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. Though we are given a great deal of minute and particular information about its characters, we see them less than clearly. It is as if Chaudhuri has turned down the candlepower of his imagination, to tell a story familiar to the West, now brought home to the East.
Jayojit Chatterjee is an economist who teaches at a college in the Mid-west. He is recently divorced, and sharing custody of his son; it is a fact which causes his parents a sort of muffled, baffled grief, but to which they seldom allude. We imagine that during his summer in Calcutta, Jay will take the chance to take a bearing on his past, assess his present position, and plot his way forward. In fact he slumps into torpor. The young as well as the old seem exhausted by life’s normal demands. Jay takes undemanding excursions with his son, picks up some of the gossip of the neighborhood, rubs shoulders with a few old acquaintances; there is, he tells himself charily, “always the risk…of meeting someone you might have known casually in your past.” He observes at close quarters, but without much curiosity, the old-fashioned subservience of his mother, his father’s masculine self-centeredness. He gains weight. He buys presents to take home. He goes into a shop and buys some soap. The pace is as languid as a nineteenth-century noon. The characters mark time, tread on the spot, lose track of the days. There is no element of propulsion in Jay’s character. Perhaps his marriage ended merely from lack of interest? The divorced wife remains a mystery to us: by implication, to him.
The family move around each other in the cramped apartment, washing and dressing in privacy and retaining separateness at all times. In a small space, formal good manners are needed. Here, they are observed not just by the characters but by the author. His technique is not to intrude; he thwarts our interest by use of a frustrating literalism. At the end of his holiday, Jay’s baggage is heavier than when he arrived, but this is no metaphor; we know the provenance and destination of every souvenir. “We can’t live without constraints,” Jay thinks, and constraint has held back this novel on the threshold of the story it means to tell. It attends the reader like a stoop-shouldered manservant, clearing his throat and shuffling his feet outside the door.
By contrast, the first chapter of An Obedient Father blasts off the locks and splinters the wood. An almost demonic energy is locked up in Akhil Sharma’s debut novel, with its excitable narrator who cannot wait to reveal to us, page by page, further degrees of his loathsomeness. Ram Karan is a corrupt petty official in the Delhi school system. He lives with his widowed daughter, Anita, and her only child, a girl of eight called Asha. He is “money man” for Mr. Gupta, a more highly placed official, for whom he collects bribes. He has no moral scruples about his work, for in his life’s experience it would be both pitiable and starkly comic to suggest that honesty and effort might be rewarded; everything has a price in money or blood. But Ram is not without discernment of his own failings; the question that faces him is, am I bad enough?
My general incompetence and laziness at work had been apparent for so long that I now think it was arrogant of Mr. Gupta to pick me as his money man. I am the type of person who does not make sure that a file includes all the pages it must have or that the pages are in the right order. I refuse to accept even properly placed blame, lying outright that somebody else has misplaced the completed forms or spilled tea on them, even though I was the last one to sign them out or had the soggy papers still on my desk.
Ram tends to panic when he is extorting money from someone more intelligent than himself. He takes a childish glee in his own escapades; when he visits Father Joseph’s school to make an inspection he smacks his lips over the lavish lunch that he knows the Home Economics department will lay on, and rides up and down in the lift several times just for the sheer joy of it. But Ram is growing old and melancholy. His wife has died of cancer and he himself has survived a heart attack. He feels his body preparing for him the small daily humiliations which age brings. As others turn to religion, he has become “sentimental politically.” He yearns to hear of self-sacrifice and noble deeds, knowing himself incapable of either.
For the greater part of his sharp, punchy first chapter, it seems that Akhil Sharma has created a robust and original comic character; what we expect is a story of a rogue’s redemption. But the author intends something much less emptily charming, and much more difficult to achieve. On page 35 the book takes a sharp, sinister turn. A door slams, and the brief flare of our tolerance for this “sad bad man” is extinguished. We are in the half-dark, the child Asha bringing a nighttime glass of water.
“Such a good girl you are,” I said. I took a sip and put the glass on the floor and pulled her toward me. I turned her to face away from me and made her stand between my legs. I kissed her neck lightly and placed my erection against the small of her back. Asha’s body was relaxed, as if she didn’t sense anything wrong. “I love you,” I said…. Suddenly Anita was in the doorway with her toothbrush clenched in one hand….
The sexual abuse of children has become a sad staple of modern fiction; no longer a taboo, it has become a formulaic “secret” planted into often banal narratives. But Akhil Sharma’s portrait of an abuser is astute and fully realized, and as it unfolds we are witness to the corrosive cruelty and guilt that Ram has unleashed in his family. In the second chapter Anita takes over the narrative, her wistful indirection compelling our attention; this is a whisper from a spoiled life, a life lived behind the hand. Passive, humble, the young Anita accepted an arranged marriage which at home “was mentioned only in connection with the shopping involved.” The full horror of her own rape by her father, unfolded later, is only hinted at here. Her husband, Rajinder, is a decent man. Only, he has no imagination. She does not explain to him what she has suffered, and he never comes near to guessing it. “Even in bed he used the formal you. ‘Could you get on all fours please?'”
A little time passes. Rajinder is confident, rational, and ambitious. Anita begins to trust him. She feels his example is doing her good. One day she discovers she is in love with him. She waits breathless for him to come home. His prosaic reaction destroys her. He is an ordinary man with blunt sensibilities, and she is an extraordinary woman whose sensibilities have been skinned by pain and dread; whose life now turns to destructive bitterness. Soon she is back under her father’s roof, a dependent, knowing that he will use her dependency as license to abuse Asha as once he abused her—unless she can find some moral ascendancy over him, tease out some spark of regret, and fan the flame.
Akhil Sharma displays his finest writing in these first two chapters: wit and tenderness, speed and grace. When the political ambitions of Ram’s superiors plunge him into the murderous world of top-level corruption, we watch his struggles to extricate himself with horrified fascination, and share his amazement that he has “swindled fate.” Yet in another sense, nothing will be spared him. Shame is always waiting in ambush, but no shame can limit the damage. In a somewhat abrupt finale, Sharma cuts the story, stitches it together, and reintroduces Asha as an obdurate, cynical girl of fourteen; she carries a razor blade in case of attack, for men who know her family story consider her spoiled goods and molest her on the street.
This is an uncompromising novel, a portrait of a country ravaged by vendetta and graft, its public spaces loud with the complaints of religious bigots and its private spaces cradling unspeakable pain.There is no forgiveness for Ram. He is only one monster among many, but he is the monster we know; we have heard him run the gamut of his excuses, and we excuse nothing. But the compassion and energy of Sharma’s fine novel alerts us to this: a man is more than his crime.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” takes place during the autumn of 1971, against a backdrop of civil war in Pakistan and the secession of the territories that would become Bangladesh. The narrator, Lilia, is growing up in an American university town, and every night her Bengali parents invite Mr. Pirzada to dine; a lonely botanist on a meager research grant from the Pakistani government, he has left his family in the territory ravaged by the conflict, and has not heard from his wife and seven daughters for many months. The American-born child watches the guest, tries to make him out:
Mr. Pirzada and my parents spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes, looked more or less the same. They ate pickled mangoes with their meals, ate rice every night for supper with their hands. Like my parents, Mr. Pirzada took off his shoes before entering a room, chewed fennel seeds after meals as a digestive, drank no alcohol, for dessert dipped austere biscuits into successive cups of tea.
But he is not the same, her father tells her. He is Bengali, but Muslim. He lives in East Pakistan. His country is yellow on the map. India is orange. All the same, so far from home, he is part of their household. Each evening he brings Lilia a piece of candy. She hoards it, and in her mind it assumes an almost sacramental character. “…I would place it in a small keepsake box made of carved sandalwood beside my bed, in which, long ago in India, my father’s mother used to store the ground areca nuts she ate after her morning bath.” She eats a single piece of candy before she goes to bed, and for the first time in her life she begins to pray, for the safety of Mr. Pirzada’s family. It is a story of a child’s graduation from solipsism to a sense of community, a sense of being embedded in history. But whose?
That year and every year, it seemed, we began by studying the Revolutionary War…. We made dioramas out of colored construction paper depicting George Washington crossing the choppy waters of the Delaware River, and we made puppets of King George wearing white tights and a black bow in his hair.
Mr. Pirzada wears a badge of honorary citizenship, tucking a birch or maple leaf in his pocket as he hurries toward his supper through the darkening evening. When Halloween comes, “Several people told me they had never seen an Indian witch before.” When Mr. Pirzada goes home, Lilia feels for the first time what her parents have felt: the shape of absence, the tug between worlds. “I studied the map above my father’s desk and pictured Mr. Pirzada on that small patch of yellow, perspiring heavily…searching for his family.” When they hear of a safe reunion, the American family raise their evening water glasses in a toast; “of course, the map was outdated by then.”
Jhumpa Lahiri is a British-born, American-bred writer of Indian descent, and has won a Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies, her debut collection of short fiction. In these stories she exercises fine judgment in cutting out each precise narrative shape; but her hand is hidden in her sleeve, so that her narratives, like Alice Munro’s, seem to have found their natural, sinuous, organic form. They are capacious; she leaves an elastic space between her characters, which feels like the space in which free will operates. It is an illusion, for Lahiri is firmly in charge, but it is an illusion necessary to the kind of fiction that involves readers and touches their hearts.
The title story has an ill-at-ease American family returning to India as tourists, the wife seeking to make a confidant of their guide, the scholarly Mr. Kapasi. But if you tell your secrets to strangers, you make sure they remain strange: the slip of paper that carries Mr. Kapasi’s address flutters disregarded down the mountainside, and with it his hopes of a connection, a correspondence, a remedy for the disappointments of his life. In “Sexy” and “Mrs. Sen’s” Lahiri writes well about children, allowing them dignity, not just pathos, and she writes seriously about the relationships of her lovers and couples, in a way that is neither portentous nor trivial. Her style seems an instrument of remarkable flexibility; lush and warm, then pointed, sharply pared away.
In the stories that are set in India—“A Real Durwan” and “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar”—she has found a way of writing about extreme deprivation that is so angled, so wry, and so minutely particular that she engages us with her characters in an imaginative equality; this is important, because the obligation of pity, rather than empathy, leaves readers dull, waterlogged, passive. The first story is about an old woman who sleeps on newspapers and whose work is to sweep the stairs of an apartment block; she is put on the streets when, through her inattention, thieves make off with the feature of which the residents are most proud—their shared handbasin on a landing. In the second story, we meet a woman so marginalized by her strange illness that she confesses, “Apart from my X-rays I have never been photographed.”
The best stories in this collection are as complex as short novels: all are polished, nuanced, and expert in locating the moment of life-change—even though their characters are often modest, unassuming people, who may not realize they have potential to change. Like Amit Chaudhuri and Akhil Sharma, Lahiri takes as a central theme the tiny, quotidian displays of courage that each human life requires. “I know my achievement is quite ordinary,” says the “penniless Bengali bachelor” who makes his career in the West in “The Third and Final Continent”:
I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.
Lahiri’s expatriates and exiles have two worlds in their pockets and shopping bags, lines of latitude and longitude engraved on their palms. Mr. Pirzada has two watches; his wristwatch is set to his US time zone, but his pocket watch, which he wears closer to his heart, is set to the time in his native land. Lilia’s parents, on the map taped to their wall, have cities circled, with lines drawn between them, showing the path of their travels: the place of their birth, Calcutta, is “signified by a small silver star.”
March 29, 2001