Handfuls of Dust

Richard Cronin

  • Freedom Song by Amit Chaudhuri
    Picador, 202 pp, £13.99, August 1998, ISBN 0 330 34423 4

The first of the great Indian novelists to write in English, R.K. Narayan, wrote modest novels about modest people living in the small South Indian town of Malgudi. The completeness of the world he creates is possible only because that world is so circumscribed. Then in 1981 Salman Rushdie published Midnight’s Children, and such a narrow focus no longer seemed possible. Midnight’s Children was impelled by the impossible dream that a single novel might somehow articulate the experience of the 600 million people living in the subcontinent, most of whom spoke in languages that Rushdie did not understand. There is a painter of miniatures in the novel who contracts ‘gigantism’. He finds his pictures getting bigger and bigger as he tries to stuff more and more into them. Rushdie infected the Indian novel with a similar disease. Novels like I. Allan Sealy’s The Trotter-nama, and Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel are driven by a frantic ambition to include within their pages all of India and all of its history.

In Amit Chaudhuri’s Freedom Song, however, not much happens, although even this is a good deal more than in either of his first two novels. A Strange and Sublime Address records memories of childhood trips with his parents to stay with his aunt and uncle in Calcutta; the second, Afternoon Raag, is a memoir of Chaudhuri’s time as a postgraduate in Oxford. He swithers between two young women, and in the end, as he always knew he would, catches the plane to Calcutta alone. Freedom Song is set in 1993, as the conflict between Muslims and the new Hindu fundamentalists becomes increasingly violent. Khuku, who has retired with her husband to Calcutta, has her childhood friend Mini to stay with her, hoping that the rest will ease the pain of Mini’s arthritis. Her nephew, Bhaskar, still lives with his parents in a nearby Calcutta apartment. He works as a sales manager at the factory manufacturing industrial equipment that his father established. Bhaskar is a member of the local Communist Party, and his parents worry that this will affect his marriage chances. They are looking out for a wife for him, and they introduce him to three girls. A marriage is arranged with one of them. At the end of the novel Bhaskar has embarked on a delayed honeymoon with his new wife. The young couple go by train and bus to Darjeeling. Mini has returned to the flat that she shares with her older sister. The two women worry about how they will manage in their old age. Khuku plans to visit them the following day.

Chaudhuri empties his novel of events to free himself to concentrate on ‘the irrelevances and digressions that make up lives, and the life of a city’ – a conventional plot would only distract him from this enterprise. In the first two novels he does without a plot entirely, and instead offers a sequence of tiny epiphanies, in which, for example, he invites us to share the rapt attention with which he notices the single, curved hair from his mother’s head in the little heap of dust swept from the living-room floor. Chaudhuri records the seemingly casual, accidental patterns that life falls into. He looks through doorways and windows because they frame a unique and random set of events for him to contemplate. It might seem a chilly, aesthetic way of looking at the world, and sometimes it is. In Freedom Song he walks through a room in which two maidservants are taking their afternoon nap, and inspects them as if their bodies were an interesting modern sculpture, ‘their feet, or Uma’s shoulder, visible, depending from where one saw them, leaving empty the place where they had been, a veranda framing a winter sky, and light, an occasional sweep of birds, and grey thinning smoke’. But more often, as when he notices his mother’s hair, the feeling for pattern is combined with tenderness.

‘Tender’ is almost the only word that Chaudhuri overworks. He notes the ‘tender and innocent idea of opulence’ that directs the choice of furniture in Oxford’s Indian restaurants, the ‘tender, ghostly shape’ of his mother’s foot covered by a shawl, a woman’s shoulders seen by her new husband as ‘tenderly hunched and rounded’, and the ‘shamefaced and tender’ expression of a Muslim tabla-player as he explains to his irritable Hindu employer the meaning of the azaan. The word seems to occur at any moment when strangeness and intimacy come into collision; his first two novels are made up of a sequence of such moments. It is this that gives Chaudhuri’s fiction its special character. He is a novelist of the everyday, interested above all in recording unremarkable routines, fascinated, as he tells us in A Strange and Sublime Address, by ‘the little tics and jerks of movement and speech which constitute a life’. He examines these tics with so devoted an exactitude that they become more and more strange as the reader becomes more intimately familiar with them.

This is partly a matter of temperament, but it is also a product of Chaudhuri’s cultural position, as a man whose Indianness placed him at a remove from Oxford, and whose English-language Bombay schooling places him at an almost equal remove from the Calcutta that remains for him and for his family the place most easily thought of as home. In A Strange and Sublime Address Sandeep pores over classic Bengali stories, written in a script that is for him unfamiliar, in a language that he can ‘hardly read’, and yet he finds the letters ‘intimate’. Both English and Bengali retain a certain exteriority – the Bengali in which so many of Chaudhuri’s characters think and speak, and the English in which he records them.

In all three of Chaudhuri’s novels there is a family, presumably his own, which after Partition made the long migration from Sylhet in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, to Calcutta. It is a representative journey, undertaken in 1947 by many thousands of Bengali Hindus, but Chaudhuri never mentions it without recalling that this family did not travel directly to Calcutta, but stayed for an intermediate period at Shillong, in the mountains. Chaudhuri’s descriptions, too, offer as typical a set of events that stubbornly assert their idiosyncrasy. In Afternoon Raag, for example, he describes a lane in a Bombay suburb:

a shaded avenue of middle-class Marathi civility, where, in the houses, boys did their homework and young girls, their hair tied in a plait, studied harder than the boys and learned natya sangeet from their mothers, and, in the other room, the father-in-law, a widower, waited for dinner, while his son stood on the balcony in a vest and pyjamas.

In Freedom Song there is a different lane, in Calcutta, but the description is similar: ‘There were little goats in the lane, and, by the side of families, children, who were older than babies but not quite teenagers, sometimes turned erratic cartwheels, as if they were celebrating something.’

It all makes for fiction very different from the kind being written by other Indian writers. Bhaskar may be a Communist, like Picture Singh in Midnight’s Children or Velutha in The God of Small Things, but all he does is deliver the Party newspaper and take part in the street theatre that his unit organises, one or two-act plays which ‘possessed solemn messages, each one a parable or political allegory set in medieval India, or in an unnamed land that was sufficiently fantastic, sufficiently unreal, the citizens of this twilit world enacting events that had taken place only recently – the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, and, lately, the violence done to Muslims by Hindus’. If Chaudhuri did not seem so equable a writer, one might suspect him of offering here a sly description of much of post-Rushdie Indian fiction. In his first novel, he simply dismissed the ‘great fantasy world of politics and government’. He does not do so in Freedom Song. It is a world that impinges on the lives of his characters when they hear the noise of an explosion or see in the newspaper a photograph of a Muslim hacked to death; yet the children continue to study for their exams, and when winter ends the large white quilt is packed away in the cupboard, and Bhaskar’s parents worry about finding him a bride.

The world of politics intrudes most decisively in the matter of Bhaskar’s marriage. He decides that he will marry the third of the three young women he has been introduced to. He has few grounds on which to make a decision, but the third one talks more. The second he had also liked, but she was quieter. Unfortunately, as Bhaskar’s parents had feared, the parents of the preferred woman object to his membership of the Party, and he marries the second. So the decision on which Bhaskar’s future happiness, and the happiness of his wife, Sandhya, will depend is made almost by accident. Nothing in the novel is more moving than its final pages, in which Chaudhuri traces the shy beginnings of the marriage.

Chaudhuri’s contingencies cannot be commanded, only observed. Interspersed through the novel are tiny, seemingly inconsequential chapters. In one, just three sentences long, birds rise for a moment before settling again on the balconies and cornices of the buildings near Mini’s house, and then ‘a mournful-looking red flag’ is set up to mark an excavated ditch in the middle of the road: ‘There was no breeze these days, except the slightest one, which caused the flag to flutter.’ Casually, just for a moment, the birds and the flag form the sort of inconsequential pattern that Chaudhuri most often notes.

The most important characters in Freedom Song, apart from Bhaskar, are old. All experience is soaked in memory, and old people often muse on the pattern that their lives have made. Chaudhuri’s long, supple sentences are adept at tracing the sequence of this kind of musing, as when Bhaskar’s father remembers his arrival in Calcutta as a young man and his marriage there. In Calcutta his three children grew from ‘dark helpless bundles to two thin boys who loved cricket and feared insects, and a tongue-tied girl who made orange squash by herself with a spoon and a tumbler’, and then grew still bigger to become the less familiar adults they are now. At the end of his meditation, he observes: ‘It was his life, no one else would know it.’ This is what Chaudhuri is interested in: the life each of us leads that no one else knows about.