A vanishing world.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
One late evening The Delhi Walla knocked at the door of author Chandrahas Choudhury. In his 30s, Mr Choudhury lives on the second floor of a bungalow in Kalkaji, south Delhi. He shares his one-room apartment with “a couple of hundreds of books.” The room is sparse: a bed, a chair, a table, a lamp, a laptop, a fan and a wooden almirah.
Everything is in order, with exceptions.
I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded, the translated works of a fourteenth-century Kashmiri mystic, is on the floor, along with the day’s The Indian Express. Two books are lying haphazardly on the bed: The Battle of Employment Guarantee, edited by Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera, and Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir, edited by Sanjay Kak. There is also a diary; its cover shows Buddha’s smiling face.
“I have about 3,000 books,” Mr Choudhury says. “Most are left behind in Bombay.
In September 2011, Mr Choudhury shifted his base from Bombay to Delhi. Why?
“It’s complicated to explain. I graduated from (Delhi University’s) Hindu College, and so have happy memories of this city. Delhi also offers a better life to authors. If you are a writer of books and not, say, of soap operas, you are left on the margins of Bombay’s culture.”
In Bombay, Mr Choudhury would hunt for old books at the pavement bazaar near Flora Fountain. “I also browsed at New and Second Hand Book Shop in Kalebadevi. In second-hand novels, you find records of other readers.”
Mr Choudhury shows me the back page of Sanjay Kak’s book. It is filled with his notes; the writing is neat and words are tightly packed. “It is a duty to leave one’s presence in the book one is reading.”
Mr Choudhury’s first novel, Arzee the Dwarf, was published in 2009. He also edited the anthology India: A Traveler’s Literary Companion. He has no day-job; he earns by writing book reviews for newspapers, besides being a contributing editor at Caravan magazine.
For four years, Mr Chowdhury was the weekly book review contributor to Mint Lounge newspaper. “I don’t think such a job had existed in Indian newspapers.” His contract with Lounge ended in December 2010. I met him shortly after The New York Times Book Review carried his review for the first time in its pages.
Titled ‘Fashioning Narrative Pleasures From Narcotic Ones‘, the review of Amitav Ghosh’s novel River of Smoke was of 610 words.
“The art of writing short reviews is especially challenging. You are forced to make a case for or against a book’s quality in three passages. The fun is in intensely concentrating your thoughts to bring out the novel’s essence. You have to consider every word, constantly asking yourself if it is really needed.”
The previous week The Wall Street Journal published Mr Choudhury’s review of Last Man in Tower, a novel by Aravind Adiga.
“I still write for Indian dailies though book reviewing is yet to be properly respected in this country. We have one of the world’s biggest book industries but most dailies devote only one page every week to books.”
Opening the glass door of his wooden almirah, Mr Choudhury says, “I purchased it from Park Street, Calcutta, in 2004 and had it shipped by train to my home in Santa Cruz, Bombay. It was damaged a little on its way to Delhi.” Moving his hand over the wood carving, he says, “This kind of work is not done any longer.”
The almirah is a store-house of Mr Chowdhury’s eclectic taste. There are books he reads for pleasure as well as for writing reviews. The black spine of Kiran Nagarkar‘s Cuckold is stacked between Just Enough Liebling: Classic Work by the Legendary New Yorker Writer and Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now. There is Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Pather Panchali, Manu Joseph’s Serious Men, Aga Shahid Ali’s The Vieled Suite, Bharti Chaturvedi’s Finding Delhi: Loss and Renewal in a Mega City, Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, Vassily Grossman’s Everything Flows, Mahashweta Devi’s Imaginary Maps and Alaa Al Aswamy’s The Yacoubian Building.
“I’m a big fan of Al Aswamy. He is one of the few novelists who uses a classical third person omniscient narration.”
Taking out Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, the author and book critic says, “I also devote time to books that deal with the technicalities of writing.”
Does Mr Choudhury read on his desk?
“For a long time, I used to read in bed. But this house has promising spaces. There’s a large terrace in the back and a little balcony in the front. In winter, it will be nice to sit under the sun, occasionally look at the people in the street below and read, with a glass of whisky in hand.”
Chandarahas Choudhury’s library
The state of the room
The book almirah from Calcutta
Key to the treasure
Right of admission reserved
Flick your pick
Read, write, read