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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.

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A New World by Amit Chaudhuri

A New World by Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri is one of the finest but possibly less known Indian authors writing in English. His language can verge on poetry and be as vivid as a movie. But nothing much happens in his stories.

That didn’t matter very much in his early novels, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song. Both were critically acclaimed. I can think of no better books in English about my hometown, Calcutta (Kolkata), except Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, my favourite novel, but there only part of the story is set in Calcutta; most of the action takes place in the Hindi belt.

To get a feel of Calcutta, what it looks like and understand us Bengalis, the natives of Calcutta, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song are invaluable. They portray our ideas, attitudes and lifestyle. And the writing verges on poetry, which is something we Bengalis love.

A New World unfortunately lacks that poetry. The writing is fluid and flawless. But as I turned from one page to the next, it felt like a lazy summer afternoon. It’s uneventful by deliberate design.

The story

Jayojit, a Bengali economist teaching in America, visits his parents in Calcutta during his college holidays with his seven-year-old son, Bonny. He has recently divorced his wife, also a Bengali from Calcutta, who has left him to live with her lover -– and gynaecologist — in America. The story describes his stay in Calcutta. In the process, we see his interaction with his parents, his parents’ relationship and his own relationship with his parents. There are also flashbacks to his broken marriage and his parents’ abortive attempt to arrange a second marriage for him with a Bengali divorcee. He had met her on his previous visit but they had got nowhere. She had backed out, he now learns from his father, because he had seemed to be looking not so much for a wife as a governess for his son.

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Sublime writing — like a movie

Amit Chaudhuri is one of the best Indian writers in English today. Salman Rushdie may be more flamboyant, but when it comes to describing a scene, Chaudhuri is second to none. He can be as vivid as a photograph or a video.

The only reason he is not better known is his short stories and novels are not ambitious in scope: they are more like subtle miniatures than epics. But Chaudhuri, who teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia, has won several literary awards. Praising him, the Guardian said:

Yes, he writes about India, but not the Technicolor romps British readers have come to expect since Midnight’s Children. Mr Chaudhuri’s work is better, and more truthful, than that…

Here’s an extract from A Strange and Sublime Address, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in 1991. It’s set in Calcutta (Kolkata), where Chaudhuri was born. Here he is describing three little boys looking out of a window and watching pigeons mating. They are too young to know what the birds are up to. The details are fascinating. It’s both poetic and funny.

On the far side of the parapet, while the rest dreamed, two pigeons began to kiss each other in a solemnly painful manner, beaks locked together, heads moving up and down simultaneously as if they were trying to release themselves from the mysterious lock. It was a strange kind of passion; it was the only way birds could embrace, or come close to embracing — locking their beaks in that funny, tortured way. Finally, the male climbed on the female’s back and proceeded to flap its wings in an abstracted fashion. The female waited, bending its head in a world-weary manner.

“What are they doing?” asked Babla, noting the nuances of the scene in fascination.

Sandeep did not know.

“I think they’re fighting,” he said, not sure of the validity of his superior knowledge.

“If they’re fighting,” said Abhi,”why doesn’t the other one struggle?”

“It’s lost,” said Sandeep.”It knows it’s defeated.”

The entire spectacle,from courtship to climax to possible marital bliss or discord,lasted around ten minutes. God had apparently created these birds with the sole purpose of amusing slothful boys, and probably Himself, on unpleasantly humid afternoons.

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The poetry of Amit Chaudhuri

Three Novels by Amit Chaudhuri: A Strange and Sublime Address, Afternoon Raag, Freedom Song

Amit Chaudhuri is like no other Indian writer I have read recently. He writes about ordinary day-to-day life like RK Narayan and Ruskin Bond, but in a language so vivid and evocative it sometimes rises to poetry.

His novels are not sweeping sagas or rich in symbolism, nor do they carry any messages. Their pleasure lies entirely in their language. Chaudhuri, who graduated from University College, London, and then went to Oxford, makes music and paints pictures with words.

Take the first page of Afternoon Raag, where he describes Oxford:

“On the first day of Michaelmas, men and women in black gowns walk to matriculation ceremonies, and at the end of the year they wear these gowns again, unhappily, to take exams; then, after the exams, the town is nearly empty, and the days, because of that peculiar English enchantment called Summer Time, last one hour longer; and Oxford, in the evening, resembles what an English town must have looked like in wartime, the small shops open but unfrequented, an endangered, dolorous, but perfectly vivid peace in the lanes, as the eye is both surprised by, and takes pleasure in, a couple linked arm in arm, or a young man conversing with a woman on a polished doorstep, and then the early goodbyes. It is like what I imagine a wartime township to have been, because all the young people, with their whistling, their pavement to pavement chatter, their beer-breathed, elbow-nudging polemics are suddenly gone, leaving the persistent habits of an old way of life, the opening and shutting of shops, intact, a quiet, empty bastion of civilisation and citizenry. It is because of its smallness, repetition, and the evanescence of its populace, that Oxford is dreamlike.”

Chaudhuri writes beautifully about Calcutta (Kolkata) too.

No Indian writing in English has described Bengali middle class life more faithfully. If anyone wants to know what we Bengalis are like — our love of gossip, arts and culture, our gentility, our modest ambitions and the closeness of our family ties — Chaudhuri is the author to read.

His privileged background shows through in his first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address. I was surprised to read someone owning a car in Calcutta in the late 1980s or early 1990s could have been considered hard-up. True, it’s a battered old car, but a car — any car — in Calcutta then would have been a symbol of wealth.

Chaudhuri, who was born in Calcutta, clearly grew up in more affluent circles in Bombay (Mumbai).

But the last novel, A Freedom Song, captures the Calcutta I know beautifully. He could have been writing about people I know. And no one has described them better, not in English.