In 1991, the Indian economy came of age, though Indian writing in English was already mature and robust by then. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children had appeared ten years ago and won the Man Booker Prize. In two years, Vikram Seth's epic novel, A Suitable Boy, would create another splash in the world of Indian writing in English.
Wedged between these two historic moments of writing the nation, one stridently political and the other determinedly private, was a quiet debut, which did not create a comparable stir in India. Amit Chaudhuri's first book, A Strange and Sublime Address, which included the eponymous novella and a few stories, was widely acclaimed in the UK, but noted by critics in India with tepid curiosity.
In one of the early reviews, Rukun Advani described Chaudhuri as "the latest little bud to poke its head out of that rubbish dump", the last bit a reference to Calcutta. While praising the writer's exquisite prose, he deplored the absence of a plot in the narrative. "For people who want to keep a clear Brahminic distance from pollution," he concluded, "Chaudhuri's book, like Ghosh's The Shadow Lines, is the best and safest way of experiencing Calcutta."
Re-reading Chaudhuri's book after nearly two decades (around the turn of the 20th century, books, especially by Indian writers publishing in English, did not circulate as easily as they do now in India, so I read Chaudhuri's novel several years after it was first published), I can see a certain point to Advani's acerbic assessment, though the comparison between Chaudhuri and Ghosh seems far-fetched.
Chaudhuri's subject was, and in a sense still remains, the domestic sphere. His latest novel, Odysseus Abroad, for instance, reads like a sequel to his first work of fiction, as though it is told by Sandeep, the protagonist of A Strange and Sublime Address, twenty years later. The voice in both these books, and perhaps in most of Chaudhuri's fiction and non-fiction, is recognisably that of the urbane, upper-middle-class, Bengali narrator, usually male. It is the thread that connects all of Chaudhuri's books, and the evolution of this voice, I often feel as a devoted reader of Chaudhuri's work over the years, is his plot, the arc of his story-telling.
This persona, who is really a composite of personalities populating Chaudhuri's literary universe, is also an outsider to the social milieu he observes and describes so closely. He loves to lurk among the shadows, his eye is gently ironic while looking at himself as well as at the others who surround him. His experience of Calcutta will resonate with a generation of Bengalis who witnessed the transformation of the city since the 1980s – a city where time seemed to have paused for a moment and forgotten to move on, where lives revolved around planning daily meals, where evenings stretched into eternity due to an epidemic of power cuts.
Seen through the eyes of a young boy, Sandeep, A Strange and Sublime Address records the passage of slow time at his uncle's home in Calcutta, where he comes from Bombay with his mother to spend the summer holidays. Sandeep is closely drawn along the lines of Stephen Dedalus, the anti-hero of James Joyce's autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Chaudhuri signals his debt to Joyce quite clearly with the use of onomatopoeia – the thunder says "guruguruguru"– and with his allusion to the Irish master's eclectic style. Sandeep opens one of his cousin Abhi's books to find an inscription that is a direct echo of one used by Joyce in his book:
17 Vivekananda Road, Calcutta (South),
The Solar System,
To its credit, A Strange and Sublime Address has aged well. Books seldom pass muster on re-reading, unless they are beloved classics, and even for the latter, 25 years can prove to be a treacherous interval. I recently tried revisiting The God of Small Things and although I didn't feel adversely disposed to it, the euphoria of my first reading, I discovered, had gone. Those linguistic acrobatics — the puns and jokes — that once had me in thrall, now filled me with impatience.
In the case of A Strange and Sublime Address, the charm, for me at least, has weathered quite well. On re-reading, it felt almost as appealing as it had all those years ago, except for a few of glib passages (the hierarchy of the world of children on p. 18 for instance) and the glossaries on Indian customs, written into the narrative especially for the foreign reader. In the intervening decades, a barrage of novels and short stories by Indians, or writers of Indian origin, has dissipated whatever quaintness there was in such detailing. A distance of two decades, in my case, has resulted in less tolerance for metaphors, which now leap out of the page like aberrations, instead of fusing seamlessly with the texture of the narrative, as they should.
As for Advani's irritation over the lack of a plot, well, there's really none, not even the pretence of one, in the book. To keep looking for one, with every turn of the page, is thus to allow the frustration to mount and perhaps, in a way, to also "misread" the book. Like many mischievous modernist texts, A Strange and Sublime Address leads its reader into a trap by raising false expectations, only to frustrate them at the nick of time, which seems to happen in the middle of the novel, when Sandeep's uncle has a heart attack. For a moment, you think, ah, now the plot will thicken, but then few pages on, you still haven't moved out of the intensive care and before you can tell, you're back in the cozily humdrum pace of life in Calcutta.
"Calcutta is like a work of modern art that neither makes sense nor has utility, but exists for some esoteric aesthetic reason," we read in the opening pages of A Strange and Sublime Address. Few other statements could describe the trajectory of the book as aptly.
The 25th anniversary edition of A Strange and Sublime Address (hardcover, Rs 599) is published by Penguin India.
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