On Greatness and Uselessness


by Sumana Roy

I was carrying a copy of the Bengali poet Binoy Majumdar’s Hashpatal Thhekey Lekha Kobitaguchho (Poems Written from Hospital) with me. In these poems written from the psychiatry ward of a hospital, I was encountering language that had been broken to reveal its innards, so that I couldn’t be sure whether it was skeleton or flesh. I’d read the poems on the plane – noticing the beat of the stonecutter working away on breaking down stone as it were. I had begun noticing something about them that I might not have had before, had I not read Friend of My Youth, Amit Chaudhuri’s last novel – in these poems was what Chaudhuri had been calling the ‘writing-living’ space, the indistinguishability between writing and living, at least temporally, and the simultaneity of writing and living.

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. (Friend of My Youth)

In this, as in some of his lectures – and essays arising out of those lectures – since then, Chaudhuri has been making what has now, after his graceful explanation, begun to seem like an obvious point about literary philosophy: living and writing are not separate rooms, they are one space, and writing isn’t just inaugurated, as Chaudhuri points out in his essay, ‘The Moment of Writing’, with pen touching paper.

When I entered the Harrington Street Arts Centre, where Amit Chaudhuri’s art exhibition, The Sweet Shops of Calcutta and Other Ideas, was being held, a copy of Binoy Majumdar’s Hospital poems in my bag, I, quite eerily, had the sense of having become Binoy Majumdar, tempted to return to life temporarily to see the exhibition. It was lunch hour, and I was by myself in this new city – by city I do not mean Calcutta but this city that Chaudhuri had created for a fortnight at 8 Ho Chi Minh Sarani. In these Bangla poems that I’d just been reading, on the plane, and later in the taxi, people had been entering and leaving as women had come and left talking about Michelangelo in Eliot’s poem. Take this poem, for instance – one isn’t sure whether Binoy Majumdar, loved and dismissed as a ‘mad poet’, is ‘living’ or ‘writing’.

I can hear people talking;
they are describing everything I do.
Just as I’ve finished writing this, I hear them say
that I can hear, that I can see,
that I can understand that I can do these things.

This is how I’m practising poetry.
I think the strangers – the young men – have left.
It’s afternoon now, it’s necessary to have some tea.
Let me do that, I’ll ask Buchi for tea.
I’ve returned to writing on the pages of this notebook
after coming back from Buchi’s place.
This poem has become a nice physical phenomena.

Buchi’s not at home. I’ve asked
her eldest daughter to make some tea.
I think I’ll go to Ranjit’s shop. (translation mine)

Reading this poem – and the rest, all touched by the same instinct to let the poetic be touched by this unpredictability of life – had taken me to Chaudhuri’s literary philosophy repeatedly. One of the things I’d become conscious of while reading Friend of My Youth, though I’d of course encountered it before, in all his writings, and even in his music, was that it was a search for a form that could hold the unpredictability and unexpectedness of life. The exhibition catalogue appropriately states that Chaudhuri ‘experiments with form, and is a thinker on form and experimentation’ – in his recent lectures he’s been talking about ‘forms of uselessness’, of how the poetic, the essentially ‘useless’, say sleeping, and anything that cannot be driven or created by intention, has a form separate and distinct from that moulded by intention (think of the difference between a poem and a news report, for instance). By that definition, where I’m standing is a useless city – but this is a magical uselessness (that the stuff of magic and fantasy is essentially useless is something we often forget), and I’m so enchanted that it is only after some time that I return to myself, even though not completely. And I’m not sure whether I am myself or still Binoy Majumdar.

At first I meet the sweet shop owners of Calcutta – men whose photographs Chaudhuri, in what must have been a moment of epiphany, identifies as belonging to the tradition of ‘Great Men’.


Here is Chaudhuri, in his concept note:

They start to appear at the same time when the great men and women of Bengal—poets, reformers, political leaders, and scientists—emerge in Calcutta in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; they have the dignity that marks that age. This is what draws me to them. The portrait of the sweet shop owner has, for me, the aura that a picture of a writer like Bankimchandra Chatterjee might have on the frontispiece of a novel. It’s an aura peculiar to pictures of ‘great men’ in Bengal after the middle of the nineteenth century: not to do with wealth, but something else—individuality, maybe; of coming out of nowhere to leave an impress on history. These portraits exist on the cusp of a religious age – when holy men had begun to be photographed (Ramakrishna Paramahansa is the most famous of them, but there are several others)—and a secular age, defined by the great figures, the various pantheons, of modernity.

One of the projects of modernity has been to challenge the notion of ‘greatness’, as in who and what constitutes it. Bangla textbooks in middle school have chapters – often separate books unto themselves – about a constellation of ‘monishi’ identified as ‘great’ (whether they derive from textbook appellations like ‘Akbar the Great’ or ‘Ashoka the Great’ in English is unclear): Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Meghnad Saha, and so on. Chaudhuri is pushing the case of ‘great men’ here. These sweet shop owners did not write epics or invent microscopes – they only created sweets and sweet shops, these useless spaces of joy, of delights not just of the tongue, but also the eye, a baggy punctuation amidst a busy day. What Chaudhuri is doing in the process of putting these men in the tradition of Great Men is also extending the perimeter of what constitutes greatness (the great men of Chaudhuri’s fiction have always been wastrel figures, men without professional ambition or any desire for fame or usefulness). I’m thinking of Stephen Spender’s poem, “The Truly Great” – its words came to me, in a way that exceeds their intention, as I moved from one photograph to another, spellbound by the character of their faces, touched by history and formality, and a beauty that comes from their relationship with time. I say ‘formality’ consciously – this was a new ‘form’ then, portraits taken in studios, profiles of seriousness (‘Say cheese’ would happen much later, after the invention of cheaper cameras and film rolls), and what Chaudhuri has created is an utterly new form too. A photograph of a portrait on an iPhone is, again, a challenge to the statist seriousness of the Great Men archive – in the process what he creates, accidentally, are new colours. These are beautiful portraits – beautiful to the eye, some of them distorted magically by glass surfaces from which they were photographed, or reflections of the world they’ve been gazing on, for more than a century. The reflections in them is where the moment of viewing them has been captured, and is now a part of our viewing experience, so that what we see are not just the sweet shop owners but Chaudhuri looking at their photos (‘Each view has a history. You sense you’re where others have been’, Friend of My Youth). The pixels almost breaking up, creating jagged corners of a sweet shop owner’s kurta or giving his glasses and eyebrows outline and personality – they have the character of19th-century prints or Impressionist paintings, though a full-frontal Impressionist portrait is almost unheard of.

There’s one where the face of a sweet shop owner isn’t visible at all – a pinkish smudge, greys and browns, and some reflections. One never finishes looking at this portrait because one is never sure whether one has seen it completely. That this nearly faceless person could – should – belong to the tradition of Great Men is an achievement of the imagination – that also explains why Chaudhuri isn’t interested in giving us the names of these men. It is part of his politics – the anonymous are also great. Their namelessness abets curiosity and daydreaming – there’s also the energy of speculation. Besides, their names are as unnecessary as the names of god. Their names would be too much knowledge, a Renaissance artist’s aim for completeness; here, in the Harrington Street Arts Centre, they are blurs, fragments of information, like Impressionist paintings. Namelessness, greatness, uselessness – all of these come together to create this new form. Then there’s the secretive colour of these photos – I’ve not seen anything like them in a garden or by the sea, nor on a canvas or crayon box. I’m tempted to think of them as the original colour of reproduction. A new genre must have a new kind of colour.

I find myself thinking of sentences and sections from Friend of My Youth as I walk from wall to wall in this city: ‘History is always lying before you, unnoticed: till you suddenly see it, as we do now.’ Like cracks in batik, like faces on walls, like blobs on Impressionist paintings, like dots in pointillist art, like squares and rectangles in Cubist art, it is the viewer who brings everything together in their mind. In that sense, the reader or the viewer – the consumer – of literature and art is also their creator. It is this that is at the heart of Chaudhuri’s relationship with all forms of art, and one that makes the viewer the most important person in an exhibition such as this one.

There are three components in the exhibition – portraits of a few sweet shop owners of Calcutta, usually their founders; signs on walls whose messages Chaudhuri collects from literature, popular culture, and daily conversation; the third is a hilarious category that Chaudhuri is inventing: unusable gifts. In fact, all three are new genres that he’s creating, and all three are a celebration of joy, of playfulness, of the imagination. They are all a play and a variation on the concept of the ‘Found object’ – it is pertinent to remember that though they owe their stimulus to this modernist desire for creating art from the readymade, Chaudhuri is ‘creating’ the readymade, not collecting it, except from literature and cinema, of course; and neither are any of these objects ‘reproductions’. I realise that I’ve been smiling ever since I’ve entered this city: ananda (or ‘joy’; also the name of the central character in his novel Odysseus Abroad). If Amit Chaudhuri could design a city, this would be his kind of city – a responsiveness to the past, love for beauty, for wit and play and humour, for language, for invisible relations between things that give temporary meaning to living. It is also moving how time is curated in this exhibition: on the walls are photos of the sweet shop owners, which have been hanging in the shops for more than a century; on the same walls are these invented semi-bureaucratic signs. Between them, they cover a century’s history of the wall in Bengal, and indeed, India.

When I enter the space, it is as if I’ve entered a poem – I do not know what I’ll find, everything in it is unexpected, as it is in a poem. There are other similarities between Chaudhuri’s city and a poem: one gains no information but emerges or returns from it changed (see Chaudhuri’s definition of the poem in his essay on the Gita). What are these ‘Indian Road Signs’?

India is full of metal signs on roads. They may contain street or place names, or a message or warning, or a piece of information, or an edict like ‘Haste makes Waste’ or ‘Better Late than Never’. The impulse to improve the world descends in part from Victorian England, as do some of the messages: ‘Cleanliness is Next to Godliness’. I can’t remember when I began to hoard messages that I felt should populate this space and surface. My feeling is that these signs should not just be governmental, or functional, or patriarchal: they should speak with their own voice. Not any message will do. My job is to hear what they’re saying, and fill the rectangle with text accordingly, so that a new kind of object and directive comes into being.

Here are a few signs from Chaudhuri’s city:

History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to wake.

You cannot be serious.

Taka mati mati taka.

He who is first now will later be last.

Full of merit, yet poetically, man dwells on this earth.

James Joyce, Bob Dylan, Holderlin, Beckett, Ritwik Ghatak, John McEnroe; English, Bangla, Persian, German – the sources are as delightful as their positioning. Taka mati mati taka, from Ramakrishna Paramahansa, about money, next to the curator’s note on Unusable Gifts; Switch off your fucking cellphones close to the Tiffany’s lamp which has to be tapped to be switched on; Akash bhawra shurjo tara, Tagore’s song about the wonders of the world, the sky and the sun and moon, next to skylight; He who is first now will later be last right at the end of the hall, close to a scarf, an unusable gift given to Chaudhuri as a mark of honour by the government; Never trust the teller, trust the tale, beside the concept note of the exhibition. I laugh as I walk by these walls, I shake my head in wonder. These quotes become lines in a poem that is the city, Chaudhuri’s cosmogony – our mind gathers them into a poem.

The different quotations, some familiar, some unfamiliar because they’re in an unknown language, make us pause as bureaucratic signs often do in urban spaces. There is a foreignness about instructions anyway – ‘Please Stay on the Line’, ‘Mind the Gap’, for instance – that Chaudhuri captures in these brilliant, funny, witty signs.

These are the wall’s thought bubbles. White text on blue background, the new writing on the wall in the new India – this material and semi-ironical reproduction of bureaucracy is also a homage to randomness.

In fact, the seemingly arbitrary arrangement of these signs made me feel as if these signs had agency, that not Chaudhuri but they themselves had decided to squat there. When I came back to see the exhibition the next day, now more myself than Binoy Majumdar perhaps, I wondered for a moment whether the signs might have changed places, edited by the walls or themselves, in the way poets revise their work at night. These signs, too, are anonymous citizens in Chaudhuri’s city – their liberation from their source texts has given them a new kind of greatness. Perhaps that is why there’s a blurry halo of light around each sign in the way light falls around them.

Unusable Gifts is, without a doubt, a most unique genre.

For years I’ve been receiving gifts that I have no use for, given to me by acquaintances or presented to me on special occasions. I first realised I’d got a gift that I could neither use nor discard when I was given, after performing at an Indian classical music concert in Calcutta, a box by the organisers that turned out to contain a faux Tiffany lamp with a ‘proximity switch’: that is, a ‘touch’ or ‘sensor’ lamp. This was such a remarkable object, and so useless to me, that I decided that the only thing I could do with it was to display it in an exhibition of unusable gifts. So the progenitor of this part of the exhibition is not me; it’s the sensor lamp, which created a frame of mind that led me to collect, or retain, gifts I would never use, or to ask members of my family to not throw or give away the gifts they had no use for.

Not any unusable gift will do. It presents itself. As Marcel Duchamp said of ‘found objects’, you can’t go looking for them. They come to you. Just as not every example of bad writing is noteworthy, not every unusable gift is irreplaceable. For me, these are … The other exhibits – the road signs, the portraits—can be reproduced. These objects can’t. They are, as works of art once used to be, ‘originals’.

Apart from the charming history of each gift – my favourite is the story behind a copy of When the Time is Right, a wedding gift for the artist Shuvaprasanna’s daughter that wasn’t eventually given, and which remained wrapped in wrapping paper until the moment of this exhibition, a book that carries a blurb by Chaudhuri himself – there is something else.

Not all spaces in a city are used by everyone. A woman cannot use a man’s urinal, for instance. We register the exhibition also as a tribute to that kind of unusability as we move through the selection and their hilarious background notes. A faux Tiffany lamp given to him by the organisers of a music conference where Chaudhuri had performed, a scarf given by the Chief Minister of West Bengal, a pair of ‘Chinese’ slippers bought by a friend, a hand fan bought from a little girl on a street in Delhi, a kantha stitch wall hanging of Rabindranath Tagore, a Dhakai Jamdani saree given as a wedding gift to his wife – all forms of the use-less.

And yet, by making them part of an exhibition that explores ‘greatness’ in many ways, he turns these items into objects of art and gives them dignity and singularity.

What kind of city is this, then? There’s a tradition of imagining fantastic cities and countries in Bengali writing. Think of Satyajit Ray’s Hirok Rajar Deshey, where people talk in the strict meter of rhyming couplets. Chaudhuri’s city is just the opposite – not because it’s blank verse, a new kind of tabula rasa, but because it’s a space of indolence, an indolence indulged by an escape from meaning, from interpretation. Just as food – and eating – gives us pleasure that is beyond the scope of interpretation, the residents of Chaudhuri’s city are vaccinated against meaningitis. This is the space of the adda–a formless universe where stories are told but without the urge for narrative. And hence their lack of sequence – you could begin anywhere and reach anywhere, or not reach anywhere at all. This is Chaudhuri’s curation of his impulse to argue ‘Against Storytelling’, an exploration of the forms of uselessness.

‘No, I was plotting other things at the time – plotting not the novel, but that resistant tale we call “life”. At the very end of the millennium, I tried to escape globalisation by escaping Britain. I didn’t want to go back to a time before globalisation; I just wanted to get out, move. I moved to Calcutta. Then I tried to escape globalisation by taking leave of the novel. I wrote stories. I wrote essays. I composed music,’ Amit Chaudhuri, the narrator of Friend of My Youth tells us in the novel. ‘I composed art,’ he might have added, if it was about this period in the narrator’s life. The greatest achievement of The Sweet Shops of Calcutta and Other Ideas is that it is outside globalisation – this is a city that is, almost like its architect, both outside and outsider.


About the Author:

Sumana Roy’s first book, How I Became a Tree, a work of non-fiction, was published in India in February 2017. Her first novel, Missing, was published in April 2018. Her poems and essays have appeared in GrantaGuernicaLARBDrunken Boat, the Prairie SchoonerThe Common, and other journals. She lives in Siliguri in India.