Amit Chaudhuri, The Immortals

It’s been a long time coming. Except that Amit Chaudhuri wouldn’t have used those words sung by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

The gifted Indian writer,who teaches contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia, prefers Indian classical music.

An accomplished singer himself, he pays homage to the music in The Immortals.

Now don’t  let that turn you off a wonderful novel.

Even though I know nothing about Indian classical music, I was drawn irresistibly into the story.

Published last year, nine years after his last novel, A New World, The Immortals bears the hallmark of one of India’s finest writers. Chaudhuri brings characters to life in beautiful prose.

He is drawing from his own life. It is a coming-of-age novel, a portrait of the artist as a young man.

A boy is at the centre of the story, as in his earlier novels.

Nirmalya, the son of a top business executive in Bombay, doesn’t like his parents’ lavish lifestyle. He develops a passion for the Indian classical music of his mother’s music teachers. Why don’t they play classical music only, he asks the teachers, who play popular music as well. Why doesn’t she practise more regularly, he asks his mother.

It’s the idealism of an adolescent surrounded by worldly, protective adults. Nirmalya’s parents are an attractive couple, loving, supportive but with a weakness for the high life they have grown accustomed to. The musicians are fascinating. Descended from a long line of musicians who were once patronized by princes and kings, they now have to make a living as music teachers and popular entertainers.

The author describes their family traditions, intermarriages, home life and how they support one another.

Apart from their special talent, they are just like ordinary people. They are not the only ones who make compromises with their art. So does Nirmalya’s mother, a gifted singer who chose to be a housewife married to a successful man.

He is perhaps the most attractive character in the book. A man who shares his wife’s aspirations and tries to get her a record deal — and send his son abroad when the boy wants to study philosophy in England. He tries to help others too — but let’s not give the story away.

What makes The Immortals such a pleasure to read is not the story, though, but the people and the prose. Chaudhuri writes about Bombay and the music beautifully.

Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Amit Chaudhuri on music

Salman Rushdie wrote about rock music and Bombay in The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Vikram Seth wrote about Western classical music and Europe in An Equal Music.

Younger than them, “Chaudhuri can write better than just about everyone of his generation”, declared Jonathan Coe in the London Review of Books.

So how does The Immortals compare with those two novels?

With my love of rock music, I will, of course, vote for The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Rushdie rocks and is a wizard of words. I love Vikram Seth. Chaudhuri has the same languid grace, not the flamboyance of Rushdie. But I like best his earliest novels set in Calcutta: A Strange and Sublime Address, published in 1991, when he was not yet 30, and Afternoon Raag, dating back to 1993. Lush, lyrical, with their wonderful descriptions of Calcutta and its people, those were sheer poetry.

Chaudhuri describes Bombay just as vividly when he wants to. It’s just that he has become less prodigal with language. Here he describes the new home Nirmalya and his parents move to after leaving their palatial company apartment:

This, maybe, was the ‘quiet, green place’ that Nirmalya had been thinking about, but whose existence he’d never really suspected; a lane off one of the downward slopes of Pali Hill, a blue plaque announcing its name hanging by two rings from a pole at the base of the lane, which swung in a monsoon breeze in a self-contained way, a gate opening on to a building, a second-storey apartment, three bedrooms, roughly fourteen hundred square feet, just a little more than a third of the flat in Thacker Towers. It was, as if wandering down Thacker Towers, they’d discovered an annexe no one had noticed before, an annexe whose balcony opened on to a silent neighbour, a jackfruit tree — and they’d decided never to return to the main flat.

Pure magic.

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