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City of Joy, City of Dust. "Freedom Song" by Amit Chaudhuri

"Daily," Amit Chaudhuri writes, "Calcutta disintegrates, unwhispering, into dust, and daily it rises from dust again." Calcutta, home to poets and hotblooded youth, city of soulful music and a melodious tongue, city of romance and charm, and yes, city of dust, has found an acutely observant, affectionate chronicler in Amit Chaudhuri.

Chaudhuri's three short novels have recently been published in a collection that bears the name of the most recent one: "Freedom Song". Reading the novels in chronological order, one gets a sense of Chaudhuri's development as a writer. The third novel, an impressive achievement in language and style, stands far above the first two.

In the first novel, "A Strange and Sublime Address", Sandeep, an 11-year old boy, is visiting his uncle and aunt in Calcutta from Bombay. His acute observations of the day's activities, conversations, expressions and moods, are similar to those of young Cyrus Readymoney, growing up in Bombay in Ardashir Vakil's 1997 novel "Beach Boy". However, Sandeep, a few years younger, is more innocent and wide-eyed than the precocious Cyrus. This is "The Wonder Years"

set in Calcutta.

Chaudhuri's language seems contrived in the beginning, bogged down with strained similes: these are ever-present, suffocating, unavoidable, jumping out from every other sentence. For example, an otherwise charming description of Sandeep and his cousin Abhi wrestling affectionately is disrupted by a stilted simile of the two boys being "irreconcilable as two conflicting principles".

Despite this unfortunate initial tendency, Chaudhuri conveys the spirit of Calcutta with a quiet sense of humour. Sandeep and Abhi, amidst their observations, come to the conclusion that one had to "simply and unquestioningly tolerate the grown-ups. One had to constantly see the comic aspects of their characters to stay sane."

Sandeep's uncle, Chotomama, is a wryly observed character, an example of a young person swept up in political ideals which he gradually loses as he ages.

He is a Communist-turned-businessman who now dreams of millions with the same fervor with which he once dreamed of the revolution. He does, on occasion, lapse into his former passion, lecturing the boys sternly on pre-Independence history, reviling Mahatma Gandhi as he deifies Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. His lilting Bengali songs, sung in the bathroom, are a source of great wonder for Sandeep.

Sandeep observes the conversations and discussions that the adults have. They were "full of metaphors, paradoxes, wise jokes and reminiscences..." and much like Chaudhuri's novels are, "at bottom, a criticism of life".

In "Afternoon Raag", the second novel, the writing is more fluid, less beset by tortured similes. This is a melancholy novel, with the narrator describing alternately life in Bombay where he has grown up, and Oxford where he has gone to study. Chaudhuri's sketches depict the sense of disorientation and loneliness experienced by a student who has arrived in a foreign country, leaving behind all that is familiar and comforting.

Mandira and Shehnaz are two women he is involved with in an angst-ridden way.

Ruminations of his interactions with them leave us with more of a lingering sense of the narrator's uncertainty than of their personalities. Sharma, an Indian student from a village in Bihar, throws himself into discovery of the English language and its nuances, rapturously reciting from D. H. Lawrence's poem "Ship of Death". This poem, with its exhortation to prepare for a renewal of one's self, seems fitting here, its soulful weight reinforcing the melancholy that pervades the novel as the narrator attempts to understand and embrace a foreign way of life.

Chaudhuri, a singer of North Indian classical music, gives us some beautiful descriptions of the music that he has mastered. In a stunning passage where he reflects on the differences between Western and Indian classical music, he likens them to handwriting:

"The greater part of the unfolding of a raag consists of a slow, evasive introduction in which the notes are related to each other by curving glissandos, or meends. The straight, angular notes of Western music, composed and then rendered, are like prints upon a page; in contrast, the curving meends of the raag are like longhand writing drawn upon the air.

Each singer has his own impermanent longhand with its own arching, idiosyncratic beauties, its own repetitive, serpentine letters. With the end of the recital, this longhand, which, in its unravelling, is a matter of constant erasures and rewritings, is erased completely, unlike the notes of Western music, which remains printed upon the page."

Elsewhere, he describes a rendition of devotional songs, "hovering wistfully somewhere on the border of tunefulness." Such descriptions of music and the moods it evokes strengthen this novel, bringing a richness into a collection of somewhat scattered portraits of sketchily drawn characters, albeit in carefully observed settings.

"Freedom Song", the third novel, is the story of two families, those of Khuku who lives in South Calcutta, and her brother Bhola who lives in North Calcutta.

The families are troubled to discover that Bhaskar, Bhola's son, has Communist leanings, going so far as to sell the newspaper "Ganashakti" or "People's Power". His political leanings become problematic when his parents are trying to arrange his marriage, with one potential bride's father expressing his reservations, but eventually, Bhaskar gets married. Chaudhuri gives us a sensitive, delicate portrayal of the young couple and their wedding, telling us how they slowly get to know each other after they are married and settle into a life together.

This is a story of life in Calcutta: a teeming metropolis filled with paradoxes, uniquely flavored by the strong presence of the Communist Party of India, the residue of the Naxalite movement, politically conscious youth and street theatre. We are told of the passionate opposition to International Monetary Fund loans in a speech by one of Bhaskar's comrades: "...our country has opened its doors to the imperialists again...". Yet, it is also a city where private sector employees and industrialists complain of how "cheerful trade unions" have disrupted the efficiency of the past, as exemplified by the government takeover of Little's, a company that produced chocolates and sweets, where Bhola works. Now, Little's, reduced to a shadow of its former self, "had a kind of life and breath, an existence, but not a real one."

The delightful observations of middle-class life in Calcutta are stitched into the tapestry of a larger backdrop, of increasing political unrest and communal violence, of ordinary people's changing impressions and deepening prejudices around the time of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. "For three days, " Chaudhuri notes, "the country had been like a conch whose roar you could hear only if you put your ear to it." Even the few, skilfully woven-in references to this event lend a tension to the novel, tightening it and lifting it above the ordinary.

The chapters in these novels may almost be viewed as separate reflections:

connected but not moving towards any linearly narrated conclusion. They are like a series of snapshots in a family album, recalling our experiences, bringing to life the charm of the quotidian.

The plotnessless can be maddening in the first two novels, but by the third novel, Chaudhuri has perfected the art of seducing the reader with the languid beauty of his prose, persuading us to enjoy these reflections. He is a master of acute observations and detailed descriptions. This is evident in his first two novels, but by the third, he has gone beyond documentation and has brought alive his subjects, suffusing them with an energy that transports us into a slower, almost forgotten way of life.


This review was published in India West newspaper in 1999.

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