road, turned out to have an engine that at times exploded mysteriously. Until 2009, it was seen to be Bengal’s quirky but irreplaceable mascot for development.’
On Tagore: Reading the Poet Today (2012)
- Tagore claims that the first time he experienced the thrill of poetry was when he encountered the children’s rhyme ‘Jal pare/pata nare’ (‘Rain falls / The leaf trembles') in Iswarchandra Vidyasagar’s Bengali primer Barna Parichay (Introducing the Alphabet). There are at least two revealing things about this citation. The first is that, as Bengali scholars have remarked, Tagore’s memory, and predilection, lead him to misquote and rewrite the lines. The actual rhyme is in sadhu bhasha, or ‘high’ Bengali: ‘Jal paritechhe / pata naritechhe’ (‘Rain falleth / the leaf trembleth’). This is precisely the sort of diction that Tagore chose for the English Gitanjali, which, with its thees and thous, has so tried our patience. Yet, as a Bengali poet, Tagore’s instinct was to simplify, and to draw language closer to speech. The other reason the lines of the rhyme are noteworthy, especially with regard to Tagore, is – despite their deceptively logical progression – their non-consecutive character. ‘Rain falls’ and ‘the leaf trembles’ are two independent, stand-alone observations: they don’t necessarily have to follow each other. It’s a feature of poetry commented upon by William Empson in Some Versions of Pastoral: that it’s a genre that can get away with seamlessly joining two lines which are linked, otherwise, tenuously.
The Immortals (2009)
- ‘The car horns created an anxious music, discordant but not indifferent.’
- ‘And his talent became a problematic responsibility he did not know what to do with; it was as if, having given so much to his gift – hard work, practice – he wanted something in return; and not having got that “something”, whatever it might be, he had decided to punish both himself and everyone around him.’
- ‘Motilalji began to hum with a sour expression on his face, as if he was never on holiday from his talent and vocation, and resented the fact ...’
- ‘... he sang with his eyes squeezed tight, as if he were dropping from a great height.’
- ‘... a severe woman with a patient but unprevaricating gaze, who turned out to be Indira Gandhi.’
- ‘Gulp by gulp, in the air-conditioned study, he swallowed civilisation.’
Clearing a Space (2008)
- ‘Internationalism’ is a way of reading, and not a demography of readership ...’
- ‘By the second half of the nineteenth century, the importance of light and space as both metaphors or, and habitations for, the human self, or “the substance called the mind”, is absolute, especially with Tagore, who, in a letter in 1894 to his niece, would demand, not political freedom ... but “more light, more space”.’
- ‘The detective embodies, even more than the romantic drifter, rationality; this intriguing and apparent dichotomy pertains to a significant part of Bengali children’s literature as well – that ofen, especially in the proliferation of adventure, spy and mystery genres in Bengali in the first half of the twentieth century, children’s literature is not so much an escape from the humanist logos of ‘high’ literary practice, but a coming to its irreducible possibilities from a different direction.’
- ‘... the history of the “secular” as a cultural, humane, interstitial space in the midst of logos itself, has lost out to the idea of the “secular” as a fundamental manifestation of the rationality of the nation-state, just as the histories of modernity and cosmopolitanism in India have been subsumed, in our time, and for a variety of reasons, by a history of the nation.’
St Cyril Road and Other Poems (2005)
- ‘where the noon is a charged battery, and evening’s a visionary gloom’ ( St Cyril Road, Bombay )
- ‘I drifted past heliotropic rubbish-heaps, elderly/white houses.’ ( The Bandra Medical Store )
- ‘Never to have lived is best. And the second best/is to grow old with the morning into/afternoon, and then to evening, when sundry shadows and gestures marry/like the vanished divisions of a shut fan.’ ( St Cyril Road Sequence )
- ‘Light shafted obliquely on it.’ ( The Steamer )
- ‘To the far left, above your shoulder’s gentle/curve, like golden pods, the sodium vapour/lights in the naval dockyard ... And before us,/a continuous, unreal flare of fire defined/the horizon’s extremity, a stain on a brow.’ ( The Steamer )
- ‘As the sun came up, we/saw the leaves peer out, shivering.’ ( Letter from the Hills )
- ‘a speck of dust hanging/in a vertical wall of light.’ ( Letter from the Hills )
- ‘And the old homelovingness/of light falling and touching the black/utensils ...’ ( Kitchen )
- In the oldest, bunched houses with tottering stairs,
the Christians live, like prophets dedicated
to the cause of being obscure. The men with guitars,
the old women knitting ... all their lives, they've waited.
Here, lining the lane at systematic intervals,
the bruised bungalows squat with a wild beard of grass
in the gardens, and watered-down, twenty-watt bulbs
shine in the verandas. Around them, a mass
of tall coloured buildings rise, as each timid bungalow
is emptied, and Christians who lived behind those doors
generations together, now old as weed, sell their land
and property for drink. Their houses come down on all fours.
In their place, the large buildings burgeon with neat
rectangular gardens. I myself live in one.
But occasionally, I scan the lettering on those gates
-- Helen Villa, Rose Cottage -- ironically dark in the sun. (from St Cyril Road Sequence )
- These small freshwater fish
that are eaten whole -- head, tail,
backbone, not to speak of the flesh,
are fried in hot oil,
four or five held together
in a binding of chopped onions and flour
which apparently sews them together into islands
from which their crowded eyes stare like jewels. ( Morola Fry )
Small Orange Flags (2003)
- ‘... what I’ve tried to allow is for the essay to be a space in which the consciousness which reads poetry or remembers a line of poetry or listens to music or goes for a walk, is also the consciousness that is inflected and threatened and endangered by the political; is also the consciousness that registers and is permeated by the political. That somehow it is not a separate ... consciousness that is hiding behind the facade of the man who remembers a line of poetry or forgets it, but that it is the same consciousness in which these various things are coming in and going out.’
Real Time (2002)
- ‘I’m uncomfortable beginning at the beginning. It’s not because I’m clever, but because it’s a difficult thing, writing.’
- ‘This second time round, she’d discovered that to be happy was not so much a self-sufficient, spontaneous emotion, such as you might feel in relation to a dream or a secret, but a way of reacting to the rest of the world; that to be happy this time, she must curb the natural human instinct to look up at the sky, with its all-encompassing definition, and gaze towards the immediate ground and horizon, with its lack of shape, or abode, or clear ending.’
- ‘... the menu’s a delirious poem/on which the names of Moghlai and Punjabi and Parsi/
dishes – chicken korma, bhuna meat, dhansak –/ are placed in a proximity they’ll never be in elsewhere.’
A New World (2000)
- It never became so dark in the room in Claremont; some light, inquisitive and worldly, always entered through the curtains
- ‘This morning he’d discovered the bathroom light on, its lustre wasted in daylight.’
- There was a difference between his parents with regard to appliances; his father distrusted them as he would a rival; his mother had no confidence in using them, but none the less desired them.
- ... the cleverest way of battling the heat was not moving.
- There was a gulmohar tree in the lane, the flaming orange flowers erupting from within, and banyan trees, private and removed as ancient pilgrims.
Freedom Song (1998)
- The city was still .... Soon the machinery would start working again, not out of any sense of purpose, but like a watch that is wound daily by someone’s hand. Almost without any choice in the matter, people would embark upon the minute frustrations and satisfactions of their daily lives. It was in this moment of postponement that the azaan was heard, neither announcing the day nor keeping it a secret.
- There was a special purpose in these throws, for the readers of Ganashakti were fellow-travellers of the Communist party, they believed in its necessity and vision, and an inexplicable bond was formed between the distributor, whose every aim with the bundle seemed to be a salute, and the silent house.
- Tinkling sounds came from outside, of hammering and chiselling, as labourers worked like bees, and seven- or eight-storeyed buildings rose in the place of ancestral mansions that had been razed cruelly to the ground, climbing up like ladders through screens of dust. An old mansion opposite the veranda had been repainted white, to its last banister and pillar, so that it looked like a set of new teeth. ... In another sphere altogether, birds took off from a tree or parapet, or the roof of some rich Marwari’s house, startling and speckling the neutral sky. Not a moment was still or like another moment. In a window in a servants’ outhouse attached to a mansion – both the master’s house and the servants’ lost in a bond now anachronistic and buried – a light shone even at this time of the day, beacon of winter.
- When afternoon came to Vidyasagar Road, wet clothes ... hung from a clothesline which stretched from one side to another on the veranda of the first floor. The line, which had not been tightly drawn anyway, sagged with the pressure of the heavy wet clothes that dripped, from sleeves and trouser-ends, a curious grey water on to the floor, and, especially in the middle, one noticed the line curved downwards, as if a smile were forming.
Afternoon Raag (1993)
- Water begins to boil in the kettle; it starts as a private, secluded sound, pure as rain, and grows to a steady, solipsistic bubbling.
- ... my mother will settle on the rug and unclip the bellows, pulling and pushing them with a mild aquatic motion with her left hand, the fingers of the right hand flowering upon the keys, the wedding-bangle suspended around her wrist. Each time the bellows are pushed, the round holes on the back open and close like eyes. Without the body music is not possible; it provides the hollow space for resonance as does the curved wooden box of the violin or the round urn of the sitar. At the moment of singing, breath tips in the swelling diaphragm as water does in a pitcher. The voice-box itself is a microscopic harp, its cords tautening and relaxing with each inflection.
- The armchairs, with their flat, sedentary cushions, were designed for society, but the bed was made for solitude. It had a straitened and measured narrowness, an austere frame made to contain the curves of a single body, to circumscribe it, carry it, give it a place, and when I slept at night, I possessed it entirely.
- At the base of her ankle is a deep, ugly scar she got when a car ran over her foot when she was six years old. That was in a small town in Bangladesh. Thus, even today, she hesitates superstitiously before crossing the road, and is painfully shy of walking distances. Her fears make her laughable. The scar is printed on her skin like a radiant star.
- While reading the Times of India each morning, my father spares a minute for the cartoon by R. K. Laxman. While my mother is, like a magician, making untidy sheets disappear in the bedroom and producing fresh towels in the bathroom, or braving bad weather in the kitchen, my father, in the extraordinary Chinese calm of the drawing-room, is dmiring the cartoon by R. K. Laxman, and, if my mother happens to be there, unselfishly sharing it with her. She, as expected, misunderstands it completely, laughing not at the joke but at the expressions on the faces of the caricatures, and at the hilarious fact that they talk to each other like human beings.
- Years ago, my mother and I fell in love with Busybee’s voice, its calm, even tone, and a smile which was always audible in the language. My father, meanwhile, is clipping his nails fastidiously, letting them fall on to an old, spread-out copy of the Times of India, till he sneezes explosively, as he customarily does, sending the crescent-shaped nail-clippings flying into the universe.
- Her hair is troublesome and curly ... It falls in long, black strands, but each strand has a gentle, complicated undulation travelling through it, like a mild electric shock or a thrill, hat gives it a life of its own; it is visually analogous to a tremolo on a musical note.
A Strange and Sublime Address (1991)
- Calcutta is like a work of modern art that neither makes sense nor has utility, but exists for some esoteric aesthetic reason.
- Trenches and mounds of dust everywhere give the city a strange bombed-out look.
- The grown-ups snapped the chillies (each made a sound terse as a satirical retort), and scattered the tiny, deadly seeds in their food.
- On the big bed, Mamima and Sandeep’s mother began to dream, sprawled in vivid crab-like postures. His aunt lay on her stomach, her arms bent as if she were swimming to the edge of a lake; his mother lay on her back, her feet (one of which had a scar on it) arranged in the joyous pose of a dancer.
- Abhi, Babla and Sandeep slept like primeval creatures huddled on the island of the bed, close to the horizon, outwaiting the dawn that would bring the first thought to their heads. Their bodies slept with a pure detached love for every moment of sleep.
- The gutters in the lane overflowed with an odd, languid grace. Water filled the lane; rose from ankle-deep to knee-deep. Insects swam in circles. Urchins splashed about haphazardly, while Saraswati returned from market with a shopping-bag in her hands; insects swam away to avoid this clumsy giant. Her wet footprints printing the floor of the house were as rich with possibility as the first footprint Crusoe found on his island.
- She would sweep the floor – unending expanses, acres and acres of floor – with a short broom called the jhadu, swiping away the dust in an arc with its long tail, which reminded one of the drooping tail of some nameless, exotic bird.
- It seemed there was no democracy among children – always an aristocracy based on strength, intellect and seniority. But seniority counted most, because a boy of ten is bound to be stronger and cleverer than a boy of nine, having spent an extra year in the world, at a time when each year is like a precious deposit in a newly opened bank account. Among boys of the same age, there would be a silent tussle, a clean, honourable contest. Once a leader emerged, however, no elections were held.
- ... the floor was a stone slab of coolness, an expanse of warm ice that would not melt.
- There has been writing for 10 days now
unabated. People are anxious, fed up.
There is writing in Paris, in disaffected suburbs,
but also in small towns, and old ones like Lyon.
The writers have been burning cars; they've thrown
homemade Molotov cocktails at policemen.
Contrary to initial reports, the writers belong
to several communities: Algerian
and Caribbean, certainly, but also Romanian,
Polish, and even French. Some are incredibly
young: the youngest is thirteen.
They stand edgily on street corners, hardly
looking at each other. Longstanding neglect
and an absence of both authority and employment
have led to what are now ten nights of writing. ( The Writers )
- ‘... this refined language of Indian modernity – an Indian language that was actually first used as a first language by a home-grown cosmopolitan elite – enough to say, with or without humour, ‘Ami tomake bhalobashi’ (‘I love you’) or ‘Apni kothai thhaken?’ (‘Where do you live?). These stray statements performed an incantatory ‘open sesame’ – into the bounded, charmed, small-scale world of ‘Bengaliness’. The ‘honorary’ Bengali might be myopic; might be an aficionado of art-house cinema; might be politically left wing; might have taste for lyric poetry; a tendency towards the autobiographical; an appetite for fish; or display none of these traits.’ 
- ‘Calcutta, for me, was a particular idea of the modern city, and I found it in many forms, works, and genres. ... by ‘modernity’ I have in mind something that was never new. True modernity was born with the aura of inherited decay and life. ... if you look at paintings and photographs, and see old films of the city, you notice that these walls and buildings were never new – that Calcutta was born to look more or less as I saw it as a child. I’m not referring here to an air of timelessness; the patina that gave to Calcutta’s alleys, doorways, and houses their continuity and disposition is very different from the eternity that defines mausoleums and monuments. It’s this quality I’m trying to get at when I speak of modernity. ... modernity in the nineteenth century is indistinguishable from nature; perhaps it is nature – in some ways, the culvert, which has emerged from the rock, seems more of its place than the mountain itself.’ 
- ‘... invisibility was one of Bengali modernity’s prerequisites and cardinal achievements.’ 
- …There are many ways of defining the modern but one is to say that an urban space, a man-made space, has some of the energy, wildness, unpredictability and randomness that we usually associate with nature. In another age, somebody might speak with the same kind of excitement about nature as the modernist does about the city…
- On how he envisions modernity in “INTERVIEW WITH AMIT CHAUDHURI” in The White Review (March 2013)
Excerpts from interviews
- People are much more aware of one another in England, super-aware. They are focused on others in a seemingly detached and abstract way. This was very different from India. In India you could do anything and people would see you but not see you, hear you but not hear you.
- On how society differs in England versus India in “Life sentences” in The Guardian (2009 Mar 13)
- It does like writers, but it's also Calcutta now, not the Calcutta of 25 or 30 or 100 years ago. They maybe haven't got over the idea of it, but the reality, the context that produced that, has disappeared.
- On how Calcutta has changed in “Life sentences” in The Guardian (2009 Mar 13)
- It's a very strange middle class…Full of operators and people on the move. It really doesn't value disruptions in that activeness. It doesn't have time for any privileging of daydreaming.
- On contemporary India in “Life sentences” in The Guardian (2009 Mar 13)