The literary renown that Amit Chaudhuri has achieved over a relatively short period is the result of three factors. One is the interest in Indian literature outside South Asia, in Britain, Canada, and the United States in particular, beginning with the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning novel Midnight’s Children in 1980. Since then, first books by Indian writers, including writers of Indian extraction, have often achieved considerable critical and commercial success, for example, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies (1999), Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu(2001), and Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist (2002). A second factor is that Chaudhuri deals so extensively with a region and, more especially, a social class that have previously received very little attention. Chaudhuri’s Calcutta (not his only setting, but certainly his most important) is not the Black Hole of nineteenth century colonial writing, nor of Dominique Lapierre’s La Cité de joi(1985; City of Joy, 1985), the city of the latter parts of Satyajit Ray’s Apu film trilogy (1955-1959), nor the site of the Hindu massacre of Muslims that looms so large in Richard Attenborough’sGandhi (1982). Chaudhuri’s Calcutta is not a teeming city of twelve million, mainly poor, residents; rather, it is that part of the city occupied by the business class. The fact that this is a class that Bharati Mukherjee dealt with as early as her 1972 novel The Tiger’s Daughter leads to the third, and perhaps the most interesting, factor that has contributed to Chaudhuri’s success. This is his distinctive yet unassuming style, so different from Mukherjee’s penchant for melodrama, Rushdie’s high-energy postcolonial postmodernism, or the faux-exoticism of popular “curry- powder” writers such as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Chaudhuri’s style is more subdued, not in the folksy manner of R. K. Narayan, closer to V. S. Naipaul, though differently aware of, and indebted to, his European literary roots.
Chaudhuri perfected his distinctive style early, in the collection A Strange and Sublime Address(1991), a novella and nine stories. This was followed by two more novellas, Afternoon Raag (1993) and Freedom Song (1999). The fact that many of the fifteen stories in Real Time: Stories and a Reminiscence first appeared in the London Review of Books, Granta, The New Yorker, and The Times Literary Supplement says a good deal about the kind of audience Chaudhuri has attracted. Early reviews suggest, however, that Real Time will not put to rest doubts about Chaudhuri’s work that first surfaced with the publication of A New World (2000), especially about his command of structure and his unwillingness to put his considerable talent to better use. “A major talent working in a minor key,” is the way one reviewer has described Real Time. Real Time is a slight book, but its slightness is, if not always effective, certainly deliberate, riskily so, as Chaudhuri in his way tries to deal with the question Robert Frost posed more than half a century earlier: what to make of a diminished thing.
Smallness is a key, so evident in what Shashi Tharoor calls Chaudhuri’s “languid love of detail.” Slowness is another, as this languor extends over sentences and paragraphs (some of them two pages long) in prose that develops not just languorously but lyrically. “The temperature had fallen, imperceptibly, gracefully, to 27 degrees, til the school itself seemed raised to a timeless stratosphere that was neither heaven nor earth, a place raised upon the coolness.” How one responds to a sentence such as this will determine how one responds to the collection overall, for the stories themselves follow a similar path, developing gracefully, moving imperceptibly to an awareness of a world that is not so much timeless as saturated with memory and time’s passing, frozen yet fluid, suspended yet in motion. The lyricism that is central to Chaudhuri’s style and vision is offset by a no- less-characteristic formality of expression: the residue of colonial English and Indian education that is the written equivalent of that major British export, Received Pronunciation (RP). In Chaudhuri, however, this formality is more complicated than that, giving voice, as it were, to his own high modernist influences and ambitions and, no less important, a certain reticence and restraint, even repression, on the part of author and his characters alike.
The combination of restraint and lyrical expansiveness has led William Dersiewicz to describe Chaudhuri as “a connoisseur of small emotions,” one whose stories are not really stories at all, merely “ruminations,” or something even...
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