Childhood is a relentless pursuit in Amit Chaudhuri’s universe. Recurring in almost all of his writings over the years—his novels, criticism, and poems—is a stubborn urge: a wish to continue seeing and discovering things as a child. The protagonist of Chaudhuri’s first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address (1991), is Sandeep, a 10-year-old boy who, much like Chaudhuri himself when he was a child, lives in Bombay but spends his summer and winter holidays with his uncle and cousins in Calcutta. He thinks of these holidays as his real life, and the interminable months in Bombay as a lonesome interlude. In contrast to the stillness of his father’s 23rd-floor corporate apartment, his uncle’s house in Calcutta is low, modest, “unlovely and unremarkable,” located within a lane that pulses with activity in the mornings and afternoons. Everything about the house, from the pots and pans in the kitchen to the pale walls and French windows, from the maidservant cleaning the floors twice a day to the talkative elders and tussling cousins—all of that, and indeed all of Calcutta, seems enchanting and endless to his mind.
On the first page of many of his older cousin’s school textbooks, Sandeep finds the following address copied out word for word:
17 Vivekananda Road,
The Solar System,
Chaudhuri is nodding here to Joyce, but unlike Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Sandeep doesn’t go on to marvel at the parameters of the universe, or to “think about everything and everywhere.” The sublime in Chaudhuri’s novel is safely ensconced in the ordinary—in that house on Vivekananda Road, in the neighborhood during the summer months, in the impress of its details and daily rituals. Even Bombay is but reluctantly admitted to Sandeep’s make-believe world. His thoughts resume and flourish in Calcutta, radiating outward from the rooms of his uncle’s house: There is always so much to see there, so much to glean. Despite Sandeep’s multiple visits, the reader has a constant sense that whatever the boy has perceived of his relatives and of the city—whatever the writer has conveyed—is only the liveliest of beginnings, a foreword perfected to put off writing something duller and more sweeping.
In Chaudhuri’s hands, the Joycean address is incongruous and impulsive: childlike, yes, but also childish. One is reminded of the adolescent Apu in Satyajit Ray’s film The Unvanquished (1956), arriving in Calcutta with his clothes and belongings in one hand and a pocket globe, like a talisman, in the other; or of the sundial that a slightly younger Apu builds outside his thatched village hut. There’s an inscription on the sundial that could have been written by Abhijit Das (or Stephen Dedalus): SUNDIAL MADE BY A.K. ROY.
Like Apu, Chaudhuri has traveled unavoidably away from home. And yet the opening sentence of Afternoon Raag (1993), his second novel, suggests nothing remotely homesick. Wanderlust, too, seems beside the point: “Each year, in Oxford, new students come and old ones disappear; after a while, one knows the streets and by-lanes, all of which lead to each other, by heart; in the north, no one goes beyond Summertown, and the road leading to London goes out via Headington.”
The narrator here is one of the older graduate students, an Indian, fated to eventually disappear from the town; but for the duration of his stay—and perhaps more vitally with Chaudhuri, for the duration of the sentence—Oxford is his all-encompassing universe. There is nothing that he’d rather be more attentive to. What the student remembers of Calcutta and Bombay—places that he has shuffled between, much like Chaudhuri—appears more and more subliminal as the novel progresses. Picture postcards of Oxford, at one point, “seem more real than the place one has lived in.” It is this ultimate elusiveness of any place—the enigma of what makes it so distinct and yet, at the same time, somehow reminiscent of another—that imparts to Afternoon Raag, and perhaps to each of Chaudhuri’s novels, the clarity of an ongoing dream. Implicit in the act of dreaming is a paradox: You are both home and away at the same instant until you wake up. There is little of the deliberate longing for one specific place, or the single-mindedness of a desire for home, in a dream.