Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1982
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 ...
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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 less. “Deft touch, little depth” complained The Boston Globe. This sense of something missing or repressed, of a depth withheld, is precisely what Real Time makes so palpable. This sense of incompleteness, of partition, so different from the hybridity that Rushdie extols, is a subtle presence that haunts these stories. Parts here (a family, a city, a class, for example) are not synechdochic representations of larger wholes. The courtyards and homes of the middle classes and upper middle classes are a part of a larger Calcutta or Bombay but do not represent those larger entities. Chaudhuri’s affection for the city of his birth (he was raised in Bombay), to which he has returned to live with his wife and child, is real but not especially nostalgic. Real Time is about divisions of various kinds, a tale of two cities, two cultures, two regions, two languages, two times, two generations, in which the process of “becoming who we are” is marked by a sense of belonging and estrangement. Chaudhuri’s love of the ordinary is often remarked, and rightly so, but equally important is the awkwardness and uncertainty his characters experience: passing the statue of the Unknown Soldier, a British tommy, or at the school where Christian prayers, Western pop music, and (once a week) nationalistic ideals intersect, however uneasily. Cousins sit in the same room reading, the one fantastic stories in Bengali, the other more realistic fiction in English. Against his mother’s wishes, Gautam wants to wear his new jeans to the school dance that he would prefer not to attend at all, whereas his more traditional mother wants him to wear his polyester slacks—this in a nation whose flag bears the charka, Gandhi’s spinning wheel, as symbol of Indian independence.
Writing and writers play a prominent role in Real Time, especially the early process of becoming a writer. In the aptly titled “Prelude to an Autobiography: A Fragment,” the narrator, an affluent Bombay wife, feels “the urge to write” after reading the memoirs of a celebrity whose life, in certain respects so different, makes her think about her own.
I take heart from small things . . . the detritus that we all know but no one speaks of, the banal, briefly glittering sequence of events, where the heart beats underneath. That is what I am concerned with; because that is when I feel myself in the silence, on the edge of the words. . . . Where are our hearts beat, that was secret, or disappointing, or satisfying, or trivial, too trivial for it to become words or a story. Really, our lives were glamorous and happy but too trivial. And it is there that I must begin, that is why all of us writers who have still not written a word are impatient to disturb the silence.
“Portrait of the Artist,” “Beyond Translation,” and “Confession of a Sacrifice” also deal with the writer’s development but in a more autobiographical way. In the first of these, the narrator looks back to a period in his teens, after he had already published a poem but before “going to England blurred certain things and clarified others.” His cousins’ tutor becomes his literary guru, exposing him to Bengali and European literatures that are equally, if differently, foreign to him. However, even in Bengal, where culture is held in high esteem, for a boy to choose writing rather than a career in science or commerce is problematic.
Even reviewers who have criticized Real Time have praised “White Lies,” the longest (by far) of the fifteen stories and the most developed. If length is one reason this story is so effective, positioning is another. Because it is the last of the fifteen, the reader is better prepared to appreciate the way this story deals with several of Chaudhuri’s most characteristic concerns: the uneasy relationships between art and business and the way in which people become aware of, and deal with, their incompleteness and diminishment. The characters include the husband, a successful businessman coming to the end of his career; his wife whose singing pleases her husband but whose “weak voice” means that she will never sing well; and her music teacher, who really is not much of a guru at all, merely, and sadly, a paid worker “whose life was a round of middle-aged women” but whose art nonetheless occasionally does have the power to touch the hearts of those much more economically powerful than he.
The bewilderment these characters feel is made especially clear in the title story. A husband and wife go to attend a shraddh (a type of funeral ceremony) for a young woman who committed suicide, but the husband is unsure of the way and even more unsure what exactly is expected of them, given the manner of the woman’s death. “Do what you’d do in a normal case of bereavement,” the wife tells him. “This is no different.” It is different, however, if only to a certain, undefinable extent. The couple mingle with the others, make small talk, drink Pepsi and Fanta, not Thumb’s Up or Campa Cola, and eventually leave, vaguely uncomfortable and ravenously hungry. Reviewers have felt much the same way about Real Time, perhaps for much the same reason.
Real Time concludes with a useful but aesthetically unsatisfying reminiscence (in blank verse) which illuminates the autobiographical underpinnings of many of the stories that precede it and which indirectly clarifies why the least autobiographical stories—“The Man from Khurda District,” “The Great Game,” and the two stories which retell episodes from the Hindu epic The Ramayana—are much less successful. The writer who emerges from this reminiscence discovered “that private feeling of separateness and connection” and his role as one “watching from the sidelines” early in life, thanks to a heart condition. He also emerges as a bit defensive about his family’s wealth and privileged status and self- deprecating about his youthful efforts to play the role of suffering artist. Arguably the most interesting revelation comes as he describes learning that a school friend he has not seen for years is a heroin addict and that his addiction began while at school. “What foolish illusion made that man [his friend Suresh’s father, a “small-time” businessman]/ put his son in Cathedral [school], among the children of the Tatas,/ minor ministers, consuls, film actors/ and actresses”?
The remark betrays Chaudhuri’s essentially conservative outlook, one usually masked by his characteristically elegant as well as wistful style. That conservatism served him and his readers well in editing The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature (2001), which goes all the way back to 1850—as opposed to 1947, the year of India’s independence, in the one edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West five years earlier—and, more important, includes the kind of writers Rushdie deliberately excluded, those writing in Indian languages. Welcome as those editorial choices were, they are subtly linked to aesthetic as well as political preferences that place Chaudhuri a world away from many of the Indian writers with whom he is often, if superficially linked: the liberal Rushdie, the social activist Arundhati Roy, and the Dickensian (in heart and style) Rohinton Mistry.
Sources for Further Study
The Boston Globe, April 4, 2002, p. D5.
Independent, October 3, 2001, p. 5.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 21, 2002, p. 4.
The Nation 274 (June 17, 2002): 32.
The New York Times, April 16, 2002, p. B8.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (April 21, 2002): 7.
Publishers Weekly 249 (February 4, 2002): 48.