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.