A New World
An Obedient Father
Interpreter of Maladies
In the heat of April, a new homeland forms about Bonny, a boy of seven or so: “Outside, birds cried continuously, sharp, clear, obstinate cries. Shadows of windows and façades had settled everywhere on parapets and bannisters.” On the balcony of his grandparents’ flat, the potted plants are half sunlit, half in shadow: “geometric shadows from the grille fell on the wall and floor.” The shadows are a net to catch his first fleeting impressions of his ancestral city, Calcutta. The apartment is small, in a crowded district. As he falls asleep that night, the sound of the neighbors’ TV sets penetrates the walls “like a form of public dreaming.”
Amit Chaudhuri has, like Proust, perfected the art of the moment. In 1999 he published three short novels in the US, under the collective title of Freedom Song. They were masterpieces of intimate observation: their narratives slight, their manner rich and lyrical. In Afternoon Raag, a student at Oxford hesitated between two women, and stood poised between two worlds; should he cling to his “Indianness” and the richness of childhood memory, or should he let that world slide away from him and embrace his future? In the novel that gave the collection its title, a Calcutta family struggled to arrange a marriage for a son of twenty-eight who had immersed himself in left-wing politics.
A Strange and Sublime Address centered, as Chaudhuri’s new book does, on a boy’s summer visit to Calcutta; the child was Sandeep, a ten-year-old from Bombay. It was a novel with a strong authorial presence, a commentator and interpreter whispering in the corner of every room; its success seemed to lie in the author’s delicate attention to placing every brushstroke. He was attentive to the transient emotion, to the passer-by, the passer-through; a sweeper who had simply come to clean the bathrooms “believed,” we were told, “in the all-pervasive power of love,” and later in the same passage we entered into the feelings of the sweeper’s two-day-old baby; elsewhere, into the feelings of a lizard. Each vignette, whether of person or place or mood, was expertly varnished and framed for us, hung on the peg of our attention, a spotlight turned on it. Each family’s balcony acts as a stage. A mirror acts as a window. In Afternoon Raag the moon is framed by a skylight. A student in a bare room makes the bare walls blaze with torn-off calendar pictures of gods and goddesses; picture postcards of Oxford “weightless, but palpable,…seem more real than the place one has lived in.”
Chaudhuri is a miniaturist, for whom tiny moments become radiant, and for whom the complexities of the fleeting mood uncurl onto the page like a leaf, a petal. In A New World he displays the same ability to ensnare the reader with a lovely image: “A banyan stood alone in the courtyard, and its shadow sat meditating beneath it.” But it is a sparer, harsher book than its predecessors …