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  • Amit Chaudhuri and the Unconstitutional Secular
  • Sumana Roy (bio)

In one of my favourite scenes in literature, Chhotomama, the little boy Sandeep's uncle in Amit Chaudhuri's first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address (1991), is in the bathroom singing a song as he showers. We're outside though, listening to both—the sound of water splashing on the floor and the words of the song, both annotating each other. "Bahe nirantar ananta anandadhara, Endless and unbroken flows the stream of joy." "It was a song of praise, a prayer song," Chaudhuri reminds us. To sing a prayer song influenced by the Brahmo tradition in the shower turns the bathroom— and the toilet, where, just a couple of pages ago, Chhotomama was reading the newspaper and thinking about Home Affairs and World Affairs while smoking a cigarette—into an intermediary space, one that can—and must—accommodate and also blur the lines between the traditionally designated categories of the sacred and the profane.

"Whether the bath ended first, or the song, Sandeep couldn't tell." I begin with this space and what inhabits it—the bathroom and the song—to ask a question: Isn't the idea of the secular related to the idea of the novel itself? It doesn't need reminding that almost every other genre—poetry and drama and music and the arts—originated from what eventually became institutionalised religion. The novel's only religion was pleasure—endless and unbroken flows the stream of joy. I like to read Amit Chaudhuri's novels and his literary philosophy as one coming from—and arguing for—a kind of secularism that comes not from polity or legislation but organically, even spiritually, from the intellectual and emotional spaces we inhabit.

"Give nothing centrality," Chaudhuri tells the aspiring writer in a column for The Guardian. It's a critique of the lopsided nature of the contemporary novel, rendered top-heavy as it often is today, in the writer's curating of historical events or –isms in it. Something—a theory or a paradigm, a belief system or a religious belief in a historical event—is often privileged, given "centrality." Any space where something is privileged over the other is not a secular space—this is Chaudhuri's unequivocal stance, both about the novel and also about storytelling.

What is the secular space, then? The poetic—or Chaudhuri's understanding of the poetic—is a natural habitat of the secular: both in terms of time and space. In Afternoon Raag (1993), his second novel about a young graduate student's life in Oxford, and his discovery of Hindustani classical music that comes to him from a gifted music teacher, we see almost on every page (and I use page consciously, because it, too, is a secular space, or was meant to be) the coming together of dissonances and differences that abet and indulge the secular but which are beyond the mechanics of legal structures that enforce it. The raag, its conventions solidifying over time but never becoming completely calcified; always elastic enough to accommodate newness; retaining birthmarks of the land where it was born but travelling well, like a good migrant; able to house different voices, the teacher's and the student's, musical instruments and bird call, and, to use Eliot's phrase, tradition and individual talent.

On some mornings we would sing raag Bhairav together, our two voices and styles mingling closely and floating over the other sounds of the house—pigeons, and the distracted noise of servants—his voice sometimes carrying my hesitant voice, and negotiating the pathways of the raag, as a boat carries a bewildered passenger. In the moments of simple imbibing, I would forget my voice was my own and become an echo of his style and artistry. The greater part of the unfolding of a raag consists of a slow, evasive introduction in which the notes are related to each other by curving glissandos, or meends. The straight, angular notes of Western music, composed and then rendered, are like print upon a page; in contrast, the curving meends of the raag are like longhand writing drawn upon the air. Each singer has his own...


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