About a year ago, Amit Chaudhuri published in the Times Literary Supplement a panoramic survey of the past century or so of Indian writing and its reception in the West. He observed there that the postcolonial Indian novel tends to be celebrated as a hybrid form in the West, with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children eclipsing all previous Indian writing. Unhappily, critics seem to believe that the postcolonial totality of India can only be articulated by Indian novelists writing in English. Yet the novella, Chaudhuri argued, is an equally important form in the vernaculars (there are around twenty major languages and countless dialects with their individual literary traditions in India), as is the short story, and ellipsis is often more effective than all-inclusiveness in attempting to describe India. The tendency to forget that vernacular Indian literatures existed long before Salman Rushdie’s brilliant experiment with magical realism–or Vikram Seth’s presentation of India as a mosaic of epic proportions in A Suitable Boy–sets a problematic yardstick for judging Indian writing in English. It leads one to think that the Indian narrative is essentially “lush and overblown,” whereas the literary traditions of India are actually much more delicately nuanced. Chaudhuri also suggested that hybridization of language is not the only tool for conveying the otherness of perception: Even the correct English of writers like V.S. Naipaul has otherness implicit in it.
To Chaudhuri, who is Bengali, this otherness takes the form of returning to older regional traditions of India. His literary forebears include the Bengali writers of what is known as the kallol jug–which was roughly around the second quarter of the twentieth century in Bengal–rather than contemporaries like Rushdie or Seth. As such, his novels have strong affinities to a specific movement in Bengali literature that attempted to capture the humdrum and the quotidian, though his audience is more the yuppie Indian who constantly juggles English and the vernacular than the educated Bengali middle-class bhadralok. Even the code-switching between Bengali and English–and the occasional Hindi–in Chaudhuri’s novels seems to be an attempt to tell the story of the Westernized but ordinary Bengali, rather than hybridization or what Rushdie calls the pickling of language. It is also the story of polyglot India, where most of the population speaks, and habitually switches among, several languages. And mellifluous as Chaudhuri is at times, no one can accuse him of writing overblown prose.
In writing his fourth novel, A New World, Chaudhuri seems to have remained true to his critical principles: The result is not quite likely to make readers in Calcutta swoon but a novel that is as much an attempt to capture the macrocosm of India in a microcosm as it is an attempt to carry on a particular vernacular tradition in English. And to those who have never been to Calcutta, it offers a refreshingly low-key and intimate insight into the heart of the city.
In A New World, a quest for solace brings the protagonist to Calcutta to seek the comforts of the familiar rituals of his parents’ home. Jayojit Chatterjee, a not-so-young professor of economics at a Midwestern US college, is back for the summer with his son in tow. Normally, his parents would have been overjoyed. But neither Jayojit nor his parents can get over the fact that the family is now broken, that Jayojit’s wife has divorced him. Jayojit has recently won partial custody of his young son, Bonny, and the visit to Calcutta promises to become an annual summer retreat, an escape from his adopted country to the land of his birth.
Divorce has familiarized Jayojit with a new world of frozen pizzas and TV dinners. It also seems to have made him acutely attuned to the harmonies and dissonances of lives around him. One of the clichés about storytelling is that plots are essentially of two kinds–either someone undertakes a journey, or a stranger comes to town. In such a schema, this novel would appear to fall into both categories. Jayojit may not be a stranger visiting Calcutta, but he has certainly moved far from the roots to which he has temporarily returned. He stays with his parents, runs across his neighbors, moves around the city and muses on his married life and the attempt at a second, arranged marriage that he had made on his last visit home a year previously. Daily life in Calcutta is familiar, yet no longer quite familiar. Family photos still clutter the drawing-room table, only now there is a gaping hole in this tapestry of faces–all the pictures of Jayojit’s ex-wife Amala have been removed. Her absence haunts the family perhaps more than her presence would have. Nothing sensational happens in Calcutta, not even another attempt at arranging a marriage. Jayojit’s visit affects no one but his parents–but the details of a humdrum holiday are meticulously captured.
There is something very familiar about this stillness to anyone who has spent any time in Calcutta. I remember this torpor from countless summer holidays spent in the city, so it is no surprise that Jayojit neglects the book he is planning to write. I also remember vendors selling Kwality ice cream–a brief respite from the oppressive heat, which Bonny yearns for–from pushcarts.
Like New York’s pushcart hot dogs and Bangkok’s curbside satays, Calcutta also has its distinctive street fare–the rolls, jhaalmuri, phuchka and bhelpuri sold by vendors–whose taste simply cannot be replicated elsewhere. Jayojit’s brief interaction with a bhelpuri seller brings back to this reviewer many memories of the tangy snack, flavored with spiced tamarind water, sold by a particular vendor near Sunny Park in the city. A New World speaks to the expatriate reader of little, intimate, everyday things in Calcutta, reminiscent of the way that Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines, a novel set partly in that city, did a few years ago.
Chaudhuri’s book almost self-consciously tries to be different from the usual Indian writing in English. To put things in perspective, consider Raj Kamal Jha’s The Blue Bedspread, the other novel set in Calcutta that has recently been published in America. An interesting foil to A New World, it is nothing if not sensational in plot and incidents. Its narrator is another not-quite-young man, but one who has a secret to reveal–and has just one night to write it all down. In the bedroom a newborn child lies on a blue bedspread; in the adjacent room, the narrator struggles to give voice to a mosaic of stories from his and his sister’s past that can be pieced together to reveal the truth, insofar as truth may be known. The idea is clever but the secret obvious from page five onward. Of course, the ingenious aspect of Jha’s plot is the frame that the story needs to be written in a matter of hours–which means that any rough edges and disjunctions in the text are automatically to be excused, the way amateurish camera work was in, say, The Blair Witch Project. This accounts for inconsistencies in the story line, and the series of deliberately unreliable narrative perspectives only helps further the cause. Judging by its reception in the West, however, he pitched his story to the right audience: the Western critic who, by all appearances, has little idea of what Calcutta is like, is willing to give Jha credit for having done for Calcutta what Joyce did for Dublin (as a reviewer wrote in the New York Times). Critics also laud Jha for letting the incestuous cat out of the bag of a repressive India. That particular cat, however, has always roamed at large in Vedic creation myths and vernacular writings. In fact, over a decade ago, Safdar Hashmi, one of India’s foremost theater personalities, was assassinated by Hindu fundamentalists for staging one of the earliest mentions of incest in Indian literature: a little-known version of the epic Ramayana in which the hero Rama’s queen is also his sister. Jha certainly explores the eternally sensitive issue of incest in contemporary society as his narrator tells overlapping pieces of the story, and he even throws in a bit of sodomy and pederasty for good measure; but his method is a tabloid-ish piling of sensation upon sensation that might, at best, be an unfortunate outcome of his training as a journalist.
Unlike Chaudhuri, who tries to produce a miniaturist’s portrait of Calcutta by adding brush stroke upon brush stroke of minutely observed detail, Jha sets out to write the novel that will lay bare the heart of Calcutta but loses his way in the quagmire of sensational revelations. This is a pity, as the novel has its occasional and redeeming moments of brilliance:
Just outside the oil mill, a couple of feet to the right of its entrance, were the birds. In a large cage, more like a coop, the kind you see at the Alipore Zoo, slightly smaller, the size of an average storeroom in an average house…people stopped by to look at these dozen birds in the cage.
Flying round and round, grey and white, grey and white. On certain rainy days, when the sky was dark, it seemed tiny clouds had slipped into the cage each dragging with it just a little bit of the sky. And then one afternoon in 1977, the oil mill closed down. Just like that, all of a sudden.
Too bad the novel does not contain more quiet gems like this passage. On the other hand, India has long been imagined as the land of elephants and tigers, jungles and sadhus, snake-charmers and the vanishing-rope trick, so why blame the author for catering to popular fantasies?
If The Blue Bedspread is a psychological study, then A New World is probably best described as an anthropological exercise. It undoubtedly offers one of the more lyrical descriptions of Bengali life that exists in English fiction. Jayojit’s mother is the quintessential Bengali homemaker of a particular generation: She welcomes him home with a fond “You’ve put on weight, have you” but also reverses herself to “Where–I don’t think you’ve put on weight” when he protests against eating too much. His father, a retired rear admiral and patriot who had sided with the Nationalists against the British, is nonetheless a holdover from the colonial days and eats, brown sahib style, with a fork and spoon. He is the detached head of the family, who still maintains an “inconsequential tyrannical hold over this household, in which usually only he and his wife lived, with part-time servants coming and going each day.” Neither parent can quite accept their son’s divorce: “they seemed to feel the incompleteness of their family, and that it would not be now complete. Someone was missing. Both mother and father were too hurt to speak of it. In a strange way, they felt abandoned.” This feeling of bereftness is perhaps only to be expected. Divorce is still a relatively rare occurrence in India. Not surprisingly, when the parents try to arrange the second marriage for their son, it is to a fellow divorcée. The family doctor gets involved as an intermediary, a situation not unusual in the delicate rituals of matchmaking. She, unlike Jayojit, is childless, a crucial consideration for the still-patriarchal Calcutta society.
On the lighter side, Bengali idiosyncrasies like the obsession with traveling are gleefully dwelt upon. The Admiral’s ire against Bangladesh Biman remains unclear till he sardonically observes, “Every week tens of middle-class Bengalis who’ve been saving up all their lives queue up in the airport to travel by Bangladesh Biman–to visit their son or daughter in England, or to travel: you know the Bengali weakness for ‘bhraman’?” referring to the well-known Bengali obsession with globetrotting. His own projected trip to visit Jayojit had been derailed by his son’s divorce. The thankless but socially necessary habit of keeping track of obscure relationships gets some ribbing–“Jayojit’s mother’s late brother-in-law’s niece had a husband whose sister had married Bijon, who himself had no children.” And Dr. Sen, the neighbor and friend of the Chatterjees, chuckles over how Bengalis “only come out during the Pujas. Then you’ll see them–heh, heh–bowing before Ma Durga!” No believer dares run the risk of offending the goddess who once saved the very gods from calamity.
Chaudhuri’s nuanced ear for language is likewise directed at readers familiar with Bengali. Jayojit’s mother greets her grandson with a “Esho shona…. Come to thamma.” Bonny, who speaks little Bengali, cannot pronounce the hard th. “All right, tamma,” he says. Unfortunately, not every attempt to transliterate words is equally happy. The phrase “How much” might have been better transcribed as “koto” than “kato,” which suggests the Bengali imperative “cut”; and the “Hay” in “Hay bhelpuri” sounds more like the lofty address “O” than “yes.” What jars more is Chaudhuri’s tendency to italicize words in an attempt to convey Bengali speech rhythms–it becomes wearisome. (Unlike English, word stress in Bengali is not predetermined but changes with the speaker.)
While this novel remains a bold attempt to transfer to Indian writing in English some of the characteristics of vernacular literatures, it is not without other, deeper problems. One can, after all, read of beads of moisture condensing on the outside of glasses of cold water and heads of dead fish only so many times before wondering where such aestheticized details lead. Also, given that Dhaka is a half-hour ahead of Calcutta, it’s a pity that Chaudhuri’s chronological error in claiming that “although they’d [Jayojit and Bonny] left Calcutta at half-past seven, it was still seven-thirty in Bangladesh” was not rectified in the editorial process. On a lesser note, one would also like to quibble over Chaudhuri’s referring to phuchkas as golgappas, a term that is common in Bombay, where Chaudhuri grew up, but which many Calcuttans might not recognize.
Good translations of vernacular Indian writing are scarce in English, but there are several collections of Rabindranath Tagore’s fiction available here, the best of which perhaps are those by William Radice and Ketaki Kushari Dyson; Imaginary Maps: Three Stories by Mahasweta Devi (translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak) offers three tales about tribal women–the most marginalized among the marginal–of a significantly different flavor; and the two-volume Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present, edited by K. Lalita and Susie J. Tharu, is a good anthology for a historical overview, albeit with a gender bias. Nitpicking aside, A New World is definitely worth reading. Nowhere close to the best writing available in India’s regional languages, it is still a creditable endeavor and should be appreciated as such.