Since Amit Chaudhuri himself was born in Calcutta and raised in Bombay, then sent to England for his university and postgraduate education, it is hardly surprising that so many of the characters in his fiction feel like outsiders in the place where they happen to reside. During his summer visits to relatives in Calcutta, Chaudhuri became aware of the subtle cultural differences even between two cities in the same country. His own experience became the basis of the critically acclaimed novella A Strange and Sublime Address (1991). When the ten-year-old protagonist of that work visits relatives in Calcutta, he finds himself among people who are poorer and less well educated than his family in Bombay. However, it is not just the difference in social class that makes him ill at ease; even more important are the unfamiliar customs and the daily rituals that are so much a part of life in Calcutta as to make it seem like a foreign country. In An Afternoon Raag (1993), Chaudhuri again describes how even the most minor details remind him that he is far from home. The central character in this novel is a man from Bombay who is completing his education at Oxford University. Unsuccessful in his attempts to reach out to English students, he turns for solace to two Indian women. However, much of the time he simply retreats into memory, imagining himself in his own familiar room in Bombay.
A Strange and Sublime Address and An Afternoon Raag are both about temporary displacement; there is no suggestion that Bombay will seem different to the protagonists when they return to the city. In A New World, however, when Dr. Jayojit Chatterjee goes back to Calcutta to spend a summer with his parents, he finds that he feels just as much an outsider there as he does in the American Midwest, where he now lives.
Admittedly, Jayojit has every reason to feel unsettled. After falling in love with her gynecologist, Jayojit’s Bengali wife, Amala, put her husband through a nasty divorce, gained custody of their young son, Vikram, or “Bonny,” and took him with her to San Diego. Now Jayojit can have Bonny with him only during his school vacation, which begins in April and ends in August. Since his father, Admiral Chatterjee, and his mother Ruby have not seen their grandson for some time—when they cancelled a trip to the United States when they heard about the divorce—Jayojit felt obligated to take Bonny to Calcutta as soon as he could. A New World begins with the arrival of Jayojit and Bonny at his parents’ apartment and ends with them on the plane from Dhaka to New York.
Although the first few chapters of A New World are uneventful, there are hints that the summer will not pass without incident. Any family get-together can produce a quarrel, and Jayojit knows that his parents are troubled about the divorce, which has limited their access to their grandchild, and also about their son’s failure to marry again, which would at least give them the hope of other grandchildren. Moreover, as Ruby keeps reminding Jayojit, Bonny may become ill either from too much exposure to the sun or from something he eats, not to mention his being exposed to germs for which his American immune system is unprepared. Jayojit is also well aware that his father might have another stroke, perhaps this time a fatal one.
However, the months pass by without a crisis. Every day is much like another. Bonny plays with his miniature cars and trucks and his Jurassic Park dinosaurs; the admiral checks on his investments and takes his naps; Ruby dusts, cooks, and complains about her shiftless servant; Jayojit observes the neighborhood, thinks about working on a new book, eats his mother’s luchis, and gains weight.
Despite its lack of dramatic events, however, A New World is anything but dull. Chaudhuri’s realistic story is as engrossing as the novels of the Magical Realists dominating Indian fiction on the cusp of the twenty-first century. Not only does he capture the essence of life in upper-class Calcutta society, its nostalgia, and its inherent comedy, but through his protagonist he also reveals what it means to be an exile and, even more fundamentally, what it means to be a human being.
Like many adults shaken by personal crises, Jayojit arrives at his parents’ home expecting to recapture the sense of security he knew as a child. However, because his father insisted on spending his retirement years in a place where he had never been based, Calcutta was never Jayojit’s home, and therefore it has few associations for him. Moreover, Jayojit himself has had too many new experiences to be able to return to the past. He is indeed a different person from the child he was once was. For example, though his mother takes great pains to cook food he once liked, Jayojit has been so strongly influenced by American notions about diet and health that...
(The entire section is 2000 words.)