Amit Chaudhuri visited Europe for the first time at the age of eleven. In 1973 the world felt steady; it had ‘a kind of wholeness to it’. The co-existence of capitalism and communism seemed permanent. Forty years later, visiting Berlin, he felt the need ‘to grasp fleetingly, what one had lost’. He had grown up in non-aligned India, which balanced democratic commitment with a sympathy for the Soviet Union, and his sense of ‘what it meant to be human’ was formed by the Cold War’s antitheses. ‘By the time I arrived in Berlin … all that was over, like a nap on a train.’
A six-month spell at Berlin’s Free University in 2005 gave Chaudhuri the premise of Sojourn. Like most of his fiction, it has a male Indian protagonist who resembles Chaudhuri himself. The unnamed narrator is a visiting professor at a Berlin university, ‘an ornament to an internationalisation initiative’, and is staying in a large apartment once occupied by the Nobel Prizewinner Kenzaburō Ōe. Chaudhuri signals his ironic distance from his authorial doppelgänger when the narrator, at his inaugural lecture, ‘rambles on about why India was a “modern” idea, not a colonial or postcolonial one’ – a subject about which Chaudhuri has written. In fact, he stages an act of fictional self-erasure when his narrator becomes so involved in Berlin that he loses his sense of self. He becomes a conduit, open to the intimations of the past within Berlin’s present:
I don’t feel anxious because the streets are familiar. Where I find myself is related to the return of some old memory. I don’t know what the memory is, but I recognise where I am. On the other hand, I’d say the world I belonged to, the one I came from, has little veracity anymore. It began to vanish in the 1980s and 1990s. I don’t feel lost in Berlin – here, I’m in the present.
Chaudhuri’s first two novels, A Strange and Sublime Address (1991) and Afternoon Raag (1993), were praised for their lapidary prose and alertness to the sensory world. A Strange and Sublime Address concerns an only child who (as Chaudhuri did) lives with his parents in a Bombay flat but spends holidays with his wider family in Calcutta. Sandeep is entranced by the sounds and smells, diurnal rituals and rhythms of his uncle’s house. ‘The rhythms of the book,’ Colm Tóibín wrote in an introduction to the 25th anniversary edition, ‘follow the faded happiness of things, the strange, remembered moments, but render them as urgent, present, almost pure.’ Its success lies in this atmosphere rather than in the book’s plot; in a revealing passage from one of his stories, Chaudhuri makes clear his doubts about the value of traditional narrative:
But why did these houses – for instance, that one with the tall, ornate iron gates and a watchman dozing on a stool … or this small, shabby house with the girl Sandeep glimpsed through the window, sitting in a bare, ill-furnished room, memorising a text by candlelight, repeating suffixes and prefixes from a Bengali grammar over and over to herself – why did these houses seem to suggest that an infinitely interesting story might be woven around them? And yet the story would never be a satisfying one, because the writer, like Sandeep, would be caught up in jotting down the irrelevances and digressions that make up lives and the life of a city rather than a good story – till the reader would shout ‘Come to the point!’ and there would be no point, except the girl, memorising the rules of grammar, the old man in the easy chair fanning himself and the small, empty porch that was crowded, paradoxically, with many memories and possibilities. The ‘real’ story, with its beginning, middle and conclusion would never be told because it did not exist.
Chaudhuri’s novels seek moments or epiphanies, which are often found in the exploration of a city: Calcutta in A Strange and Sublime Address, Freedom Song and A New World; Oxford and Bombay in Afternoon Raag; Bombay in The Immortals and Friend of My Youth; London in Odysseus Abroad; Berlin in Sojourn. His own sensibility was primarily formed by Calcutta. ‘The Calcutta that I’d encountered as a child was one of the great cities of modernity; it was that peculiar thing, modernity, that I first came into contact with here (without knowing it), then became familiar with it and was changed by it. By modern I mean … a self-renewing way of seeing, of inhabiting space, of apprehending life.’ Long at the centre of Indian cultural life, Calcutta was by the 1960s becoming peripheral. A wealthy middle class enjoyed its leisure but was constrained by the city’s socialist economics; leftist intellectuals debated in coffee houses, while outside men pulled rickshaws. It was a city of dust and power cuts, of Marxist uncles reading newspapers on the toilet amid the crowded interiors of middle-class family life.
A short story, ‘Portrait of an Artist’, recalls the relationship between the young Chaudhuri and his Bengali mastermoshai (private tutor), who encouraged him to write and engaged him in long discussions on philosophy and literature:
He compared himself explicitly to Leopold Bloom and me to Stephen Dedalus, adding, ‘Every writer needs a guide, a father figure’ … Even more provincial, and marginal to Europe, than Dublin was in the early 20th century, was Calcutta at the century’s close. Trams, rickshaws, markets, office buildings with wide creaking stairs, bookshops, little magazines, literary critics, uncles, aunts, created this Dublinesque metropolis of which mastermoshai was a part.
Stephen Dedalus’s account of his place in the world in his geography book is mirrored by Sandeep’s cousin’s address: ‘17, Vivekananda Road, Calcutta (South), West Bengal, India, Asia, Earth, The Solar System, The Universe’. Writing on the centenary of Ulysses, Chaudhuri noted that Joyce had slipped the word nainsook (a fine Indian cotton muslin) into the novel, to describe the texture of Gerty MacDowell’s knickers.
Nainsukh is a Hindi portmanteau of nain (eye) and sukh (happiness or delight). Joyce, as hoarder of meanings, would have known this, as he might have known that Nainsukh was also the name of one of the great 18th-century Indian painters. The eye must not master or memorise detail; it must surrender to and delight in it. ‘Nainsook’ reminds us, too, that not only place and body, but also the world, or everything we know of the world, partakes of the celebration.
Afternoon Raag moves between the strange and the familiar with scenes of hesitant postgraduate life in mid-1980s Oxford (Chaudhuri wrote his PhD on D.H. Lawrence at Balliol) and listless periods in Bombay. The tone is melancholic: returning to Calcutta, the narrator finds the fertile city of his youth has grown tired, outdated. ‘Nothing has changed for the last twenty years … The air is awash with Marx and Trotsky; the airport, to which no international flight but Aeroflot and the Bangladesh Biman has been coming for years, is no gateway to fresh influences from abroad … in Calcutta nothing has happened after Marxism and modernism.’ Freedom Song (1998) is set in mid-1990s Calcutta and gives a fragmented portrait of an extended family. The city has ‘one of the last socialist governments in the world’, but, after sixteen years in power, it’s enfeebled and out of touch. An elderly businessman called Shib wastes his time trying to revive Britannia Biscuits, an imperial firm (where Chaudhuri’s father was an executive), now nationalised and obsolete. His nephew, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), can’t find a suitable wife because of his commitment to the cause; Shib’s own wife complains about the Muslim birth-rate and the noisy call to prayer. In the background is the recent destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque by Hindu extremists.
In Sojourn, the narrator’s attempts to negotiate Berlin give rise to absurdist humour. He doesn’t know any German and can’t understand his cleaner. ‘I echoed her grave, matter of fact expression with a nod and knitted eyebrows, since there was no question of disagreement. We only agreed on everything. I’ve never had conversations in which I’ve been in such harmony with the person I’m talking to.’ He finds that his lack of German liberates him. He is happy to spend his evenings watching Heimat, even though he can’t follow the dialogue. ‘I stayed with the inexplicable images, of people drinking beer in the sun, of movement inside rooms, interminable conversations. I didn’t know what year it was – there was no ostensible period detail. Everything was humdrum “normal”.’
Chaudhuri’s elliptical approach, which excludes nearly everything about the professor’s background and life in India, tells us something about the narrator’s sensibility. He describes his time in Berlin as ‘a windfall’, meaning, we assume, that it will be academically fruitful because he has no family distractions. Instead, he drifts into a reverie, and fails to fulfil even his minimal teaching requirements. His splintering mind isn’t that of an alienated outsider, however; he is absorbed in the city, capable of entering the lives of others. ‘There are apartments opposite. Rather than being an observer, I tend to enter the lives of things I see. I’m now in that building. Mimicking myself, I look back from there to this window. I become a detail.’ At a restaurant in Mitte, he’s ‘distracted by the wavering figures’ of men and women who have been
coming here for decades to dance … Studying the dancers – not with envy but absorption, even faint astonishment – I couldn’t decide where I was. I wasn’t confused. It’s just that I didn’t feel enough of a divide – between present and past, them and myself. The dance floor had a boundary. The tables were arranged accordingly. But to study the dancers was to be undivided from their world.
He becomes so absorbed in the city, the immediacy of its history, that his identity becomes increasingly irrelevant. He meets Birgit, a German postgraduate student who expresses an interest in his work (and in him, it seems), but ‘I told her very little of my life. It wasn’t as if I kept my life from her. I simply forgot about it. It was like it never happened.’
Birgit abruptly disappears from the narrative (she has to visit her mother and loses her phone) then re-emerges later. But whether she spent the night with the narrator, or has any sexual interest in him, is left opaque. Faqrul, a Bangladeshi poet expelled from Calcutta for insulting Muhammad, is a ‘Bengali local’ who has lived in Berlin since 1977. He’s a tour guide to the city’s present (Indian restaurants, department stores) and past (a synagogue smashed on Kristallnacht, the remains of the Berlin Wall, the forest of Grunewald – ‘from there they sent Jews to the camps’). Faqrul acts as a counterfoil to the narrator. He is ‘a man who liked to share. He gave you food; he stood next to you in solidarity when you tried on jackets,’ and he helps the professor feel that something apparently foreign can be experienced as familiar, personal.
The narrator is taken to visit the Jewish Museum, which seems like a department store: ‘It showcases banalities … we were in a daydream, going where recognition took us.’ Later, in a real department store, he reflects that the ‘families that had been wiped out had left behind a handkerchief, or a doll … They were nothing if not ordinary; recognisable. I knew them.’ At another moment, he realises ‘just how many political poems are about things you find in the home – even in the kitchen. Matchsticks, burned bread, boiled rice.’ In an upstairs room where East German women used to practise ballroom dancing, ‘the chairs looked back at me. There are spaces in which you sense time but also inhabit the viewpoint of those who’ve already been there. You see through the eyes of those who’ve gone. These perspectives are intense but momentary.’
Sojourn is interested in our relationship to the history we are living through, conscious that no one is fully aware of living in an historical epoch, perhaps as fictional figures can’t know they are in a story. Chaudhuri admires Stanley Kubrick’s method in Barry Lyndon, in which the horses or patches of grass have a ‘disorganised banality, a forgetfulness of the role they are playing’. In an earlier visit to Berlin the narrator was shown ‘the ‘prefabricated flats’ that were home to workers in the GDR. ‘Most still lived there. The balconies were bright blue.’ The novel ends with him losing his ‘bearings – not in the city; in its history. The less sure I become of it, the more I know my way.’ He wakes up from a blackout to find himself in a chair: ‘The balcony across the street is blue.’ A mysterious, fabular quality takes hold. In imagining the blank state ‘when the thought – “I’m in East Berlin in 1983” hasn’t formed,’ he can enter ‘the GDR; in reliving the distraction from what’s at hand’ he can become ‘one with it for a few moments’.
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