A young man of 16, visiting his cousins in Calcutta in a house in a “middle-middle-class area,” has just published his first poem. This not-yet-poet from Bombay is the narrator of Amit Chaudhuri’s short story “Portrait of an Artist.” The artist in the story is not the visiting youth, however, but an older man, the English tutor who comes each week to instruct the cousins. This man is respectfully called mastermoshai.
Mastermoshai has already been shown the narrator’s poem. (One of the cousins reports that the teacher was “very impressed.”) On a Saturday morning, the budding poet meets mastermoshai. He has a “very Bengali face” with “spectacles that belonged to his face as much as his eyes did” and “teeth that jutted out from under his lip, making his face belong to the preorthodontal days.” The cousins, and also the narrator, wait for mastermoshai to say something about the poem. When two literary men meet in Bengal, they do not indulge in small talk but instead “straightaway enter realms of the abstract and articulate,” we are advised. Fittingly, mastermoshai’s first question to the poet, in a Bengali-inflected English, is, “Are you profoundly influenced by Eliot?”
“It was mastermoshai who first spoke to me of Baudelaire,” the narrator says, and there are other discoveries in this induction into the literary life. When the older man takes the poet to an editor’s house in another part of Calcutta, Chaudhuri’s portrait of the artist shades into a portrait of private homes and of the city as a whole. In Calcutta, our poet discovers, clerks and accountants nurture an intellectual or literary life, not only in English but also Bengali. The city appears provincial, but it also reveals, like Joyce’s Dublin, its particularity.
The literary passions that this city with a colonial past breeds are already obsolete elsewhere. Yet they inspire a romance that is real and productive. That is what the young poet feels after the years have passed. By then, mastermoshai has faded into the oblivion of insanity. His interest in Eliot and Baudelaire is seen by the narrator as a “transitional” time during which, after the early losses of his life, mastermoshai had returned to his “youthful enthusiasms.” You realize that the story is not so much about the space of literature, which like the city itself offers surprises that serve as a refuge from the general claustrophobia and madness. Instead, it is about the patient and sometimes crazy, and mostly anonymous, striving in the former colonies–and also about the tribute we need to pay to mentors in a literary culture that functions without the trappings of creative writing programs and, in the case of the poor, even ordinary colleges and schools.
Chaudhuri’s other stories in this debut collection, Real Time, also concern themselves with the conditions under which art is born or the circumstances in which artists live. The book’s closing story is about Mohanji, a gentle and gifted singer trained in classical Hindustani music. He makes a living by teaching affluent housewives in Bombay how to sing devotional bhajans and ghazals. Mohanji’s life now is “a round of middle-aged women” in Bombay’s affluent districts like Cuffe Parade and Malabar Hill. At night, he takes the fast train back to his home in a ghetto in distant Dadar.
Lately, Mohanji has been feeling ill. He believes he has an ulcer. He also suffers from tension. This tension comes “from constantly having to lie to the ladies he taught–white lies, flattery–and from not having a choice in the matter.”
Mohanji’s student Mrs. Chatterjee does not always have the time to practice. But, she would like to sing. She tells her teacher that she wishes she could sing like him. Mohanji is “always surprised” that the rich had desires for “what couldn’t be theirs.” He is also amused that “it wasn’t enough for Mrs. Chatterjee that she, in one sense, possessed him; she must possess his gift as well.”
This sudden sharpness on Mohanji’s part, like his illness, reveals a malaise. The gentleness in the guru, a quality to which Mrs. Chatterjee had grown so accustomed, is now shown to be the result of great restraint and even artistic discipline. The story’s presentation of Mohanji’s speech and his silence ushers us into the domain of criticism.
We get a clue here to Chaudhuri’s own art. He belongs to a very small group of Indian writers in English who are as good critics as they are storytellers. This skill at criticism is not a result of close reading–though that ability is in fine evidence in The Picador Book of Indian Literature, which Chaudhuri has edited–but of a serious search for a reading public. Chaudhuri’s writing, both critical and fictional, subtly demonstrates for this public (which is yet unborn) its most responsible function.
There is a great need for such acts in India. Recently, at a literary festival in Delhi, I heard a well-known writer telling her audience that there were only two literary critics in Punjabi in the whole country. But this wasn’t the worst. She said that one of the two critics was a university professor who was interested only in promoting the female students who were doing their doctorates under him. The other was a man in Chandigarh who wrote exclusively about other writers from his own Jat caste. The writer said, “Since I am neither a pretty face nor a Jat, I am ignored.”
I thought about the Punjabi writer, and about Chaudhuri, who was also there at the festival, when I was awakened past midnight in my hotel room in Delhi by a call from London. It was someone from the BBC. Earlier that day, V.S. Naipaul had been rude to another writer. Now the BBC wanted to know if I believed that “Naipaul had lost it.”
I wasn’t able to provide gossip. But, as I lay awake in bed after the call, I remember wondering whether I hadn’t made a mistake thinking that the problem of building a critical culture was India’s alone. Did Britain, for example, have a vibrant literary public sphere? Why then was the BBC not rousing people from sleep to ask about the solitude of a writer working in Punjabi, a language that is used by millions, and endowed with a rich literary past, but now possessing no critics?
Fifteen short stories and a reminiscence-in-verse make up Real Time. Not all the pieces are as strong as the ones mentioned above. A few of the short stories, like the one in the voice of a humiliated demon from the Ramayana, are clever sketches but call for a more extended treatment in order to be satisfying. There is a first-person account of a housewife who is writing a memoir–a story meant to mock the Indian writing scene, where, it seems, a new writer is born every day. But Chaudhuri’s wit is suited to a more muted, or perhaps just more nuanced, register, and here the mockery falls flat.
“Words, silences,” a story about two male friends who are meeting each other after a long time, contains a hint of a half-understood homosexual exchange between them in their boyhood. But the story, in its reticence, offers too little, the author’s silence acting like a silencing of its own. A couple of other stories in the autobiographical mode work better, recalling the lyricism and humor of Chaudhuri’s earlier fiction. His first three novels, published in a single volume in the United States under the title Freedom Song, won a Los Angeles Times book award in 2000. That year Chaudhuri also published a novel, A New World, about an expatriate Indian’s return to Calcutta after his divorce.
A real gem in the present collection is the title story “Real Time,” which along with the account of Mohanji was first published in the British magazine Granta. This elegantly crafted story recounts an executive’s visit to a house in Calcutta where a shraddha, or memorial ceremony, is being held. The ceremony is for a young married woman who has committed suicide by jumping from the third-floor balcony of her parents’ house.
The visitor and his wife–the latter is related to the family–have been able to find the house only with some difficulty. They have bought tuberoses on the way, having bargained the price down from sixteen to fourteen rupees. The rituals of mourning are not clear in the case of a suicide. The narrative supplies very little conventional pathos, and yet pathos is present in the story, always in tension with other quotidian details that intrude upon the consciousness of the narrator. The visitor spots an acquaintance and they fall into a conversation about “the recent changes in their companies,” their own children and even “a brief disagreement about whether civil engineering had a future as a career today.”
Death produces a great absence, but here, in the story, the absence has more to do with the fact that the visiting couple know very little about the suicide. They had learned of the death from an item in the newspaper. Grief remains remote. More than death, it is this distance that produces a blankness, which, however, slowly gets filled with ordinariness, and even trivia. The narrative is so precise that it is with a tiny jolt that the reader realizes that this inconsequential ordinariness is what we usually call life.
Jacques Derrida has written that the Moroccan Abdelkebir Khatibi does not speak of his mother tongue “without a trembling that can be heard,” a “discreet tremor of language that undersigns the poetic resonance of his entire work.” The same can be said of Chaudhuri. In his prose, history always happens elsewhere. It is like an earthquake in the heart of the earth. What the writing registers is only the shock and the falling buildings.
In early 1993, a short while after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya and the riots that had followed, Chaudhuri wrote a travel essay about this return to India from Oxford. In that essay, he described how the metal nameplates in the house where his father had lived in Bombay were now all blank. This had been done to protect the Muslims living in the building. “Small, accidental sensations, too small to be called incidents,” he wrote, “told me I was now living in a slightly altered world.”
The trip on which Chaudhuri discovered the small detail of blank metal nameplates sowed the seed for his novel Freedom Song. While reading his earlier novels, I had been struck by the way in which Chaudhuri’s evocative, Proustian sentences accumulated visual details. I thought of Bengali cinema, the moment of its modernity and the movement of the camera recording the texture of middle-class life. But there was also an aural element to this writing. It was punctuated with delicate pauses that made the prose musical. The sentences were marked by spaces of silence and filled with near-poetry.
It was only when reading Freedom Song, however, that I got a more vivid sense of Chaudhuri’s unique and flawed aesthetic. The rise of Hindu fundamentalism and the changes ushered in by market liberalization provide the immediate occasion for the novelist to examine the changes that affect a small group of relatives and friends. These changes are not overwhelming; they are subtle variations on a more settled routine. The technique works because it saves history from the banality of a slogan. At the same time, it also carries the danger of slipping into a mannerism. Both the strength and, on occasion, the weakness are present in the stories of Real Time.
In recent weeks, hundreds have died in India in religious riots orchestrated by the Hindu right in retaliation for the burning alive of fifty-eight Hindus in a train. These events have challenged the democratic credentials of the Indian nation-state. But they also pose a question for intellectuals and artists, and this is the question of seeking a powerful and imaginative response to the carnage.
What is our response in “real time”? And how does this time find breath in our writing? Chaudhuri, in his attention to the imaginative use of language, makes the search for the answers a process of magical discovery. Let me end with a passage from Freedom Song that captures the inertness but also the dynamism of the life that Chaudhuri sees unfolding around him:
It was afternoon. And in a small lane, in front of a pavement, with the movement of a wrist, something like a curve began to appear, it was not clear what pattern was forming, then the letter D appeared upon a wall of a two-storey house, in black paint, and then U, and N, until DUNKEL had been formed, in the English language, which seemed to blazon itself for its curious purpose; then it began again, and I and M and F began to appear in another corner. Afternoon; no one saw them; it was too hot; on the main road cars went past, up and down; a few people rested; they had eaten; beggars dozed, blind to the heat and shadows, their heads bent to the stomach.