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Finding a New Voice

At the University of Iowa International Writing Program, Chandrahas Choudhury examined the contrasts and similarities of different literary cultures.


Novelist, critic and blogger Chandrahas Choudhury is probably the only writer in the world who would answer a question about his favorite writers by citing Bengali novelist Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay and American novelist Willa Cather in the same sentence, as he did last year in an interview with the Indian Web journal Interjunction.

These sorts of cultural juxtapositions come naturally to Choudhury, who has an M.Phil in American literature and lives in Mumbai, where he writes weekly book reviews and maintains a literary blog, The Middle Stage, remarkably expansive in its embrace of books from around the world, along with the best of contemporary Indian literature in English and English translation.

Choudhury’s first novel, “Arzee the Dwarf,” recently appeared to critical praise, and he edited “India: A Traveler’s Literary Companion,” which has just been published.

From August to November 2010, he joined 37 other writers from 32 countries for the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa. The U.S. State Department is a major sponsor of the program.

“As a book critic, I feel I know quite a bit about world literature,” he says in an IWP interview. “But in Iowa I’ve had my knowledge extended in many ways and the chance to come across unusual kinds of work that otherwise I never would have seen.”

In November, Choudhury posted poems on his blog by four visiting writers in Iowa: Kim Sa-in from South Korea; Ismail Bala from Nigeria; Albana Shala, an Albanian Dutch poet living in the Netherlands; and Milosz Biedrzycki from Poland.

 

Indian and American literature 

Iowa allowed Choudhury to examine the contrasts and similarities between Indian and American literary culture.

He was also able to experience something new: hearing the language as spoken by Americans. “Something as simple as an American accent was foreign to me, and now it seems like that’s how people speak,” he says. “So when I read the books now, I understand things I wouldn’t have before.

“I do think that Indian English is now at a very interesting phase,” Choudhury says, “and I consider myself part of that movement—trying to create an English that both sounds lyrical in a classical way and yet modern in an Indian way.”

Perhaps the sharpest difference between American and Indian literature in Choudhury’s view is that English remains the dominant language of literature in the United States. India presents a different picture.

In his introduction to “India: A Traveler’s Literary Companion,” he wrote, “The most striking feature of Indian literature when seen as a whole—a source of its strength and variety, but also of the difficulty in navigating it—is that it is multilingual to a degree not matched by any other national literature in the world.”

 

Mumbai and Iowa City 

Choudhury regards himself as both an Indian writer and a son of Mumbai. Music and Bollywood films rank above literature there, he says. “But Mumbai is perhaps India’s most storied city. I feel it has enormous narrative, which is what I tap into in my work. I don’t think I’ll ever be short of stories to write about.”

“Arzee the Dwarf” is set in Mumbai, as will be his new novel, “Clouds,” which he began during his three months in Iowa. Choudhury initially saw the tone of the new novel as very bleak, in sharp contrast to the comic elements in “Arzee.” But Iowa may have changed his approach.

“I’ve had a chance to listen to lots of voices at great length,” he says. “American [English] is a lot more informal than other kinds of English... a kind of drawl, a kind of ease that I like very much, and I’m thinking of a second character for this book that will have a slightly languid, easy style that I would draw upon from Iowa.”

 

The “classical” novel

Although he doubts that any of his novels will be set outside India, Choudhury sees himself as part of at least two families. One is the contemporary community of international writers. The other is the novelists who have influenced him deeply. “What you can call the family of books sitting in your room,” he says.

Choudhury doesn’t regard himself as a purely traditional or realist novelist. “I write at a slight angle to realism. ‘Arzee the Dwarf’ is more like a black comedy, a kind of fairy tale grounded in realistic detail.”

He captured his belief in the power of literature with an essay that he presented at a panel discussion in Iowa called “The Classical Novel, On a Fall Morning in Iowa City.” 

“How the novel loved to play with time!” he wrote. “Whole years could be made to pass with a single precise sentence, or the events of a single day could be made to fill up an entire book. ...The realist novel gave both writer and reader the power to control time, which was denied to them by life.”

But Choudhury wasn’t satisfied to offer his meditation on literature as a straightforward essay. Instead, he tried to capture the same “double tone” of humor and seriousness that he has sought in his fiction.

He framed his essay by pretending he was completely unprepared because he first thought that he had been asked to present a paper on the mystical tradition of navel gazing—and now realized, an hour before his lecture, that the audience actually wanted to hear about the novel. “He was done for,” Choudhury said, writing in the third person.

In the essayist’s panic, Choudhury thought about the ability of the novel to create living characters, evoke memories, and convince readers that they are watching or even living an alternate life instead of reading a book.

At the conclusion of the essay, he realized that—in a mysterious amalgam of digital technology and the writer’s imagination—his thoughts had been written down and distributed to the audience.

He wrote, “Choudhury took a few moments to register the amazing good luck of this day and, indeed, of his life. He had, once again, been saved by a story.”

 

Howard Cincotta is a special correspondent with America.gov.