Amitabha Bagchi’s time in the US city forms the subject of his new novel The Place.
Amitabha Bagchi’s latest novel, This Place, introduces us to Jeevan Sharma, an ordinary guy who leads a solitary life as an immigrant in the American city of Baltimore. Jeevan is facing an uncertain, unpredictable time and Baltimore is in crisis. The civic authorities have ordered a demolition of the residential block where Jeevan lives in order to build a campus of John Hopkins University. The neighbourhood residents, who until now had largely led an uninterrupted life in the comfortable company of each other, face sudden eviction. Here, Bagchi, the author of Above Average and The Householder (both set in Delhi) tells us how living in Baltimore left a lasting impression on him.
Cities play an integral part in your novels, almost like characters. How important are they to you?
Cities have always been important in my writing, but there has been an evolution over the course of the three books I have written. When I began writing, I saw a city as a companion, as a friend for a young man who was inclined to feel friendless and lonely, even when surrounded by people. There are many fine-grained constraints being the resident of a particular city places on you. In my last two books, I was not so much interested in drawing attention to what a city does or doesn’t allow its inhabitants to be. I was more interested in using its constraints to form discipline in parts of my writing.
What made you revisit Baltimore as the setting of your novel?
Writing a book in Baltimore had been with me almost since the time I left the city. I moved there when I was about to turn 22 and had just turned 28 when I moved away and they were six very formative years. I had never lived away from Delhi before that, and had certainly not encountered another culture in such an abrupt manner. I feel it was not that Baltimore itself transformed me; maybe if I had been somewhere else in those years I would still have changed. But there was something about being in a city as derelict and charming as Baltimore that turned my thinking down a road that I perhaps would not have gone down if I had stayed in Delhi.
When you released the book in Delhi, you spoke of ‘a sense of displacement’ you felt during the 1990s that transmutes in the novel. Can you elaborate?
The 1990s were a time of upheaval not just for me, having to move from Delhi, my home of 21 years to another country altogether, but also for many people in India. I am specifically talking about the displacements that took place in the Narmada Valley. Medha Patkar and the Narmada Bachao Andolan with Arundhati Roy’s support brought the plight of those displaced to the attention of people like me, who sat safe in their urban cocoons. It was, as I have said, a formative time for me and I read whatever I could about the Narmada project and the movement that opposed it. That moment passed in our country’s history, but it remained buried within me and emerged when I began to think of Baltimore.
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