Don Coles

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 711

[Days and Nights in Calcutta is] an extraordinarily rich and complex investigation by the Montreal-based writers Blaise and Mukherjee, of the meaning to each of them, individually, and to their marriage, of the hitherto largely-ignored Bengali presence in their linked lives…. (p. 38)

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The Montrealers start with an enormous advantage here, and, not to hedge, it's an advantage they make the most of and never lose. Its basis is Mukherjee's early life in Calcutta, the endless relatives and friends they spend their time with there, and her husband's moving awareness of previous complacencies on his part ("But what have you given up? Is it worth it?," he recalls Bengali visitors asking his wife in their Montreal home, and remembers his own comfortable, near-incredulous snicker).

It's a unique achievement, this record of their year on the subcontinent: Blaise's half of the book, crackling with energy and generosity of spirit, with an unappeasable readiness to absorb and learn, unsentimental and convincing in its growth towards those levels of partial understanding and committed admiration which he feels (and we feel) he reaches; Mukherjee's half, rather more personally centred, it seems to me, as she contemplates the life she relinquished, contrasts her later and present life with the lives of girls she had known at school and reflects on experiences we have first encountered through her husband, bringing into the light of what is, for her, familiar day, some of those earlier and more shadowed events.

They're a remarkable mix, these joined journals of a year. Almost never obtrusively striking the reader as a deliberate, self-conscious study of the finer inner mechanisms of a marriage, they, nevertheless, move and persuade with their recurrent reflections on just that, witty, ironic, grave, detached, affectionate in turn.

And just beyond the marriage, and then merging with it as the year lengthens, is India, or, more specifically, Bombay and then Calcutta, the Bengali presence. I don't intend to do it in this review, but one could leaf through these pages and come up with a whole series of comparative sketches of the two cultures involved, the North American and the Bengali, such issues as the role of women, marriage rituals and customs, the role of the artist, law and order, the family, even climatic considerations and their effect on the creative personality.

But that (incomplete) list suggests a sociological study, which is a totally inadequate and misleading suggestion. The truth is that because of, primarily, Clark Blaise's evident and growing determination to do belated justice to the multilayered and sophisticated inheritance of his wife's culture, the investigation of that culture, which this book offers us, escapes easy categorization, and is no more an academic treatise than it is a Baedeker.

It is, instead, as I hope I have suggested, a record of a distinctive journey to a homeland, a homeland which he and their two sons have acquired, he seems to feel, almost in bad faith, casually, or at best, largely on that easy basis of the western intellectual, a matter of those accessible resonances provided many of us by Forster's A Passage to India, our own disturbing but, being quick, tolerable entries into and exits from the Malabar Caves.

And the point, and the unarguable particular triumph of this book, when contrasted with Forster's fine novel, is that what we are offered here is no succession of however-brilliantly gnomic and crafted scenes to awe the alien spirit, but a gradually-developing and increasingly-lucid awareness of a culture and of a cast of mind and thought which finally and clearly transcends the merely exotic, and leaves the reader, left this reader anyhow, with a sense, his first, of an authentic meeting with that culture and that cast of mind and thought. (pp. 38-9)

If there is one inescapable fresh awareness the book must evoke in readers here, it will have something to do with that long-overdue humility of perspective towards which Blaise moves, not so much inviting, as permitting such readers to move with him, reminding us that we are not, after all, quite at civilization's epicentre, reminding us of the potent depths which underlay that cited query from Bharati Mukherjee's friends in that Montreal livingroom. (p. 39)

Don Coles, "Authentic Meeting," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LVII, No. 670, April, 1977, pp. 38-9.∗

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