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.
* * *
Such aimlessness is intrinsic to Chaudhuri’s temperament. His fictions are quietly indifferent to their story lines; his essays are like Roland Barthes’s in the alacrity of their leaps. Not the Barthes of Camera Lucida or The Death of the Author, the lifelong prognosticator intent on defining what he has so artfully suppressed all along, but rather the peculiar style common to all the pieces in Mythologies: the flair of the writer without a fixed notion of what he can or cannot achieve, able to write absorbingly at once on everything and nothing.
Chaudhuri is also a Hindustani classical singer, and his experiments in music are no less rooted in a sense of apparent whim. Earlier in this millennium, while practicing the raag Todi in his Calcutta apartment one morning, Chaudhuri thought he could hear the riff of Eric Clapton’s “Layla.” A few days later, in a hotel lobby, he seemed to detect “Auld Lang Syne” in the background recording of a Kashmiri classical instrument. These convergences were not like fusion music to Chaudhuri; he chose instead to call them “mishearings.” A mishearing, though inadvertent, was made possible by the recurrence of the pentatonic scale in different musical traditions. But the moment was “also enabled by twenty years of, in a sense, aural slumber, and of now beginning to recover, in a new but accidental way, what I’d long ago heard and cast aside.”
* * *
In Calcutta: Two Years in the City (2013), a separate recovery appears to have been made. Returning to the city in 1999, after a doctorate from Oxford and a fellowship in Cambridge, Chaudhuri found that the sprawling metropolis of his childhood was no longer as hypnotic; that it was unrecognizable in parts; that it was rapidly becoming “Kolkata.” Chaudhuri’s initial impulse was to continue to sleep, to insulate himself from the transformations taking place. Much of what he wrote after 1999 seemed to return either to the Calcutta of his memories or, surprisingly, to Bombay—a place he had relatively overlooked in his imagination. Until 2007, when a friend told him about a couple of conversations he’d overheard among homeless people near the railway station, Chaudhuri was unable to imagine what it was like to live in the present incarnation of Calcutta, though he had himself inhabited it by then for eight years. It would be another two years before he could begin to register his new awareness in words. Calcutta is a memoir, a “personal record” not so much of the shifts happening in the city between 2009 and 2011—when, after 34 years, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was voted out of power in the state of West Bengal—but instead of the transitions that Chaudhuri had long ago seen and cast aside.
The renaming of the city in 2001 is a case in point:
This city—Kolkata—is neither a shadow of Calcutta, nor a reinvention of it, nor even the same city. Nor does it bear anything more than an outward resemblance to its namesake, Kolkata: the city as it’s always been referred to in Bengali. I myself can’t stand calling it any other name but “Calcutta” when speaking in English; just as I’ll always call it “Kolkata” in Bengali conversation. Is this because we—cities and human beings—have contradictory lives that flow in and out of each other? To take away one or the other name is to deprive the city of a dimension that’s coterminous with it, that grew and rose and fell with it, whose meaning, deep in your heart, you know exactly.
Something like an explanation is being provided for a choice that has been intuitively made; it’s as though Chaudhuri the artist is starting to question his faith in accidents. Also implicit in this account of names is a degree of self-awareness, for Chaudhuri’s writing has long been known for its startling exactitude. From the “amphibian” drifts of the maidservant in A Strange and Sublime Address to the atmosphere of certain Oxford streets in Afternoon Raag, the precision of every detail and cadence has been consistently admired. (For instance, James Wood: “Those who are always acclaiming the ‘poetic prose’ of Ondaatje would do well to study Chaudhuri’s language. Again and again, he produces the perfect adjective, the stupendous adverb…radiantly exact.”) But the details carry a different, decisive charge in Calcutta: “The perfect adjective, the stupendous adverb” are now quickened by the reader’s intimation of their demise. Things may not have changed for the worse in the city that Chaudhuri is seeing anew, but they are steadily disappearing. Houses like the unlovely and unremarkable one belonging to Sandeep’s uncle in A Strange and Sublime Address have become extinct. The walls, alleys, and other man-made surfaces that once seemed indistinguishable from nature—indeed, such was the aura of 19th-century modernity that the man-made looked more ancient than the natural—are no longer visible. Even those visits to relatives as a child, full of so much possibility at one time, have now been “translated into belated deathbed visits.” Faced with such an upheaval, the task of the imagination perhaps becomes more practical. A place may yet survive, but only if it is bound within the real confines of one’s memory.
A crisis of this sort is unwelcome, but not uncommon among 20th-century artists. Both D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, for instance, loathed returning to the landscapes of their formative days. (The latter’s well-known declaration of intent—that Dublin could be reconstructed completely out of Ulysses—seems more childish than childlike in this light.) Saadat Hasan Manto wrote his best stories on Bombay after he had migrated to Pakistan following the ghastly partition of the subcontinent. Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, the writer of classic profiles like “Mazie,” “The Old House at Home,” and “Joe Gould’s Secret,” didn’t publish a word in the magazine from 1964 until his death in 1996. But Mitchell went to the office regularly during this fallow span; colleagues passing his door could hear the typewriter clicking, though nothing complete and unpublished was found among his papers after his death. His walks across New York City continued as before. His daughter Nora later revealed that he was always pausing to note down things that moved him. The city he’d known so well was changing irrevocably before his eyes, and Mitchell’s characteristic response was not to apprehend it on the page. “He collected some of everything,” Nora said:
He would go out on Saturday mornings with a couple of shopping bags and return with building rubble, old nails, billheads from an abandoned building he had climbed through or silver-plated utensils from old New York hotels that he would buy at flea markets. (Among other things, my sister and I divided 240 pickle forks after he died.) We have it all over our houses now. My mother was very long suffering and good natured. We lived in a small apartment and he would store everything, neatly and well marked, in corners and under things and over things and she once said that we were probably the only people in New York to have a skyscraper under the bed.
Something similar occurs in Calcutta: Once, while passing through an older neighborhood, Chaudhuri notices that yet another residential building has been demolished. From inside his speeding car, he sees some discarded “French windows that, loosed from their original locations, had been stacked vertically against each other on one side. They’d been left facing the pavement; I got out of the car to look, never having seen the windows, like this, out of context before.”
Chaudhuri buys one of the windows, along with a door from the same house. After they have been enshrined, out of context again, as exhibits inside his south Calcutta apartment, Chaudhuri’s exploration of the city can resume in earnest. And what he encounters is no less out of context: underpaid housemaids and drivers paradoxically lording over their employers; descendants of upper-class families in denial about their dwindling funds; a Christmas pudding that is synonymous with a ginger pudding; the implausibility of true political “choice” or “change” in an unthinking, imitative environment. There is a wishful undercurrent to many of the remembrances and discoveries in the book. One can hear it most audibly in Chaudhuri’s understanding of the word “visit.” A visit, like a mishearing, is not what it appears to be: It is “an echo of that earlier meeting, when we were beginning to know each other, and in lieu of the meeting that will take place when we return to where we then met.” Chaudhuri recalls two aunts from his childhood, visiting his uncle’s house with a pot of yogurt:
Even then, some part of me knew that this journey had been made with a previous journey in mind, which had been covered on familiar terrain, and that civilities would be exchanged, jokes laughed at, and the pot of yoghurt given, all in a rehearsed, unencroaching manner, in expectation of the original setting being restored in the future.
The past may or may not be re-created in these moments, but the present is being shunned.
* * *
In his latest novel, Odysseus Abroad (2015), Chaudhuri has returned to a different spot of time: his years as an undergraduate in London. Ananda is 22, a student of English literature at University College. He is sporadic in his attendance of classes; he’d rather read poetry inside his studio flat on Warren Street, or masturbate. Ananda’s loneliness is assuaged by his clamorous neighbors upstairs—“Tanzanian Gujaratis”—and his uncle, a maladjusted bachelor and virgin, recently discharged from his position as a senior manager in a chartered-ship brokerage firm. His Rangamama (as he calls his uncle) lives in a deteriorating bedsit at 24 Belsize Park, an accommodation he’d shared with Ananda’s parents before their only child was born. But the parents now live in Bombay, where Ananda has been brought up comfortably, with “a primal sense of being well-off.” Uncle and nephew are thus forced to, if not live together, at least halfheartedly fend for each other. Like Ulysses, Odysseus Abroad takes place on a single day, during which Ananda makes the heroic voyage from Warren Street to Belsize Park, before heading out again with his uncle, his Eumaeus, to dine and return.
The childlike awe is now that of an adolescent’s: Ananda can stare as keenly at a butterfly on his window as at a photograph of a girl’s “gleaming nipples” in The Sun. The charm of 24 Belsize Park is also, in that respect, an extension of the freedom that Sandeep experienced in 17 Vivekananda Road. But the connections between places and events are now outlined and buttressed by a founding Homeric myth. They no longer need be tenuous:
“Guess what I had for breakfast,” said his uncle. Although Ananda knew the answer, and knew his uncle knew he knew the answer—as he asked the question of his nephew each time they met up and the answer was the same—he pretended curiously not to know, because he knew his uncle wanted to tell him again. Epic theatre. The point being not to learn a new story, but to hear it, with recognition, recited for the umpteenth time. So with audiences of epic sagas, who’d been told the tale ad absurdum, knew the lines by heart, and delighted at being told again.
Inherent in this passage is Chaudhuri’s familiar distaste for plot. Epic theater, however, is satisfying, not only because the tale is known, but also because the emotions being described are grand and easily recognizable: They are, to use that much-abused word, “relatable.” Odysseus Abroad has a lot of fun with weighted questions of identity and personality. Comedy is not a distraction to this Bengali Telemachus or his uncle; comedy is precisely and emphatically the point. Ananda’s uncle, born and brought up in a household in undivided India, introduces himself often as a “black Englishman.” He is content as long as his bowels are moving punctually; he claims to have never felt homesick in three decades. And Ananda, as a would-be poet, seems to have misunderstood T.S. Eliot’s phrase about poetry as an escape from personality:
Three weeks is a long time for a young poet. Memory is short; the young man is trying out various voices and registers at different moments—even different times of the day. Feeling self-importantly out of sorts in the morning, he might well write a deprecating poem in the tone of Larkin; in the afternoon, rereading one of Eliot’s Sweeney poems, he could, by evening—already having forgotten Eliot, but unable to shake off that mood—produce ironic verses on sexual malaise. The twentieth century and its literature…is passing through him, unbelievably compressed, in less than a year—in spasms and transitions. So the young poet is in a state of constant inspiration.
This is not to suggest that the writing here is brimming with purpose, just that the purposelessness seems to have been worked toward rather than chanced upon. The wistfulness, too, is very much present, buried in the invocation of the words “joy” and “delight” throughout the novel: Isn’t epic theater, after all, also pleasurable because it is palliative? When uncle and nephew are happy or very hopeful, their estrangement from Thatcher’s England seems complete. The renewed understanding of Shakespeare, an on-the-house dish in a restaurant, a story “recited for the umpteenth time,” a walk across Hampstead Heath: As much as these moments reassure Ananda every day that he is now in London, his Tanzanian Gujarati neighbors, with their unself-conscious movements, appear to belong more naturally to the place.
For a stronger sense of Chaudhuri’s distress, one must perhaps revisit a short story collected in A Strange and Sublime Address called “The Happiest Man in the World.” There, too, the nephew—now a graduate student at Oxford—is visiting his bachelor uncle in London. The uncle has recently moved from a bedsit in Belsize Park to another temporary place in Chalk Farm because “the ceiling of the bedsit was crumbling.” Whereas Rangamama in Odysseus Abroad seems perennially in an effervescent mood, the uncle in this story is more worried. He resents both the attention and the negligence of relatives back home in India; he is distinguished now by his penchant for sad stories. Each time the narrator brings up the possibility of his uncle going back, the refusal is swift and adamant:
‘What exactly do you have against going back?’ I persisted. ‘What do you have here?’
‘Have against going back?’ he said. ‘I can’t go back. Everyone has his own life. I want to return to everyone living in the same place, and sitting in the evening in the same room, as we used to do in Shillong. Everyone with enough money to live on—not rich or poor—just enough money to live on comfortably. Sitting and talking in the same room in the evening—everyone—Sejdi, Mejda, Dukhu, Ranji, Khaku, Boudi, Monji….’
The child wishes he had never grown up.